Khadr trial asks jury: Jihadist or scared teen?

Friday, August 13, 2010 – Globe and Mail

GUANTANAMO BAY — Omar Khadr was either an enthusiastic teen jihadist who happily planted explosive devices and comforted himself in times of loneliness with thoughts of killing U.S. soldiers.

Or he was a frightened, cowed 15-year-old, dragged by a zealous father to Afghanistan against his will, caught up with a bad crowd, taken captive while gravely wounded and tortured into submission and confession by his captors.

The 23-year-old Canadian’s military jury was presented two contrasting portraits of the young man. Duelling sides of his Guantanamo Bay war-crimes trial sought to trump each other in painting what happened during a protracted 2002 Afghan firefight that left a U.S. army sergeant dead and the then-15-year-old severely wounded in U.S. custody.

But the opening salvos in what promises to be a long battle of competing narratives were cut short Thursday when Mr. Khadr’s military-appointed lawyer passed out during cross-examination, apparently from pain related to gallbladder surgery six weeks ago.

With Lieutenant-Colonel Jon Jackson in hospital and on morphine, Mr. Khadr’s trial is adjourned at least until Monday – possibly longer.

Thursday was the first time Mr. Khadr was in the same room as the widow of the man he’s alleged to have killed: Sergeant Christopher Speer’s widow Tabitha was in court, sitting in a black-and-white patterned dress in the front row behind the prosecution.

She remained silent throughout the trial, crying visibly when her husband’s death came up and wringing the white lanyard of her security pass between her knuckles at certain points in testimony.

The prosecution began its argument by wheeling out a three-dimensional model of the Afghan compound on a table to present to the jury as lawyer Jeff Groharing quizzed his first two witnesses. Col. Jackson sought to poke holes in their testimony, noting that records had been changed, details are blurry and underscoring once again that no one saw Mr. Khadr throw the grenade that killed Sgt. Speer.

Mr. Groharing, a former marine major who is one of the few lawyers who’s been involved in the case since its inception, got his witnesses to set a scene in which U.S. troops acted on intelligence to approach a compound they were told housed a bomb maker. They were ambushed, called in reinforcements and endured hours of bombardment before they took the compound and killed almost everyone inside.

Those testifying were identified only by their rank and first initial: Col. W led the raid on the compound; Sergeant-Major D was one of the troops in the thick of the attack.

Mr. Groharing showed a video, found in the compound, that showed a teenaged Mr. Khadr fiddling with what appear to be parts of explosive devices; later, in a green-tinged night-vision shot, he mugs for the camera as unidentified people bury what appear to be explosive devices.

Col. Jackson tore into Col. W’s testimony, noting that a memo Col. W wrote to his superiors the night of the 2002 firefight said the man who had lobbed the grenade killing Sgt. Speer was among three enemy combatants killed in action. A fourth person, he wrote at the time, was wounded in action.

But years later, after being visited by investigators into Mr. Khadr’s case, he changed the original memo on his personal computer to read that Sgt. Speer’s killer had survived.

“Investigators came to see me; they had a version of the report that was correct. And when I looked at mine I went, ‘Oh, this is wrong.’ And I changed it.”

But while Col. Jackson was questioning the prosecution’s second witness, a sergeant-major present at the 2002 firefight who said he shot Mr. Khadr twice in the back when he encountered the teen in an alley, Col. Jackson started to cough. He asked military judge Colonel Patrick Parrish for a five-minute recess and turned to the defence counsel table to grab a bottle of water.

On his way back to the podium, the military lawyer collapsed. He regained consciousness shortly afterward and was taken to hospital as the courtroom was emptied.

Later Thursday evening, deputy chief defence counsel Brian Broyles said Col. Jackson, who has been on the trial virtually non-stop despite being newly married, is still in pain. Doctors should know better by Friday when he can appear in court again.

But his incapacitation effectively puts the trial on pause: Col. Jackson is the only person able to represent Mr. Khadr in court. Although Dennis Edney, the Edmonton-based lawyer representing the Khadr family, is in Guantanamo Bay and has been present throughout the trial process, he can’t formally represent Mr. Khadr in court because he isn’t American. Mr. Khadr fired his two U.S. civilian lawyers last month; he said at first he wanted no legal representation whatsoever, although he has since reconciled himself to putting up an active defence.

“Omar Khadr has one attorney – that is Lieutenant-Colonel Jon Jackson,” Mr. Boyles said. “If the court has to wait for Lt.-Col. Jackson, the court has to wait for Lt.-Col. Jackson.”

Speaking to reporters Thursday evening, Mr. Edney said Mr. Khadr, who has been in court despite fasting for the month-long Muslim holiday of Ramadan, was extremely upset by his lawyer’s collapse.

“He said he felt helpless to do anything,” Mr. Edney said. “He was very upset.”

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