Judge critical of war crimes case is ousted

Times Staff Writer

A judge hearing a war crimes case at Guantanamo Bay who publicly expressed frustration with military prosecutors’ refusal to give evidence to the defense has been dismissed, tribunal officials confirmed Friday.

Army Col. Peter Brownback III was presiding over the case of Canadian detainee Omar Khadr. Marine Col. Ralph Kohlmann, in his role as chief judge at Guantanamo, ordered the dismissal without explanation and announced Brownback’s replacement in an e-mail this week to lawyers in Khadr’s case.

In another indication of the Pentagon’s drive to step up the pace at Guantanamo, charges were drafted against three more terrorism suspects, bringing to 17 the number accused of war crimes.

Charges of conspiracy and supporting terrorism were prepared for Ghassan Abdullah Sharbi, a Saudi with an engineering degree from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University; fellow Saudi Jabran Said bin Qahtani; and Algerian Sufyian Barhoumi. The three are alleged to have attended Al Qaeda training camps and studied bomb-making.


Brownback had threatened to suspend the proceedings against Khadr unless prosecutors handed over Khadr’s medical and interrogation records since his July 2002 capture in Afghanistan.

Khadr’s Navy lawyer, Lt. Cmdr. William C. Kuebler, had asked for the records months ago, and Brownback had ordered the government to produce them.

The lead prosecutor in the Khadr case, Marine Maj. Jeffrey Groharing, this week reiterated to Brownback his view that the defense wasn’t entitled to the records. He urged the judge to set a trial date.

Brownback said during an April hearing that he had been “badgered and beaten and bruised by Maj. Groharing” to set a date but couldn’t do so in good conscience when the prosecution was withholding evidence.

Brownback revealed in a November 2007 session that Pentagon officials had made clear they “didn’t like” his decision the previous June to dismiss the Khadr case for lack of jurisdiction.

That ruling was overturned a few weeks later by a hastily assembled Court of Military Commission Review.

Asked about Brownback’s removal, Air Force Capt. Andre Kok, a tribunal spokesman, said it was “a mutual decision between Col. Brownback and the Army that he revert to his retired status when his current active-duty orders expire in June.”

Human rights monitors saw Brownback’s dismissal as indicative of political influence on the tribunal.

“The fact that Judge Brownback has now been taken off the case, without explanation, creates the appearance of political meddling and highlights why these commissions cannot be considered full, fair and independent,” said Jennifer Daskal, senior counter-terrorism counsel for Human Rights Watch.

“The message of the Pentagon’s decision seems to be that it is unwilling to let judges exercise independence if it means a ruling against the government,” said Jamil Dakwar, human rights program director for the American Civil Liberties Union.

While Brownback made several rulings in favor of the defense, earlier this month he sided with the prosecution in refusing to classify Khadr as a child soldier at the time of his alleged offenses.

Kuebler has been lobbying Canadian officials for the repatriation of Khadr so he can be tried in a forum in compliance with international accords on the treatment of child soldiers.

Khadr, now 21, faces up to life in prison if convicted at Guantanamo on charges of murder, conspiracy and supporting terrorism. He is accused of lobbing a grenade that killed U.S. Army Sgt. 1st Class Christopher J. Speer during the firefight in which he was captured.

In other developments at the military tribunal, lawyers for confessed Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed and four codefendants complained Wednesday that prosecutors were pushing for a Sept. 15 trial date to play out the emotionally charged case just ahead of the November presidential election.

“Three months and 18 days is not enough time to prepare a defense in this death penalty case, even if the government had provided the defense with the attorneys, resources and facilities necessary to do so,” Navy Lt. Cmdr. Brian Mizer said.

The Sept. 11 suspects are to be arraigned June 5 at Guantanamo, the first time the men, who were held abroad for years in secret CIA prisons, will be brought before a judge, journalists and human rights observers.

Their lawyers urged Kohlmann to dismiss the charges against them because of “unlawful command influence” exercised by Air Force Brig. Gen. Thomas W. Hartmann, the legal advisor to the tribunal convening authority.

Hartmann was disqualified from another war crimes case this month on the same grounds.

Lawyers for Yemeni prisoner Salim Ahmed Hamdan successfully argued that Hartmann had shown a lack of independence in pressing prosecutors to try “sexy” cases that would produce quick convictions.