A young Canadian terrorism suspect accepted a plea deal Monday that will make him eligible to leave Guantanamo Bay prison in a year, sparing the Obama administration the spectacle of putting the first child soldier on trial for war crimes in modern times.
Officials of the controversial military commission kept secret the length of the sentence agreed to for Omar Ahmed Khadr, who was 15 when he was captured in Afghanistan after a firefight between Al Qaeda militants and U.S. special forces in July 2002. But sources involved in the bargaining had said earlier that an eight-year term was being discussed — the first year to be served at Guantanamo and the rest in his native Canada, if the Ottawa government agrees to take its citizen back home.
Legal and diplomatic officials had been negotiating for more than a week on the terms of Khadr’s guilty plea to five war-crimes charges, including the murder of U.S. Army Sgt. 1st Class Christopher Speer in the melee that followed U.S. bombardment of the compound where the young Canadian was holed up with the hardened fighters with whom his militant father had left him.
As the presiding military judge, Army Col. Patrick Parrish, questioned Khadr about his understanding of the plea agreement, Speer’s widow sat in the courtroom gallery, wiping away tears at the mention of the murder charge against the defendant.
A jury of seven senior military officers will assemble at the war-crimes court on Tuesday to hear testimony from Tabitha Speer and others the prosecution will call to urge a harsh sentence for the defendant, now 24. Khadr’s defense lawyers will have testimony by experts in hopes of getting the jurors, or commissioners as they are called in this process, to issue a more lenient sentence.
Under the rules for military commissions, the jurors are asked to decide a sentence even when a plea bargain has fixed the maximum time the convict will have to serve. Parrish said he was keeping secret the sentence agreed to in the plea bargain until after the commissioners issued theirs, so as not to prejudice their independent deliberations. Khadr will be sentenced to the shorter of the two terms.
The plea deal spares the U.S. government the need to try Khadr for the crimes he is alleged to have committed while apprenticed to the Al Qaeda fighters, all of whom died in the July 27, 2002, aerial bombardment or were killed by U.S. forces who stormed the compound afterward. Khadr was shot twice in the upper torso and has gravely impaired vision from shrapnel wounds suffered in the bombing.
A sentence from the commissioners and formal disclosure of the plea deal are expected by the end of the week.