Tuesday, July 13, 2010
ANNA MEHLER PAPERNY
GUANTANAMO BAY, CUBA — After eight years in U.S. custody, Omar Khadr had the floor.
Appearing in a courtroom at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, the Canadian terror suspect publicly explained himself in his own words for the first time Monday morning, condemning the military commission set to try him as a “sham process” so divorced from legal norms that he’s as well trained to defend himself as any lawyer.
“The unfairness of the rules will make a person so depressed that he will admit to any allegations or take a plea offer that will satisfy the U.S. government,” he said.
Guantanamo Bay’s youngest inmate, and its only Canadian, spoke more forcefully and at greater length than ever before. The 23-year-old expressed his contempt not only for the military tribunal, but for a plea deal offered to him within the past month.
Mr. Khadr and one of his Canadian lawyers, Dennis Edney, said he had been offered release from the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay in five years, to serve the rest of a 30-year sentence in Canada, if he pleaded guilty. He refused.
“I will not willingly let the U.S. government use me to fulfill its goal,” Mr. Khadr said. “I have been used too many times when I was a child, and that’s why I’m here – taking blame for things I didn’t have a choice in doing, but was forced to do by elders.”
The prosecution spokesman on Mr. Khadr’s case would not comment on the proffered plea agreement. In Ottawa, Foreign Affairs spokeswoman Melissa Lantsman said the Canadian government “was not privy to the details of the plea deal.”
Even as Mr. Khadr was speaking, Ottawa said it will appeal last week’s ruling by the Federal Court of Canada obliging the federal government to remedy violations of his constitutional rights.
Toronto-born Mr. Khadr, who was 15 when prosecutors allege he threw a grenade that killed U.S. Army Sergeant Christopher Speer during firefight in Afghanistan, entered the court unshackled, with a guard on either side. He was dressed in the loose-fitting white prison garb that is given to Guantanamo’s most co-operative detainees.
He sat beside Mr. Edney, the Edmonton-based lawyer who has no standing before the U.S. military commission, and spent the morning of the proceedings leaning forward, his thickly bearded chin resting on his fist. Occasionally he appeared to smile, the corners of his eyes crinkling.
Mr. Khadr has spoken in court before. But his prepared statement, a handwritten, single-spaced sheet of lined paper headed “Arabic-English language class” and covered in a scrawl that switched from black to red ink about a third of the way through, was a far cry from his last written submission to the military tribunal – a two-sentence note arguing that he was being punished for co-operating and demanding to be treated “humainly and fair.”
He sparred verbally with military judge Colonel Patrick Parrish, who asked him repeatedly if he was sure he wanted to represent himself. The judge was bemused – along with much of the rest of the courtroom – when Mr. Khadr said in the same breath he wants to represent himself and to boycott the proceedings he declared illegitimate.
Does Mr. Khadr have the legal training required to represent himself “just as if you were a lawyer?” Col. Parrish asked.
“Doesn’t matter,” Mr. Khadr shot back. “I’ve been here a long time – five years in a military commission. And that’s good enough for me.”
Mr. Khadr repeatedly said it doesn’t matter who defends him, or fails to do so. He insisted he’ll get a life sentence – the maximum penalty for the charges against him, which include murder and supporting terrorism – either way.
Despite his repeated protestations and his stated desire to boycott the remainder of his trial and have no one speak on his behalf, Mr. Khadr still has a lawyer, albeit a conflicted one.
Military-appointed lawyer Lieutenant-Colonel Jon Jackson asked Col. Parrish for time to ask his Arkansas bar association whether it would violate his ethics as a lawyer to actively defend a man who doesn’t want to be defended.
Mr. Khadr told the judge: “You’re forcing him on me. I don’t want him to be my lawyer. There are not going to be any discussions between me and Jackson.”
Depending on the resolution of the issue, Mr. Khadr will either be represented against his will or there will be no defence as the first military- commissions trial of Barack Obama’s presidency gets under way as early as next month.
Comparisons are being made to the case of Ali Hamza al-Bahlul, a Yemeni who publicly announced a boycott of Guantanamo court proceedings. His lawyer accordingly mounted no defence and Mr. al-Bahlul was tried, convicted and sentenced to life in prison.
“It could be that if he [Col. Jackson] zealously defends his client against his wishes, he could be disbarred for it,” said American Civil Liberties Union spokeswoman Jennifer Turner, who is an observer at this week’s hearings.
Marine Colonel Jeffrey Colwell, who’s in charge of Guantanamo’s defence lawyers, said the back-and-forth in court creates more questions than answers.
“These are difficult issues we’re dealing with in Guantanamo. You really can’t make this stuff up,” he said. “Omar says he’s boycotting. What does that mean? I don’t think the judge knows what that means. Maybe Omar doesn’t know what that means.”
David Iglesias, a spokesman for the prosecution in Mr. Khadr’s case, said it makes no difference to them who represents the accused. In court, prosecutor Jeff Groharing’s only real frustration seemed to be with the delay caused by Col. Jackson’s desire to wait to proceed until he gets the okay from his bar association.
“We take no position on whether Mr. Khadr could or should represent himself,” Mr. Iglesias said. “We want to go to trial. We’re ready to go to trial. Hopefully, as scheduled, next month.”