Clemency sought for 'child soldier' at Guantanamo

AP News
Posted: Apr 19, 2011 4:45 PM
Clemency sought for 'child soldier' at Guantanamo

Lawyers for a former teenage al-Qaida fighter imprisoned at Guantanamo are seeking clemency for him, arguing that his sentencing at his military tribunal was tainted by improper witness testimony and prosecution maneuvers.

Omar Khadr's lawyers have asked the military's Convening Authority, the Pentagon official who oversees the tribunals at the U.S. base in Cuba, to cut his sentence in half to four years on charges that include murder for throwing a grenade that mortally wounded an American soldier in Afghanistan.

The Canadian-born Khadr, who was 15 when captured in 2002, pleaded guilty on Oct. 25 as part a pretrial agreement that capped his sentence at eight years and required him not to appeal. But the defense now argues in a letter seeking clemency that the sentencing hearing before a jury of military officers was flawed.

Khadr's Pentagon-appointed defense lawyers argue that Michael Welner, a New York-based forensic psychiatrist who analyzed the prisoner and concluded that he would pose a threat to society if released, "provided unscientific opinions to intimidate the sentencing panel," according to the letter, a copy of which was obtained Tuesday by The Associated Press.

The defense attorneys, Army Lt. Col. Jon Jackson and Air Force Maj. Matthew Schwartz, also claim that military prosecutors improperly told them outside court that the Convening Authority had given them permission to withdraw from the pretrial agreement if the lawyers challenged Welner as an expert witness.

The chief prosecutor, Navy Capt. John F. Murphy, denied the allegations without discussing details.

"We dispute the defense's allegations and have filed a response with the Convening Authority on the clemency petition," Murphy said in a brief email Tuesday from Guantanamo, where military officials are preparing for more war crimes tribunals.

Schwartz also declined comment, saying he could not discuss the case until the Convening Authority, retired Vice Adm. Bruce MacDonald, rules on the petition for clemency.

A legal adviser to the Convening Authority denied that prosecutors were authorized to withdraw from the pretrial agreement if Welner was challenged, according to a March 29 memo also obtained by The AP. The adviser directed Murphy to respond to the "allegation of prosecutorial misconduct" by the defense.

For his part, Welner seethes at defense claims, backed by their own expert, that his testimony had no scientific basis. "The defense brief is slimy and pathetic," he said by email, attaching dozens of pages of documents to support his conclusions that Khadr, the son of a slain al-Qaida militant, is a dangerous radical.

Khadr has been among the most heavily watched war crimes cases at Guantanamo.

His supporters have argued he deserves leniency because he had been a "child soldier" manipulated by his militant father. Military prosecutors portrayed him as a dangerous terrorist who admitted planting 10 roadside bombs in Afghanistan as part of an al-Qaida explosive cell and throwing a grenade that killed an American special forces medic, Sgt. 1st Class Christopher Speer of Albuquerque, New Mexico.

The military jury was not told of the pretrial agreement before the sentencing hearing and voted to impose a sentence of 40 years. The judge, bound by the plea bargain, gave him 8 years, with only one more year at Guantanamo. He is expected to be sent back to his native Canada by November no matter what happens with his petition for clemency.

Khadr, now 24, is being tutored in a high-security section of the prison is being tutored so he can attend college in Canada upon release, according to the defense motion.

(This version CORRECTS that document is a letter not a motion)