Omar Khadr, reversing years of denial, has admitted he is a murderer, a terrorist and a war criminal, in a deal that may allow the Canadian son of an prominent al-Qaeda figure to come home next year.
The Harper government, despite its strident denials and years of refusing to intervene, endorsed the deal and made an exchange of diplomatic notes with Washington that should pave the way for Mr. Khadr to serve the remainder of his sentence in Canada, beginning next fall.
Mr. Khadr agreed to plead guilty "in exchange for the Canadian government agreeing to repatriate him back to Canada after one year," said his Canadian lawyer Dennis Edney, who sat beside the burly, bearded 24-year-old in the courtroom as he repeatedly answered "yes" to a long series of questions and charges confirming his admissions to war crimes, murder, terrorism and killing civilians.
But in Ottawa, the Harper government seemed determined to distance itself from the deal.
"I wouldn't even acknowledge there is any kind of negotiations," Foreign Minister Lawrence Cannon's spokeswoman, Catherine Loubier, said. "This is a matter between Mr. Khadr and the U.S. government."
At Guantanamo, U.S. military judge Colonel Patrick Parrish said he would release the six-page exchange of Canadian and U.S. diplomatic notes later this week.
Mr. Cannon received a call from U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in the days before Mr. Khadr's plea deal was concluded. On Monday, the Obama administration was crediting Ms. Clinton with pushing Mr. Cannon to allow Mr. Khadr to serve most of his sentence in Canada.
In Ottawa, Public Safety Minister Vic Toews agreed that Mr. Khadr, like all Canadian citizens, can apply to serve some of a U.S. prison term at home. "I couldn't speculate on whether he would apply. That's his right," he said.
After one more year in Guantanamo - making it nine years since he was first imprisoned, Mr. Khadr can seek repatriation to serve what is expected to be the remaining seven years of his sentence in a Canadian prison.
He won't "go back to Canada as a free man, he goes back to serve whatever remains of his sentence within the Canadian penal system," said U.S. Navy Captain John Murphy, the lead prosecutor in the controversial Bush-era Guantanamo military war crimes tribunals retained by the Obama administration.
Even after the plea deal, the sentencing phase will proceed. Mental health experts from both prosecution and defence teams will paint sharply differing portraits of Mr. Khadr's state of mind and whether or not his confessions were freely given.
A military panel of seven senior military officers - the equivalent of a jury - will then impose its sentence. However, only if it is less than the deal struck by Mr. Khadr in his plea deal will it prevail.
Human-rights groups denounced the deal, the continued use of Guantanamo tribunals by the Obama administration and the Harper's government's stubborn reluctance to intervene - even in the wake of federal court orders - on Mr. Khadr's behalf.
"For the U.S. government, the guilty plea was a way to save face," said Daphne Eviatar, an observer for Human Rights First. "After all, the Obama administration knew that it was a political embarrassment for its first military commission trial to be of a child soldier."
As part of the deal, Mr. Khadr confirmed he was an "alien, unprivileged, enemy belligerent," unqualified therefore to shoot back or engage in combat hostilities with U.S. or other coalition forces. He said he understood he was guilty of "murder in violation of the laws of war," and that he was a member of al-Qaeda. He also promised to co-operate with U.S. counterterrorism interrogators.
"You should only do this if you truly believe it is in your best interests," the military judge warned Mr. Khadr as he confessed to a series of serious and violent war crimes.
In less than an hour, the long-delayed, controversial first war crimes trial of a juvenile since the Second World War was over. Years of defence insistence that the case violated fundamental international principles of fairness, law and the rights of child soldiers were put aside as Mr. Khadr quietly answered yes to a long series of questions from the judge.
With his head bowed in the courtroom Mr. Khadr, only rarely looked up to meet Col. Parrish as the judge read through a long list of questions detailing the charges. Mr. Khadr assented to knowing that he was attacking civilians, that he wanted to kill U.S. troops, that he planted mines and that he received one-on-one terrorist training from an al-Qaeda operative and that he threw the grenade that killed U.S. Sergeant Christopher Speer.
In the front row of the courtroom in this U.S. naval base on Cuban soil, now internationally synonymous with detainee abuse that has sullied the reputation of the United States, sat Tabitha Speer, clad in black, who cried as Mr. Khadr confirmed he was willingly confessing to killing her husband.
"Khadr's plea deal means that the United States will be spared the embarrassment of trying a child soldier in a tribunal that most of the world sees as illegitimate," said Jameel Jaffer, deputy legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union.
"It's the final chapter in Omar Khadr's long journey through this labyrinth of injustice at Guantanamo Bay," said Alex Neve, secretary general of Amnesty International Canada. The Harper government "did far too little, far too late."
The Harper government "got what it wanted, it wanted to eviscerate the character of Mr. Khadr before he arrives in Canada," Mr. Edney, his lawyer, said.
Mr. Khadr, who was only 15 when he was gravely wounded by a U.S. air strike at a remote Afghan compound in July of 2002 where Sgt. Speer was killed. The Canadian teenager and son of a prominent al-Qaeda financier was the sole survivor among a group of Islamist fighters battling U.S. troops.
Ever since, he has been in U.S. prisons, first in Bagram, Afghanistan, and, for the past eight years, at Guantanamo.
"Omar Khadr is a victim of Canadian politics and a victim of American politics. ... Prime Minister Harper should feel ashamed and the Canadian public should feel ashamed," Mr. Edney said.
But Capt. Murphy said the guilty pleas on all five counts of terrorism, murder, and spying proved that Mr. Khadr was what both the Bush and Obama administrations have claimed all along: a violent al-Qaeda extremist.
"It puts the lie to the long-standing argument of some that Omar Khadr is a victim," Capt. Murphy said. "He is not, he is a murderer and he is convicted by the strength of his own words."
Mr. Khadr, the last Westerner left in Guantanamo, was long seen as an important test case of the former Bush administration's controversial decision to put a child soldier on trial in apparent contravention of international treaties requiring that juvenile combatants be treated as victims, not war criminals. After his election, U.S. President Barack Obama vowed to shutter Guantanamo within a year, but that pledge has been shelved.
With a report from Steven Chase in OttawaReport Typo/Error
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