By Peter Finn
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 12, 2010; 7:46 PM
GUANTANAMO BAY, CUBA -- The first war crimes trial of the Obama administration began Thursday with brief opening arguments, but it almost immediately ran into the prospect of a significant delay after the military attorney for Omar Khadr, the youngest detainee at Guantanamo Bay, collapsed in the courtroom.
Army Lt. Col. Jon Jackson began to cough as he was questioning a witness, and he asked the judge for a five-minute break. After jurors were led out, Jackson collapsed as he reached for some water.
Jackson responded to a medic's immediate treatment within 30 seconds, and he was taken by ambulance to a base medical facility. There, doctors determined that he was suffering complications from gallbladder surgery he underwent six weeks ago.
If Jackson is unable to resume the trial within a couple of days, another military lawyer may be brought into the case, creating the possibility that the trial could be delayed or even started anew at a later date.
Whenever it resumes, the trial promises to force a panel of seven military jurors -- four male and three female officers -- to confront two fundamental questions: Did Khadr, as a 15-year-old in a bloody encounter with U.S. troops in southern Afghanistan, throw a grenade that killed a U.S. Special Forces medic? And if he is found guilty of murder, what punishment, if any, is appropriate for a teenage offender who was in the grip of a fanatical father?
Khadr, now 23, and the youngest detainee at Guantanamo Bay, was found shot and almost mortally wounded in the rubble of an al-Qaeda compound on July 27, 2002. Military prosecutors allege that following a four-hour firefight in which thousands of rounds were fired and the complex was bombarded by numerous fighter jets and attack helicopters, the Canadian teenager tossed a grenade that injured Sgt. Christopher Speer, 28. The father of two clung to life for eight days before dying; his widow, Tabitha, attended the trial on Thursday.
The decision to kick-start President Obama's commissions with the Khadr case has drawn international scorn from U.N. officials and human rights activists who argue that Khadr is a "child soldier" who should be offered a program of rehabilitation, not a trial where he could be sentenced to life in prison if he is found guilty.
Indeed, within some parts of the Obama administration, there is quiet dismay over the prosecution. But all efforts to resolve the case through a plea agreement have failed, and the Canadian government, alone among Western governments, has shown no interest in getting one of its citizens out of Guantanamo. Khadr is the last Western citizen at Guantanamo Bay.
Prosecutors allege that Khadr admitted with some pride to Speer's killing in a series of self-incriminating statements at Bagram air base and the military detention center here. Defense lawyers claimed the confessions were first obtained through threats of death and rape and argued all of his statements should be suppressed. But Judge Patrick Parrish, an Army colonel, was not persuaded and admitted them, along with a videotape found at the compound that appears to show Khadr among a group of men who were building and planting makeshift bombs. The video was played in court Thursday.
" 'I am a terrorist trained by al-Qaeda.' Those are his words," said prosecutor Jeff Groharing as he walked around a model of the compound that was placed in front of the jury Thursday. "This trial is about holding an al-Qaeda terrorist responsible for his actions. . . . He grew up in a family of radical Islamists. Omar Khadr learned that ideology."
Jackson, Khadr's lawyer, challenged every detail of the prosecution's narrative. He told the jury that Khadr was blinded in the eye during the battle and was dragged bleeding into an alley by the three other men with him. Jackson said two of those men were killed from the air, and the third man threw the grenade before he was fatally shot by a special forces soldier who also shot Khadr twice in the back.
"Omar Khadr did not kill Sergeant Speer," said Jackson. "He has been waiting eight long years to tell you that."
Jackson also indicated in his opening statement that he would attack Khadr's incriminating statements, describing them as the fruit of interrogations in which Khadr was terrorized and told what to say.
Jackson went on to describe Khadr as the obedient if not browbeaten son of his father, Ahmed Khadr, an Egyptian native who took his family to Pakistan and Afghanistan when Omar was 10.
The family lived for a time in Osama bin Laden's compound, and in 2002, Khadr's father sent him back into Afghanistan. His father and brother would ultimately die in a gun battle with Pakistani forces.
"Omar Khadr was there because of his father," said Jackson. "He was there because Ahmed Khadr hated his enemies more than he loved his son. . . . Omar Khadr is not a war criminal."
Khadr, now a strapping and bearded man who has spent one-third of his life at Guantanamo, has been smiling and engaged in front of the jury, a sharp contrast with his dour or bored demeanor during pre-trial hearings, when he threatened to boycott the trial.
The trial's first testimony came from the commanding officer at the scene, called "Colonel W" in court for security reasons. He testified that numerous fighter jets fired rockets and cannons before two 500-pound bombs were dropped on the compound.
The jury also heard testimony that Khadr had a loaded pistol in his pocket when he was found by U.S. troops, and that his life was saved when he was treated by American soldiers.
A second witness, a Special Forces operator identified as "Major D," testified that as he entered the compound mid-afternoon through a breach in the surrounding wall, he and other soldiers came under small arms fire from an alley on the other side of the complex.
Major D said that as he crossed open ground he saw a grenade, thrown from the alley, fly over him in a "high arcing motion." He said he approached the alley, first shooting one man in the head and then another, who proved to be Khadr, twice in the back. All of this, from breaching to shooting Khadr, probably occurred in less than 30 seconds, he said.
Behind him, Speer had been struck in the forehead by shrapnel from the grenade, he said.
"I grabbed hold of his hand," said Major D, describing the moments before Speer, who was not conscious, was evacuated. "I told him to keep thinking about his wife and kids."