By Peter Finn
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 29, 2010; A04
GUANTANAMO BAY, CUBA -- The first major hearing of a military tribunal on the Obama administration's watch opened here Wednesday afternoon with a case that has inflamed international human rights activists and prompted some unease among U.S. officials about the wisdom of putting on trial a detainee who was 15 when he was captured.
Military prosecutors contend that Omar Khadr, a Canadian citizen, threw a grenade that killed a U.S. Special Forces medic in Afghanistan, helped build roadside bombs for use against American troops and should pay for what they call his war crimes, regardless of his age.
At issue in hearings scheduled for the next couple of weeks is the treatment of Khadr after his capture in July 2002 and whether self-incriminating statements he made were the result of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment and should be excluded as evidence. A trial is scheduled for July.
Attorneys for Khadr, who is now 23 and has spent a third of his life at Guantanamo Bay, are attempting to suppress incriminating statements he made at Bagram air base in Afghanistan and later at the U.S. military prison here. One of his attorneys said Khadr was interrogated more than 100 times while in custody. The defense also wants to suppress a video that depicts Khadr working with al-Qaeda operatives on the construction of improvised explosive devices.
"The well, as it were, was poisoned," said Kobie Flowers, one of Khadr's Washington-based civilian attorneys, adding that his client alleges he was subjected to sleep deprivation, beatings, the use of stress positions and the threat of rape. "The government will not be able to clean itself of this taint."
The government rejects the allegations, responding that Khadr's attorneys have no independent corroboration of any abuse beyond what it calls his "false and self-serving" assertions.
"These statements weren't wrestled from Omar Khadr," said Jeff Groharing, a member of the prosecution team. "He talked openly, confidently and comfortably about his knowledge of al-Qaeda." Groharing said that Khadr was eager to cooperate and that he stopped talking and alleged abuse only when he realized that he was not going to be set free.
More than 30 witnesses are scheduled to appear during the hearings, including military interrogators, FBI agents and medical personnel who treated Khadr. At the time of his capture, Khadr was badly wounded, and he later lost the sight in one eye. During Wednesday's hearing, he often appeared distracted, doodling as points of law were debated.
The first witness Wednesday, FBI special agent Robert Fuller, said that he and his partner never employed any form of duress when they interviewed Khadr and that the Canadian had admitted to throwing a grenade over a wall before passing out, presumably from injuries incurred during a firefight.
Khadr is the son of al-Qaeda supporters who took him to Pakistan and Afghanistan when he was 10. At one time, he lived in one of Osama bin Laden's compounds. U.N. officials and human rights activists argue that he is an indoctrinated child soldier who should be rehabilitated and repatriated to Canada, not prosecuted. They have also expressed astonishment that the Obama administration would revive military tribunals with the prosecution of an alleged juvenile offender.
"In January 2009, there was great hope and tremendous expectation that this whole sorry exercise in injustice at Guantanamo Bay was going to come to an end, certainly that by April 2010 we wouldn't be facing any military commission hearings at Guantanamo Bay, let alone a hearing involving someone who was 15 years old at the time of the alleged offense," said Alex Neve, secretary general of Amnesty International Canada, who is here to observe the hearings.
The Canadian government has not asked for Khadr's return, a stance that Neve called a "national disgrace."
The Toronto Star reported Monday that the military offered Khadr a plea agreement that would require him to serve five more years in prison before returning home. Prosecutors here refused to discuss the report. Barry Coburn, one of Khadr's attorneys, denied that there was ever a "firm offer" of five years but acknowledged that there have been discussions with the government.
He said, however, that the government wants Khadr to admit to throwing the grenade as part of any agreement and that his client will never agree to that because he didn't do it.