Eight years after he was taken to Guantanamo as a teenage prisoner, a Canadian pleaded guilty Monday to killing a U.S. Army sergeant during a battle in Afghanistan, in a deal that will send him home in a year to serve his sentence.
Defenders say Omar Khadr, who was 15 at the time of his capture, was a "child soldier" pushed into becoming an al-Qaida fighter by his father, an associate of Osama bin Laden.
The plea deal ends a widely criticized trial that made the United States the first Western nation since World War II to prosecute a child offender for alleged war crimes. The exact terms were not immediately disclosed, but Khadr's sentence was reportedly capped at eight years, in addition to time already spent at the Guantanamo detention camp.
The now 24-year-old prisoner, who was seriously wounded when he was seized in a gunbattle in 2002, admitted to throwing a grenade that killed a special forces medic during a fierce raid on an al-Qaida compound. He also pleaded guilty to building and planting roadside bombs and receiving weapons training from al-Qaida. He is the last Western detainee at Guantanamo.
The Toronto-born Khadr's trial had been scheduled to start Monday and he faced a possible life sentence.
The chief military prosecutor, Navy Capt. John F. Murphy, said the government welcomed the deal, which was initiated by the defense, because it removes any doubt about Khadr's guilt.
"What you saw puts a lie to the long-standing argument by some that Omar Khadr is a victim," Murphy told reporters in an aircraft hangar near the courthouse on the U.S. base in Cuba. "He's not. He is a murderer and he is convicted by the strength of his own words."
Khadr did not explain why he changed his plea, though Dennis Edney, one of his Canadian attorneys, said it was a "very, very difficult" decision made only because Canada agreed to repatriate him after a year.
It came down to a choice between a trial his lawyers called "illegal" and going home _ and he chose the latter, Edney said.
"We have reviewed the evidence. ... We have looked at the circumstances and it's our clear opinion that Mr. Khadr is an innocent man, that Mr. Khadr was put into a hellish conflict and continues to remain in this hellhole that has a record internationally of abuse," Edney said.
Khadr faces a sentencing hearing that begins Tuesday before a military jury. The panel cannot impose a sentence more severe than the plea agreement, but could issue one that is more lenient.
Army Lt. Col. Jon Jackson, the Pentagon-appointed military defense lawyer, said he would seek to contradict the image of a hardened terrorist presented by prosecutors. "I look forward to proving to the panel and the world that Omar Khadr is a kind, compassionate, and decent young man who deserves a first chance at a meaningful life," he said.
Khadr had previously pleaded innocent and resisted efforts to settle his case. But on Monday, dressed in a dark suit instead of the jumpsuits typically worn by Guantanamo prisoners, he calmly answered a series of questions from the judge to make sure he understood his decision.
Staring down at the defense table without making eye contact, Khadr was asked if anyone had made any promises to him so that he would plead guilty. He answered simply "no."
"You should only do this if you truly believe it is in your best interests," the judge told him.
It was the fifth conviction at the Guantanamo military tribunals, including three in plea bargains.
The war crimes prosecutions have been stalled repeatedly by legal challenges since they began in 2004. The U.S. Supreme Court forced Congress and President George W. Bush to modify the rules and President Barack Obama did it again as part of his attempt to empty the detention center. There is now only one more active case, though the military has said several dozen of the 174 remaining prisoners could be charged.
Canada and the United States exchanged diplomatic notes on Khadr's repatriation and Khadr's lawyers said Canada agreed to take him after one year to serve the rest of his sentence. Khadr's mother and three brothers and two sisters live in the Toronto area.
Canada's government issued a terse reaction, noting that Khadr had pleaded guilty. "This matter is between Mr. Khadr and the U.S. government. We have no further comment," said Catherine Loubier, a spokeswoman for Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon.
Khadr was charged with murder in the death of U.S. Army Sgt. 1st Class Christopher Speer, a special forces medic from Albuquerque, New Mexico. The U.S. says the Canadian is a war criminal because was not a legitimate soldier. He also faced charges of spying, material support for terrorism, conspiracy and attempted murder.
His war crimes trial, the first under Obama, began in August but was put on hold when Khadr's defense lawyer fell ill and collapsed in the courtroom.
The Khadr case has long outraged critics of Guantanamo, including some Obama supporters, who say Khadr should not be prosecuted because he was just 15 at the time of the gunbattle and was subjected to harsh treatment in custody.
Defenders said he was a child soldier pushed into militancy by his father, who was killed in Pakistan after his son's capture, and that killing a soldier during a firefight does not amount to a war crime.
Prosecutors counter that he was part of a guerrilla insurgency; the firefight occurred after the collapse of the Taliban regime in late 2001.
Khadr's lawyers said he was put through grueling conditions of confinement, especially shortly after his capture in July 2002. In legal motions, the defense said Khadr had been chained in painful "stress positions" for long periods of time, suffocated until he passed out, terrorized with barking dogs and threatened that he would be tortured and raped in prison.
Still, the military judge ruled before the trial that Khadr's statements to interrogators could be used against him at trial.
Critics were unmoved by the plea deal.
"That troubling reality that so many human rights concerns remain untouched and unresolved hangs over all this like a dark shadow," said Alex Neve, secretary general of the Canadian chapter of Amnesty International.
The sentencing hearing is expected to feature testimony from witnesses as well as Speer's widow, Tabitha, with whom he had two children. She sat in a front row seat of the courtroom and wept as Khadr entered the plea.
Another soldier who was blinded in one eye during the firefight said he was pleased Khadr admitted guilt but is concerned the Canadian may not serve a sufficiently long sentence. Several Canadian media outlets, citing anonymous sources, have reported he would serve one year at Guantanamo and seven in his native country.
"It's way too short but I think you probably couldn't give him a sentence that I thought was too long," said Layne Morris, a retired Army sergeant who now lives in a suburb of Salt Lake City, Utah. "We have put him on a track to freedom in the prime of his life."