The Navy defense lawyer for a Canadian prisoner accused of killing a U.S. soldier in Afghanistan six years ago accused the Pentagon on Thursday of doctoring evidence to make his client appear guilty.
In pretrial motions in the case of Omar Khadr, who was 15 when he was wounded and arrested by U.S. forces, Lt. Cmdr. William C. Kuebler said the Army commander for the Khost region of eastern Afghanistan reported on July 28, 2002, that the person who threw a grenade that killed Sgt. 1st Class Christopher J. Speer also died in the firefight.
Two months after that report, the commander altered his account to say Speer’s attacker was “engaged” by U.S. forces, Kuebler said. The officer was identified only as Lt. Col. W.
The government has listed the commander as a potential prosecution witness in Khadr’s trial. Kuebler had sought to interview the lieutenant colonel but was denied access by the prosecution. At Thursday’s hearing, he appealed to the Army judge handling Khadr’s case, Col. Peter Brownback III, to make Lt. Col. W available to explain the change.
Kuebler also sought access to Khadr’s medical and interrogation records from the weeks he spent in U.S. military custody at Bagram Air Base north of Kabul before his transfer here. He asked for videotapes of Khadr at Bagram undergoing “enhanced interrogation” while recovering from two gunshot wounds to the back.
Brownback promised to rule before departing Guantanamo today, but his decisions on motions argued here this week are unlikely to be made public immediately as censors in Washington vet them first for classified information.
Kuebler told journalists that the altered firefight report was “consistent with the proposition that the government manufactured evidence that made Omar look guilty.”
He also said Khadr had been mistreated by a U.S. military interrogator at Bagram, a soldier identified as Sgt. C who was court-martialed and disciplined after the death of another prisoner there.
Asked if the government had revised documents to back the accusations against Khadr, the tribunal’s deputy chief prosecutor, Army Col. Bruce Pagel, replied: “No.” He declined to respond further.
Government reports have contended that Khadr was the only enemy combatant to survive the July 27, 2002, clash in which Speer was wounded. Speer died eight days later.
Revising the combat report supports “the myth that has grown up around this case that Omar was the only person alive at the compound” when the Special Forces unit entered after a massive bombardment, Kuebler said.
Brig. Gen. Thomas Hartmann, legal advisor to the convening authority who serves an attorney general-like role for the war-crimes tribunal, confirmed Thursday that the Pentagon was “increasing the progression of cases” and would continue to accelerate the process in coming months.
He disputed contentions by the chief defense counsel, Army Col. Steve David, that only nine military lawyers are available to defend 14 charged suspects, versus 31 attorneys for the prosecution. The defense has 10 uniformed lawyers now, four civilians who can act as co-counsel and eight more on the way, Hartmann said.
The prosecution has more staff, the general said, because its burden is greater than that of the defense in having to prove the guilt of each accused beyond a reasonable doubt.
The administration’s hopes of speeding up the trials were probably dashed by the sessions this week, which raised more legal questions and issues.
A 33-year-old Saudi, Ahmed Mohammed Ahmed Haza Al-Darbi, was arraigned after Khadr’s hearing but declined to enter a plea or decide whether to accept his military defense lawyer. He is charged with aiding Al Qaeda and plotting to attack ships in the Strait of Hormuz.
Al-Darbi, a brother-in-law to one of the alleged Sept. 11 hijackers, was arrested in Azerbaijan, sent to a third country for brutal interrogation and subjected to abuse by U.S. soldiers once transferred to Bagram months later, his attorney said.
While Al-Darbi was polite and responsive, by putting off his plea he remains at the same impasse as all four defendants who have been brought before the commission so far for arraignment.
It has been more than six years since the first of nearly 800 terrorism suspects arrived at Guantanamo. All but 275 have been released or repatriated, and of those, 14 have been charged with war crimes.
Also Thursday, the American Civil Liberties Union filed suit against the U.S. government demanding disclosure of Guantanamo prisoners’ descriptions of waterboarding and other coercion at the hands of CIA interrogators.
Detailed accounts of alleged mistreatment of Khalid Shaikh Mohammed and 13 other “high-value” prisoners now being held here were deleted from transcripts made public after each suspect was questioned during a Combatant Status Review Tribunal last year.
“As the Guantanamo era enters its seventh shameful year, the government still refuses to level with the American people. Its stonewalling is illegal and obstructs the public’s right to know the truth about torture and abuse conducted in our name,” said Ben Wizner, an ACLU staff attorney monitoring the proceedings.