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Comrades describe Speer's legacy at Khadr sentencing

Canadian Omar Khadr has pleaded guilty to five war-crimes charges, sparing him from a possible life sentence.

Janet Hamlin/Associated Press

In riveting and emotional testimony, the warrior brothers of the U.S. soldier killed by Omar Khadr spoke hauntingly about his life and legacy at the sentencing phase of a war crimes tribunal in Guantanamo Bay.

"After nine years, almost a decade of sustained combat I have lost a lot of friends, … and it does not get any easier, but I have not one time seen a loss, so absolutely catastrophic," said the soldier identified only as Captain E., a close family friend who flew to Afghanistan to replace Sergeant Christopher Speer after he was mortally mounded by a grenade thrown by Mr. Khadr, then 15, in a fierce firefight in July of 2002. "He was like a brother to me."

Mr. Khadr, now 24, who this week pleaded guilty to murder, terrorism and spying, sat stone-faced as a hulking, bald, Special Forces sergeant major - his voice cracking with emotion - spoke of still attending Sgt. Speer's daughter's soccer games and "seeing the way Chris moved in her."

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He told the seven senior officers of how Sgt. Speer, a few days before he was killed, walked into an active minefield to save two wounded Afghan children.

The loss was devastating to the unit, the panel was told, not just because Sgt. Speer was a highly trained fighter and medic, but because his humanity and comradeship were unparalleled.

Tabitha Speer, the widow, cried quietly in the front row of the hushed courtroom. It was by far the most emotional moment in years of war-crimes hearings for Mr. Khadr, the last Westerner, the only Canadian and sole juvenile put on trial at this remote U.S. naval base leased from Cuba.

There's an Afghan health clinic named for Sgt. Speer, whose prowess as a combat medic was so extraordinary that - when at home in the United States - other members of his small unit used to bring family members to him for treatment, the court was told.

Earlier, the defence attempt to undermine the stark warnings of a prosecution psychiatrist, Michael Welner, who warned that Mr. Khadr posed grave risks if freed because he was a remorseless, unrepentant murderer regarded by radical jihadists as "al-Qaeda royalty" who could be expected to take a leadership role in the violent struggle to destroy Western civilization.

Dr. Welner, who has publicly defended Jewish settlers in Gaza saying they "provided a buffer zone for Israel, stemming the tide of Islamo-chaos," relied on the writings of Nicolai Sennels, a controversial Danish psychologist, in making his assessment of the risks posed by Mr. Khadr.

Mr. Khadr had the creditability, pedigree, charisma, and proven record as a killer that makes it likely he will emerge as an al-Qaeda leader.

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"He will have an instant impact on the scalability of what al-Qaeda and the radical Islamic movement will have in Canada," Dr. Welner warned.

But under cross-examination, it emerged that among Dr. Sennels's more odious claims was that "massive inbreeding within the Muslim culture during the last 1,400 years may have done catastrophic damage to their gene pool."

He said Dr. Sennels's denunciation of the Koran as "a criminal book that forces people to do criminal things" didn't undermine his view that the Dane's work on criminal Muslims was useful in assessing the risk that Mr. Khadr will remain a violent, extremist.

Both Sgt. Speer and Mr. Khadr have - over the years - achieved almost mythic status since the fateful gun battle that left the American solider dead and the Canadian gravely wounded on an Afghan battlefield. For many Americans, Sgt. Speer, one of the first to be killed in action in the so-called war on terror, has become emblematic of the belief that valiant, humane, U.S. servicemen are soldiering in faraway places to both defend freedom and build a better life in countries in thrall to radical, violent, Islamists.

Meanwhile, Mr. Khadr, the only enemy combatant charged with murder in the combat killing of an American in either the Afghan or Iraqi war, has become a symbol - at least to his advocates and human-rights groups - of the gross injustice of the Bush-era Guantanamo tribunals, retained by President Barrack Obama, that have attracted international notoriety.

Their fates intersected again in a makeshift courtroom on a disused Cold War airfield, as heart-rending testimony painted the dead solider as a noble warrior, a devoted husband and a father who was tormented at the prospect of missing deploying to Afghanistan in early winter 2001 to stay home for the birth of his son.

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Capt. E (like other still-serving U.S. military personnel, his full identity is being kept secret by the tribunal) told the court that Sgt. Speer changed his life, adding "if some piece of him remains, the world will be a better place."

Layne Morris, seriously wounded in the firefight that killed Sgt. Speer, told the panel, how he was flown with the gravely wounded medic to Germany, where both their wives were waiting. "We were both in awe of Mrs. Speer, … who showed so much dignity and courage," he said.

Mr. Morris and Mrs. Speer successfully sued Ahmed Khadr, the father of Omar and a prominent al-Qaeda financier who was killed in 2003, in a $100-million lawsuit. Although neither has received any money, defence counsel extracted, on cross-examination, that the suit didn't name Omar Khadr and, instead, held his father responsible for radicalizing a minor.

Mr. Morris has said "eight years isn't enough," in reference to the plea-bargain that will allow the Toronto-born Mr. Khadr to spend only one more year in Guantanamo before seeking to serve the rest of his sentence in Canada.

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