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Canadian at Guantanamo Pleads Guilty to Receive Shorter Sentence

  • Al Pessin

Omar Khadr (with beard) before a US military commission, 25 Oct. 2010

A young Canadian-born man who has been held at the Guantanamo Bay, Cuba detention center since he was 15-years-old pleaded guilty on Monday to five terrorism charges in exchange for a shorter prison sentence.

The case of Omar Khadr has been one of the most controversial at Guantanamo. Human Rights groups have called on the United States to release him or at least treat him differently from other detainees because he was a juvenile when he was arrested in Afghanistan. But U.S. officials have said his crimes were so serious that he deserved to be treated like an adult.

At a hearing before a military judge in Guantanamo Bay on Monday, the now bearded 24-year-old Khadr pleaded guilty to all five charges he was facing, including throwing a grenade that killed a U.S. Army sergeant and helping to plant 10 roadside bombs. At a hearing a year ago, Khadr had refused to plead guilty, saying he was only a child when he committed those acts and that he could not be held responsible.

Now, with his full trial set to begin, he changed his plea in an agreement to limit his prison term.

A Pentagon spokesman, U.S. Marine Corps Colonel David Lapan, says the details of such agreements are always kept secret in military courts because the jury, which is made up of military officers, will still go through a sentencing process.

"It is a standard practice in both commissions and in the military justice system, the details of that agreement are closed because there will be a sentencing phase that occurs this week," said Colonel Lapan. "And so the members are not given the information and come to their conclusions on their own."

At hearings set for Tuesday, prosecutors and Khadr's military lawyers will present their sentencing arguments. Whatever the jury decides, the sentence will not be longer than what the plea agreement stipulates. Although it is secret, news reports from Guantanamo Bay say it caps the sentence at eight additional years, much of which Khadr would be allowed to serve in Canada, if the Canadian government agrees.

If he had been found guilty through a trial, Khadr could have received a life sentence at Guantanamo or another U.S. military detention center.

In a statement released on Monday after the Khadr plea deal was announced, the human rights group Amnesty International said the arrangement does not change its opposition to the military commissions system at Guantanamo Bay. It also called on the U.S. government to address Khadr's allegations that he has been mistreated during his nine years of detention, and to answer charges that it should have handled his case differently because he was a child when he was captured.