Omar Khadr’s Lawyer Collapses, Trial Postponed

By Alex Neve, Secretary General of Amnesty International Canada.  Neve is currently at Guantánamo to observe the military commission trial against detainee Omar Khadr. This is the fourth post in his series from the field.

12 August 2010

Omar Khadr's defence lawyer Lt Col Jon Jackson in the media hangar, Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.

In a case that has moved so slowly for so long – it is now nearly five years since Omar Khadr was first charged under the Bush administration – much happened during the first day of his military commission trial here at Guantánamo, both expected and unexpected. Proceedings began with opening statements from the prosecution and defence. They ended in drama when Omar Khadr’s military lawyer, Lieutenant Colonel Jon Jackson, collapsed in court late in the afternoon while cross examining a witness.  He was taken to hospital by ambulance and as I write it is uncertain when the trial will resume.

Earlier the commission heard from two prosecution witnesses and viewed a video that US forces had retrieved from the compound in Afghanistan where the firefight took place that is at the heart of the case against Omar Khadr.  It is there that, as a 15-year-old, he is alleged to have thrown a grenade that fatally wounded a US soldier, Sergeant Christopher Speer. Among those present in the courtroom today, for the first time, was the widow of Sgt Speer.

For the prosecution, Jeffrey Groharing began by wheeling in a scale model of the compound where the firefight took place.  He alleged that Omar Khadr had told one of his interrogators that he was a “terrorist, trained by al-Qa’ida” and that what he was most proud of was carrying out attacks against Americans. He alleged that Omar Khadr had deliberately decided to conspire with members of al-Qa’ida to kill as many US soldiers as possible.  When it came to the question of statements and confessions obtained during the teenager’s interrogations at the US air base in Bagram in Afghanistan and subsequently in Guantánamo, the prosecutor insisted that they were the result of friendly conversations between the detainee and his interrogators and that all were freely and voluntarily given.  He made no reference to Omar Khadr’s young age when these interrogations took place.

In his opening statement for the defence, Lt Col Jackson portrayed Omar Khadr as a scared child in the company of “three bad men” on 27 July 2002 when the firefight occurred.  He blamed Omar Khadr’s late father for the fact that Omar Khadr was there in the first place, adding that “Omar’s father hated his enemies more than he loved his son”.  [Editor’s note: Members of the Khadr family, including Omar, are believed to have moved to Afghanistan when he was 11 years old. According to the Miami Herald on 12 August 2010, the prosecutor said in his opening statement that Omar Khadr had grown up in a family of “radical Islamists” and had “even lived with Osama bin Laden in an al-Qa’ida compound in Afghanistan”].


Guantanamo: ‘Jury’ selected for Omar Khadr’s military commission trial

By Alex Neve, Secretary General of Amnesty International Canada.  Neve is currently at Guantánamo to observe the military commission trial against detainee Omar Khadr. This is the third post in his series from the field.

11 August 2010

Alex Neve stands in front of the building housing the courtroom in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.

Over the past two days I have been observing the process of selecting the “jury” for Omar Khadr’s military commission trial here at the US naval base at Guantánamo Bay in Cuba. Known as a “panel”, this is the group of US military officers who will decide whether Omar Khadr should or should not be convicted of any of the five charges he faces and, if they do convict, what sentence he should face.

The process began on Tuesday morning with a group of 11 men and four women, drawn from the US Army, Navy and Air Force.  The goal was to emerge at the other end with at least five officers impaneled – the necessary minimum for the trial to go ahead.  The defence and prosecution can each exclude one of the members of the pool without giving a reason, and can seek the exclusion of as many others “for cause” as the military judge overseeing the trial may accept.

The day began on a warm-hearted note.  When the side door through which Omar Khadr is escorted in by his guards opened on Tuesday morning, not only was the young defendant once again in attendance, he was wearing a grey suit, white shirt and tie.  We later found out that his Canadian lawyer had chanced upon the suit in a room in the courthouse building moments before Omar Khadr was to come into court. Now each time Omar Khadr enters or leaves the courtroom, there is a broad smile on his face that I have not seen before. It was a reminder of his youthfulness, and of how many small moments (like his first time in a suit) he has been denied during the eight years he has been locked away here — he was transferred to Guantánamo from Bagram air base in Afghanistan in late October 2002 soon after he turned 16.

Much of the first day was taken up with lawyers for both sides asking questions of the 15 potential panel members as a group, covering a wide range of topics: their views on juvenile justice, their familiarity with books or films about al Qa’ida, educational background, involvement in other kinds of military justice proceedings, and their degree of commitment to fair trial principles such as the presumption of innocence and proof beyond a reasonable doubt. Then each of the 15 officers was brought in to be questioned individually.


Omar Khadr trial: 90 seconds to rule that prosecution can use allegedly coerced statements

By Alex Neve, Secretary General of Amnesty International Canada.  Neve is currently at Guantánamo to observe the military commission trial against detainee Omar Khadr. This is the second post in his series from the field.

Omar Khadr was taken into US custody when he was 15 years old.

Once again, proceedings are underway in the case of United States vs Khadr at Guantánamo Bay. And the first question on the minds of many was answered quickly this morning.  Omar Khadr was indeed present in court as this latest phase of his military commission hearing opened.  He remained throughout the entire day.  He was present but he left his legal representation in the hands of his appointed military defence lawyer.

Before the trial itself begins (which is expected on Wednesday after the commission panel of US military officers, akin to a jury, is chosen and sworn in tomorrow), there were a number of motions filed previously by both the defence lawyers and by government prosecutors that had to be dealt with today.  They involve such matters as questions of evidence, expert witnesses, legal definitions, and courtroom security procedures. Most have been outstanding for many months and have already been the subject of written briefs or days of witness testimony and oral arguments.  Some touch on key human rights concerns that go to the heart of the fairness of this process.

Lawyers took several hours today to make their final submissions on these legal issues.  And then in a remarkably terse series of decisions that took no more than 10 minutes, the military judge, Army Colonel Patrick Parrish, ruled against Omar Khadr on almost every point.

Alex Neve stands in front of the building housing the courtroom in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.

Most anticipated was the military judge’s decision as to whether statements made by Omar Khadr during interrogation sessions he underwent at both the US air base in Bagram, Afghanistan, and at Guantánamo Bay can be admitted as evidence at the trial.  Prosecutors clearly want them in.  The defence had argued that they should be excluded as they bear the taint of torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.  Omar Khadr has detailed a range of torture and other ill-treatment he says he was subjected to at that time, including painful physical stress positions, threats of rape, sleep deprivation, use of barking dogs, hooding, shining bright lights into his injured eyes, being used as a human mop to clean up his own urine, and more.


Omar Khadr: The Injustice Continues

By Alex Neve, Secretary General of Amnesty International Canada.  Neve is currently at Guantánamo to observe the military commission trial against detainee Omar Khadr. This is his first post in series from the field.


Alex Neve stands in front of the building housing the courtroom in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.


It  seems difficult to believe that after being held here at Guantánamo Bay for close to eight years and having been put through an astonishing array of legal twists and turns – including charges being thrown out at one point and then reinstated – Omar Khadr is about to face trial by military commission, possibly this week if pre-trial proceedings are completed.

I’m here to observe these proceedings on behalf of Amnesty International. And quite honestly at this stage I find it very difficult to predict just what I will observe.  All that seems certain is that it will be another phase in the systematic injustice to which Omar Khadr has been subjected.

First, today there will be more legal arguments as to whether all or at least some of the statements Omar Khadr made in the course of over 100 interrogation sessions between 2002 and 2004 – first at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan and then here at Guantánamo – will be excluded from the trial.  He has laid out detailed and credible allegations as to the many forms of physical and psychological torture and other abuse he says he was subject to at that time, including during many of the interrogation sessions.  The prosecution has maintained in its legal filings that “the accused was not tortured; nor subjected to cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment”. Yet at a hearing in May, one of Omar Khadr’s interrogators at Bagram admitted to using a rape scenario as a fear tactic against the teenager. And it is clear that at Guantánamo, Omar Khadr was one of the detainees subjected to the sleep disruption/deprivation technique known as the “frequent flyer” program.


Observing the Trial of Omar Khadr

By Alex Neve, Secretary General of Amnesty International Canada.  Neve is currently at Guantánamo to observe the military commissions proceedings against detainee Omar Khadr.  This is his second in a series of posts from the field.

Photo: Alex Neve at Guantánamo Bay

Photo: Alex Neve at Guantánamo Bay

Omar Khadr’s case has been in the military commission pipeline for several years – he was first charged in November 2005 under the system thrown out the following year by the US Supreme Court.  His case has had various false starts under a variety of different versions of the military commission process.

His case has been slated to come up before the latest version of military commissions for months.  Lawyers, journalists, observers, government and military officials have arrived – anticipating that key legal issues were finally going to get an airing.  All this lead time; all this preparation – you would at least expect everything to be in place.

But there is no confidence at all that things are going to get off to a smooth start.  One key piece of the equation that is missing is the set of rules to govern the military commission process under legislation passed in late 2009.  Under the revised Military Commissions Act (MCA), signed by President Obama last October, the Secretary of Defense was supposed to submit to Congress within 90 days the rules for military commissions – that is, the Manual for Military Commissions.  At the moment, the only manual that has been available is a 2007 version under the 2006 MCA.