Omar Khadr, the Canadian accused of terrorism, has fired his American lawyers - throwing his war-crimes trial, scheduled for next month, into disarray and creating a political conundrum for both the Canadian and U.S. governments.
"We're absolutely devastated and worried beyond words what will now happen to our former client," said Barry Coburn, the now-dismissed attorney regarded as one of America's premier defence lawyers.
Mr. Khadr's bombshell decision could leave the Obama administration putting a child soldier on trial in Guantanamo without any defence lawyers in a war-crimes case that has attracted international attention, not least because U.S. President Barack Obama failed to shut down Guantanamo as promised within his first year in office.
"Omar has lost all hope of a fair trial in Guantanamo, he can see that the trial is rigged," said Nate Whitling, one of his Canadian lawyers, explaining Mr. Khadr's decision to dismiss his legal team.
"We tried desperately to talk him out of it," Mr. Whitling said, adding the Mr. Khadr, 23, was so upset by the pre-trial appearances of interrogators who tortured and abused him after he was captured in 2002 that he chose to cease participating in the tribunals.
Guantanamo Bay is like a despair factory, it manufactures hopelessness. Barry Coburn, American lawyer dismissed by Omar Khadr
Mr. Khadr's lead interrogator, Joshua Claus, since court-martialed in connection with the beating death of another detainee at Bagram, boasted to the court that he terrified teenaged prisoners by telling them they would be gang-raped to death by "four big black guys" unless they confessed.
Mr. Khadr is due back in the heavily guarded courtroom, surrounded by razor wire in a converted airport terminal at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, next week, when motions to suppress evidence and confessions allegedly obtained by torture and coercion will be considered.
Also on the pre-trial agenda were duelling sets of psychiatrists and psychologists, with the defence witnesses expected to argue Mr. Khadr was a traumatized juvenile whose confessions are unreliable and prosecution experts expected to say that he was a young but competent jihadist, who knew what he was doing and boasted of his role in killing Americans.
Colonel Patrick Parrish, the military judge, is expected to push ahead with both the hearings and, in August, the trial.
Mr. Whitling said, "Omar isn't interested in delay, that's not what this is about ... he knows the outcome."
The fired American civilian attorneys, Mr. Coburn and Kobie Flowers, are Mr. Khadr's third team of defence lawyers in the long and tortuous case. Mr. Khadr "was not mad at them, he knew they were doing a good job for him," Mr. Whitling said.
The decision to dismiss his lawyers and, apparently, decline to appear in the courtroom reflects Mr. Khadr's view that the military tribunals are a fraud, Mr. Whitling said.
"What's the point of defending myself in such a system, it's a charade," Mr. Whitling quoted Mr. Khadr as saying.
Dennis Edney, another of Mr. Khadr's Canadian lawyers said he "is a young man who has lost all faith in the process. We have participated in Canada in numerous legal processes, with numerous victories and yet to date it hasn't helped force the Canadian government to do anything.''
Earlier this week, a Federal Court judge ruled that the Harper government had failed - despite a Supreme Court ruling - to intervene sufficiently on Mr. Khadr's behalf.
At times, Mr. Khadr has boycotted the proceedings, at others threatened to defend himself. However, with little formal education and having spent more than one-third of his life, including years in solitary confinement, in Guantanamo, that prospect unnerves even his staunchest defenders.
Mr. Whitling, like an array of rights groups, has long argued that the military commissions, created by former president George W. Bush and retained, albeit with some tinkering, by Mr. Obama, are inherently unjust.
"Now it's a lot worse, Omar will have no defence," Mr. Whitling said.
If the trial proceeds in August as scheduled, Mr. Khadr will be the first alleged al-Qaeda operative put on trial since Mr. Obama was elected. He faces life in prison if convicted.
"Guantanamo Bay is like a despair factory, it manufactures hopelessness," Mr. Coburn said Wednesday night as he arrived back in Washington from the Cuban outpost originally chosen to keep the detainees beyond the protections of the U.S. Constitution.
Although the Supreme Court has twice ruled those alleged terrorists do have rights, the next test case will be a Canadian, and the only person ever charged with murder of a U.S. soldier in a firefight in Afghanistan. More than 1,000 others have been killed in combat.
Mr. Khadr, captured at age 15 in a heavily bombed Afghan compound after a fierce firefight with U.S. special forces, is the son of a leading al-Qaeda figure. Many observers believe his family connections, rather than his role in the gun battle, led to the charges. He is accused of throwing the grenade that killed a U.S. special forces soldier and of planting roadside bombs.Report Typo/Error