TOPICS > Politics

Gitmo Tribunal Trial of Khadr Offers ‘Test of the System Itself’

August 12, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
Loading the player...
The trial of a Canadian citizen captured in Afghanistan and accused of war crimes began Thursday, the first under new rules imposed by the Obama administration. For perspective, Margaret Warner speaks with Michelle Shephard of the Toronto Star who has been covering the case for years and is at Guantanamo Naval Base.

JEFFREY BROWN: Next, a new trial at Guantanamo.

Margaret Warner has the story.

MARGARET WARNER: The U.S. military commission trial beginning today is notable for being the first to test new ground rules designed by the Obama administration. The accused is Omar Khadr, a Canadian citizen accused of throwing a grenade that killed a U.S. Delta Force soldier at an al Qaeda compound in Afghanistan in 2002. Khadr was 15 years old at the time.

For more on what happened in court today, and the significance of the case, we turn to “Toronto Star” reporter Michelle Shephard. She’s been covering it for years, and wrote the book “Guantanamo’s Child: The Untold Story of Omar Khadr.”

And Michelle, welcome. Thanks for joining us.

Before we get into what happened in court today, I gather that as we speak now, just in the last few minutes, there’s been a dramatic development.

MICHELLE SHEPHARD: Well, that’s right, Margaret. It was a rather emotional ending to what has been a dramatic day of testimony and opening arguments in the Omar Khadr case.

Just a few minutes ago, Omar Khadr’s military lawyer, Army Lieutenant Colonel John Jackson, collapsed in the courtroom and was taken from the courtroom to a Navy-based hospital here. We’re not sure of his condition right now.

As he was taken out on the stretcher, he did seem to — he had regained consciousness by that time, and he was talking. So we hope he’s OK. And as I said, it was quite an ending to what had been already an emotional day.

MARGARET WARNER: I understand there’s quite a bit of international media attention there. Why is there so much attention to this case? What’s significant about it?

MICHELLE SHEPHARD: Well, this case is very significant for two reasons.

One, it’s the first that’s going forward under the Obama administration, and it’s seen as a test case for the military commissions. So, in many ways, it’s not just Omar Khadr that’s on trial here, but the system itself.

Omar Khadr’s case in particular is interesting because he is a Canadian detainee, he’s the last Westerner here. But what make this case significant even more so and has drawn a lot of criticism is his age. He was 15 at the time of capture in Afghanistan when the Pentagon accuses him of throwing a grenade that killed a U.S. soldier.

MARGARET WARNER: In other words, he was a child under most definitions of the law.

MICHELLE SHEPHARD: Well, international law experts have denounced this trial as the first of a child soldier since World War II.

MARGARET WARNER: OK. So tell us what happened. What unfolded in court today?

MICHELLE SHEPHARD: Well, today began with opening arguments, and we heard from our first couple of witnesses, soldiers that were at the firefight that day. And the opening arguments before a jury of seven members really set out, I think, what we’re going hear over the course of the next few weeks: there’s two portraits, very different portraits, of Omar Khadr.

The prosecution contends that he’s a trained al Qaeda terrorist and that he threw a grenade that killed the Delta Force soldier. His lawyers maintain that he was a 15-year-old kid thrown into battlefield by a father and he should not be in this forum being prosecuted.

MARGARET WARNER: Did the defense attorney raise the issue of whether he’d been abused or mistreated?

MICHELLE SHEPHARD: He did, and I think that’s going to come up again and again during the trial. The judge has admitted statements that Omar Khadr made to interrogators, and they will be heard at trial. His lawyers had tried to get those statements thrown out as products of torture, so I think the defense is going to try and prove that before he spoke to his interrogators, he was, in fact, tortured at both the Bagram Air Base and in Guantanamo.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, Khadr was in court today. What was his demeanor?

MICHELLE SHEPHARD: Well, Omar Khadr came to court today in a suit and tie. That’s very different from the prison garb he normally wears in court.

He was very attentive, he was listening to the witnesses, he was looking at the jury members. And the widow of Delta Force soldier Christopher Speer was in court for the first time today. It was the first time she was able to see Omar Khadr and the first time he was able to see her.

MARGARET WARNER: And what greater legal protections does he have under these new ground rules that the Obama administration designed?

MICHELLE SHEPHARD: Well, the ground rules were changed so that statements that were made under cruel, inhumane, and degrading conditions would not be admitted into court. Under the Bush administration, those could be admitted as evidence, and as long as the statements were not obtained under torture.

That was a significant change. However, as I mentioned, those statements are going to be admitted into court as the judge didn’t find that those conditions applied here.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, you mentioned the issue of his age. Has that been litigated before this trial? In other words, has there been any judicial review about whether he can be tried for a crime allegedly committed when he was 15?

MICHELLE SHEPHARD: In pretrial hearings, his age was repeatedly brought up during motions in which they tried to have the charges dismissed. The Military Commissions Act does not stipulate age as a factor, and when the Obama administration amended those rules, they did not put age in as well. So, what prosecutors have said is that while age may be a factor during sentencing, during the trial it won’t be an issue .

MARGARET WARNER: And finally, how long is this trial expected to take, and what kind of sentence would he face if he were to be convicted?

MICHELLE SHEPHARD: He faces a sentence of life in prison if he were convicted. We anticipate that this trial will last anywhere from three to five weeks.

MARGARET WARNER: Michelle Shephard of “The Toronto Star,” thank you so much.