By Peter Finn
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 25, 2010; 11:21 PM
The youngest detainee at Guantanamo Bay pleaded guilty to war crimes, including murder, on Monday, part of an agreement with prosecutors that allows the Obama administration to avoid a trial that threatened to undermine its use of military commissions.
Omar Khadr, a 24-year-old Canadian and the last Western citizen held at the military detention center in Cuba, pleaded guilty to five charges, including the murder of a U.S. Special Forces medic in Afghanistan. Under the plea deal, he will serve a reduced sentence, much of it in his home country.
Over the objections of some military officials who wanted a minimum 12-year sentence, the deal - sanctioned by senior Pentagon officials - calls for eight years, the first of which will be served at Guantanamo Bay before Khadr is repatriated to Canada to serve the balance, according to military and diplomatic sources.
U.S. officials privately acknowledged that under Canadian law Khadr will be eligible for parole after serving one-third of his sentence. In other words, he could be released in 32 months.
The deal, which Khadr signed on Oct. 13, was weeks in the making, and although the Canadian had long insisted that he would never admit to murder, the agreement protects him from what his lawyers saw as the very real risk of a life sentence imposed by a jury of military officers.
One of his Canadian lawyers called the plea a "hellish decision" but said it was the only way to get Khadr out of Guantanamo Bay. Khadr's case drew particular attention because he was 15 at the time he was captured, gravely wounded, after a firefight in southern Afghanistan in July 2002. His defenders said that his father, an associate of Osama bin Laden, had weaned him on a philosophy of violent jihad and first took him to Pakistan and Afghanistan as a 10-year-old. Khadr's father was killed in a gun battle with Pakistani forces.
U.N. officials and human rights activists said Khadr was a "child soldier" deserving of rehabilitation, not prosecution, and compared him to child soldiers in Africa for whom the United States has urged rehabilitation.
Khadr admitted in court Monday that he threw the grenade that killed Christopher Speer, 28, a Special Forces medic. Speer's widow, Tabitha, was in the courtroom and occasionally wept as Khadr whispered "yes" or "no" to questions posed by the military judge, Army Col. Patrick Parrish.
Khadr also admitted that he helped make and plant roadside bombs designed to kill U.S. forces, spied on American troop convoys and conspired with al-Qaeda.
"What you saw puts a lie to the long-standing lie by some that Omar Khadr is a victim," Navy Capt. John Murphy, the chief military prosecutor, told reporters. "He's not. He's a murderer, and he's convicted by the strength of his own words."
The administration was nonetheless loath to subject itself to a full-blown trial of a juvenile offender. President Obama continues to seek the help of European governments in resettling other detainees, and some of those governments were concerned that a Khadr trial would set a bad precedent. The administration also wants to bolster the legitimacy of military commissions so that it can use them, in conjunction with federal trials, to prosecute terrorism suspects.
Senior officials in the Defense and State departments pressed for the Khadr case to be settled despite the determination of some military prosecutors to go to trial.
Despite the agreement, a military panel of seven officers will hear testimony this week, including from Speer's widow and mental health experts, and issue its own sentence. The panel can sentence Khadr to up to life in prison, but its judgment will matter only if it comes back with less than the agreed eight years. Khadr would serve the lesser sentence.
"We are looking forward in the next week to showing who Omar Khadr really is," Army Lt. Col. Jon Jackson, Khadr's military defense attorney, said in a phone interview.
There have been intense diplomatic discussions with Canada in recent days, including a call between Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and her Canadian counterpart, Lawrence Cannon, on Friday. The government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper refused to ask that Khadr be repatriated and said the case should take its own course. The Harper government nonetheless said it would be inclined to accept a request for transfer from Khadr after another year in U.S. custody, according to sources familiar with the discussions. Publicly, the Canadian government had little to say Monday.
"This matter is between Mr. Khadr and the U.S. government," a government spokeswoman said in a statement. "We have no further comment."
Khadr is the second detainee to plead guilty in a commission since Obama assumed office. Three detainees were convicted under the Bush administration; two of them have since been released.
There are now 174 detainees left at Guantanamo Bay, of whom about 33 are slated for resettlement or repatriation in the near future. The administration's plans to use military commissions and federal trials to prosecute more than 30 detainees are all but frozen because of political opposition.