Omar Khadr pleads guilty, avoiding Guantanamo trial

GUANTANAMO BAY NAVY BASE, Cuba — Toronto-born Omar Khadr, Guantanamo youngest and last Western detainee, pleaded guilty Monday to committing war crimes under a plea deal meant to send him home to Canada next year.

Khadr's full admission is spelled out in a 50-paragraph statement that admits he was a murderer, al Qaeda conspirator and spy in Afghanistan in July 2002. He was 15.

To authenticate it, Army Col. Patrick Parrish, spent less than an hour questioning Khadr, who replied only "yes'' and "no'' questions mostly in a whisper.

Khadr wore a dark suit and tie and hunched intently over the plea and agreement that would return him to Canada in a year to serve seven more years in prison there.

Captured near dead in a firefight in Afghanistan, he has grown to a bearded, strapping 6-foot-plus man behind the razor wire at Camp Delta.

In the agreement, according to two legal sources with direct knowledge, Khadr says he eagerly took part in a July 28, 2002 firefight with U.S. Special Forces in Afghanistan that mortally wounded Sgt 1st Class Christopher Speer, 28, of Albuquerque, N.M.

Speer's widow, Tabitha, wore a black dress to court and sat weeping when the portion about her husband's murder was mentioned.

Sources say that, in the plea, Khadr also says that he had aspired as a teen to kill Americans and Jews and described his father, Ahmed Said, as a part of Osama bin Laden's inner circle, a trusted confidant and fundraiser.

Judge Parrish said the full text would be released Tuesday.

"Omar Khadr is not a victim. He's not a child soldier,'' said Navy Capt. John F. Murphy, the Pentagon's chief military commissions prosecutor. "He's convicted on his own words.''

Khadr's 9 a.m. plea spared him a risk of life in prison, had he been convicted at trial.

Under a deal sealed through an exchange of diplomatic notes on Saturday, the United States will support a plan to transfer him to Canada at age 25 to serve the last seven years of an eight-year sentence.

Khadr's Canadian lawyer cast his young client as a victim. "He had to come to a hellish decision,'' said Dennis Edney, "and he had to make it on his own to get out of GuantÍnamo Bay.''

Canada's government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper has not pledged to receive Khadr even if Washington invokes the prisoner transfer treaty between the United States and Canada. Unclear was how the Pentagon would release him in a year, under the agreement, if Canada refused to imprison him for the next seven.

"We've put him on a track to freedom in the prime of his life,'' lamented former Utah National Guard Sgt. Layne Morris, left blinded in one eye at age 40 by the firefight that captured Khadr.

Were Khadr to serve all eight years, he'd be 32 on his release. "That's a whole lot of life left to do a whole lot of damage,'' said Morris.

The plea seeks to set to rest one of the most divisive cases to bedevil the eight-year-old prison camps here.

Khadr, born in Toronto to immigrant parents, was apprenticed to al Qaeda as a boy and jailed as a teen here among allegedly hardened American-hating ideologues and jihadists.

A Guantanamo video showed him weeping in interrogation. A U.S. medic testified he saw the boy shackled, sobbing in the notorious Bagram, Afghanistan, detention center, which an interrogator described on a witness stand as "one of the worst places on Earth.''

Critics of his prosecution said he deserved the protections of a child soldier, not prosecution as a terrorist. But his victim was a soldier. Prosecutors said they spared him a death penalty case because of his youth.

Beginning Tuesday, in a bit of arcane war court procedure, his jury of seven senior military officers picked for a trial will hear both victim testimony and mitigating evidence in his case to decide a formal, for-the-record sentence. They include a Marine colonel with a Purple Heart from a firefight in 2003 Iraq and were being airlifted to this Navy base Monday morning.

Only if the panel members return a shorter sentence than eight years would the jury's punishment matter.

Judge Parrish did not read aloud the portion of the plea deal signed with a senior Pentagon official, which capped his sentence but said only one year would be served at GuantÍnamo. But Parrish said that document would be released once the jury had deliberated its sentence.