GUANTANAMO BAY NAVAL BASE, Cuba — Thirteen hundred miles from Washington, on a sun-drenched corner of this iguana-dotted island, the U.S. military is gearing up for the trial of the youngest and last Western detainee at Guantanamo Bay.
The trial of Omar Khadr, 23, opened here Monday. Khadr was detained in Afghanistan in 2002, and is accused of murdering a U.S. soldier, conspiracy, spying and other charges.
The son of an Egyptian who became a Canadian citizen, Khadr moved between homes in Canada, Pakistan and Afghanistan for years. Other Western countries have secured the release of their citizens from Guantanamo, but successive Canadian governments have refused to even ask for Khadr’s return.
A successful trial and conviction for Khadr would mark a significant success for U.S. efforts to move beyond the legal limbo that has plagued Guantanamo for years. But Khadr was 15 when he was detained and human rights advocates criticize the administration for starting the tribunals with a case against a child soldier.
Khadr’s trial is the first military commission to take place under the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama. Nearly 800 prisoners have passed through the facility since the United States began using it as a detention center in 2002. Six have been charged and three have been convicted.
The Obama administration has struggled to fulfill its promise to shut down the facility. The latest military tribunals are seen as a political compromise that offers increased legal protection to the detainees but does not go as far as granting them access to the U.S. court system.
About 180 prisoners remain here, down from 240 at the start of the administration. The majority are recommended for transfer to other countries, but that process only moves as quickly as other countries will accept detainees. Forty-seven will be held indefinitely without charge, and 36 have been referred for prosecution. Of those 36, three have so far been charged under the Obama administration.
But many at Guantanamo recognize that the fate of the court system hinges on the ever-changing political will in Washington — an uncertainty that is reflected in the architecture of Camp Justice.
The camp consists of a stretch of squat taupe tents that sit on the airfield below Courtroom No. 1 on McCalla Hill, the place where U.S. Marines first landed in Cuba during the Spanish-American War in 1898.
Each part of the camp, from the tents housing media to Courtroom No. 2, is portable and can be disassembled and moved to another location if the government decides to shut down the commissions. Pentagon spokesman Joe DellaVedova said the camp and the commissions were only "temporary."
But despite the the transience of the camp and the courts, the cases decided here seem to promise a permanent legacy.
Khadr is accused of killing a U.S. soldier with a grenade in Afghanistan in 2002, when he was 15. UNICEF labeled him the "the last child soldier held in Guantanamo Bay" and a U.N. envoy, Radhika Coomaraswamy, said no child had been prosecuted for a war crime since World War II.
Khadr’s Pentagon-appointed lawyer, Lt. Col. Jon Jackson, said Khadr’s prosecution as an adult for crimes committed at the age of 15 will “echo forever in cases of the future that deal with children affected by war.”
On Monday, Judge Col. Pat Parrish also declined to throw out incriminating statements given by Khadr after he was allegedly tortured and mistreated.
Opening arguments begin first thing Thursday morning and the trial is expected to last for a month. Khadr's possible sentence, if convicted, ranges from immediate release because of credit from his previous prison time to life imprisonment.
Only one other detainee, Noor Uhtman Muhammed, has been charged. A pre-trial hearing is scheduled for September.