WILL SERVE JUST 8 YEARS

Jury sentences 'child soldier' to 40 years at Guantánamo

 

crosenberg@MiamiHerald.com

GUANTANAMO BAY NAVY BASE, Cuba -- A military jury on Sunday gave teen terrorist Omar Khadr a symbolic 40-year prison sentence for killing an American commando in Afghanistan, unaware that the United States agreed to send the Canadian home next year.

Khadr, 24, looked straight ahead when the jury foreman announced the verdict. The widow of his victim, Tabitha Speer, 40, cheered ``yes,'' and then wept.

``He will forever be a murderer my eyes,'' Speer said, adding the 40-year sentence was a vindication.

The Guantánamo military commission, she said, provided a sense of finality -- along with assurances that Khadr would never be allowed to enter the United States or ride on an airplane.

The Pentagon staged closing arguments last week in the case, shielding the seven-officer jury from details of the plea bargain that capped his prison sentence at eight years -- one in Guantánamo and at most seven more in Canada.

That means Khadr could be free by age 32, if not earlier under Canadian parole provisions.

Jurors were told only that Guantánamo's youngest captive had pleaded guilty to five war crimes, including hurling the grenade that mortally wounded Sgt. 1st Class Christopher Speer, 28, during a July 2002 assault on an al Qaeda compound. Khadr was 15.

The prosecution sought a 25-year sentence. Defense lawyers recommended repatriation.

In a rebuke, the jury said he should be imprisoned until age 64.

The Toronto-born Khadr also admitted that, in the days ahead of his capture, he planted mines intended to maim or kill U.S. and allied forces. He was captured near dead, treated by U.S. forces and sent to Guantánamo soon after his 16th birthday.

Canada has balked publicly at the repatriation proposal.

But an exchange of diplomatic notes between the U.S. and Canadian governments, signed Oct. 23, included this:

``The Government of Canada is inclined to favourably consider Mr. Khadr's application to be transferred to Canada to serve the remainder of his sentence,'' or whichever portion Canada's National Parole Board decides is required.

It was signed by the Canadian Embassy, a week ago, with no name attached.

The Pentagon's Chief War Crimes Prosecutor, Navy Capt. John F. Murphy, said he made the eight-year plea deal with Khadr to secure the certainty of a conviction for the victims of the so-called ``child-soldier.''

He cited Khadr's youth at the time of the crime, calling him a ``minor.''

``I hope he will be rehabilitated in the future,'' said Murphy.

Khadr's military judge, Army Col. Patrick Parrish, made the plea agreement public moments after the jury was led from the hilltop tribunal chamber on Sunday at about 5 p.m.

The jury deliberated for five hours Saturday, broke for the night, and resumed Sunday afternoon after church services at Guantánamo. While they deliberated, a guard raised and then lowered a flag belonging to an unidentified family member of one of Khadr's victims, a traditional military souvenir from a historic place or time.

Khadr, raised in a militant Muslim family between a suburb of Toronto and Afghanistan, is Guantánamo's last Western-born detainee among the 174 held here. Critics had said he should have been afforded the protections of ``child soldier'' and given rehabilitation rather than spend a third of his life at Guantánamo.

Former Army Sgt. Layne Morris, who lost an eye in the firefight that captured Khadr, said he was concerned that an eight-year sentence put the Canadian ``on frankly the fast-track to freedom'' and ``the prime of his life.''

Khadr's Canadian attorney, Dennis Edney, lambasted the military commissions process, which has so far yielded five convictions, three through plea bargain.

``We may choose to believe that through his plea Omar finally came clean and accepted his involvement in a firefight when he was 15 years of age,'' he said, ``or that this was one final coerced confession from a victimized young man who was in the wrong place at the wrong time because his father placed him there.''

As a convicted war criminal, Khadr was to be moved Sunday night to a single cell in a maximum security lockup where the prison camp staff segregates its convicts.

He had spent the last two years in Guantánamo's most relaxed camp, sleeping at night in a bunkhouse with four other captives and by day praying and dining with at least a dozen at a time.

The Pentagon's Chief Defense Counsel, Marine Col. Jeffrey Colwell, said Khadr's coming harsh conditions are ``outweighed by the fact that he knows he's going home.''

``There's closure here today,'' the Marine said, adding that Khadr's 40-year jury sentence ``was hard for our team to swallow.''

All the jurors refused through a Pentagon spokeswoman to speak to the 19 members of the news media on the base for more than a week to report the story.

Amnesty International Canada's secretary general called the sentence the latest ``fiasco'' in the Khadr case.

``It comes as no surprise that the sentencing phase and this stunningly punitive jury decision has so starkly highlighted the injustices of this process,'' said Alex Neve, who had been a war court observer.

Read more In the Courts stories from the Miami Herald

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