Omar Khadr fires his lawyers, cancelling Guantanamo pre-trial hearings

Friday, July 9, 2010

Omar Khadr’s decision to fire his lawyers days before his next court appearance effectively cancels what was supposed to be a final round of pre-trial hearings for the only Canadian detainee in Guantanamo Bay, and could kill his defence team’s last efforts to suppress evidence they allege was obtained through torture.

Mr. Khadr, whose charges include murder and supporting terrorism, was supposed to begin his trial next month. Now it’s not clear when that will go forward and whether Mr. Khadr, who was 15 when prosecutors allege he threw a grenade that killed a U.S. soldier in an Afghan firefight, will be tried in Guantanamo without any real defence counsel.

It also means the Toronto-born Mr. Khadr will make a rare appearance speaking on his own behalf on Monday – unless he decides to boycott proceedings, which he did earlier this year.


Next week’s hearing in the U.S. naval base and detention centre where Mr. Khadr has been held for more than eight years would have been a psychiatrists’ duel as witnesses for the defence and prosecution laid out contesting views as to Mr. Khadr’s mental state. His defence contends Mr. Khadr, who was interrogated while still on a stretcher and with a face full of shrapnel, was traumatized psychologically, his confessions inadmissible.

The prosecution was expected to argue that Mr. Khadr knew what he was doing and is in good mental health, and that any confessions relating to charges of terrorism and murder should be considered in his trial.

But this week Mr. Khadr dismissed his U.S. civilian lawyers Barry Coburn and Kobie Flowers, who were working on the case pro bono, putting the Obama administration in the awkward position of going forward with the high-profile war-crimes trial of a Canadian child soldier with no legal counsel. Mr. Coburn said the legal team – Mr. Khadr’s third – was “devastated” at the move.

Nathan Whitling, one of the Edmonton-based lawyers acting for the Khadr family in Canada, said it’s likely Colonel Patrick Parrish, the judge heading the military tribunal, will call Mr. Khadr Monday to confirm his desire to dismiss legal counsel and ask whether he wants to go forward with the defence motion to suppress the contested evidence.

If he does, those hearings will probably be rescheduled; if he doesn’t, the trial could go ahead – possibly as soon as Aug. 10, the date set during Mr. Khadr’s May court appearance.

But it would still leave Mr. Khadr, son of a prominent al-Qaeda supporter, with no legal counsel save for Lieutenant-Colonel Jon Jackson, a military-appointed lawyer whom Mr. Whitling said will likely have little effect on court proceedings.

“I don’t think he’s got any authority to do anything,” Mr. Whitling said. “It’s going to be even more farcical if there’s no defence being put on, but otherwise nothing changes.”

Mr. Khadr remains the only person charged with murder of a U.S. soldier in a firefight in Afghanistan, where more than 1,000 Americans have been killed since fighting began. Ottawa has resisted pressure to repatriate Mr. Khadr, despite court orders arguing his rights as a Canadian citizen had been abrogated.

A spokeswoman for Foreign Minister Lawrence Cannon said Thursday the federal government is still weighing its response to an ultimatum issued Monday by Mr. Justice Russel Zinn of the Federal Court, who gave the government a week to come up with a list of remedies.

Mr. Coburn declined to speculate on how the case will proceed. “There’s not really a standard procedure in this situation.”

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