Khadr war crimes trial delayed after his Guantanamo attorney collapses

By Peter Finn
Washington Post staff writer
Friday, August 13, 2010; 10:33 AM

GUANTANAMO BAY, CUBA -- The first war crimes trial of the Obama administration will be delayed for at least 30 days because the Pentagon-appointed lawyer for the young defendant is ill, officials said Friday.

Army Lt. Col. Jon Jackson, the lawyer representing Omar Khadr, is suffering complications from recent gallbladder surgery and will be airlifted to the United States for treatment.

Jackson began to cough Thursday 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.

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-oldin 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. Speer, a 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.

(The Khadr plea negotiations)

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."

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