Image: Courtroom sketch of Omar Khadr
Janet Hamlin  /  Pool via AP
Canadian defendant Omar Khadr, left, attends his pretrial hearing in the courthouse for the military war crimes commission at the Camp Justice compound on Guantanamo Bay U.S. Naval Base in Cuba, Monday, Aug. 9.
By Michael Isikoff National investigative correspondent
NBC News
updated 8/12/2010 7:42:52 PM ET 2010-08-12T23:42:52

A military prosecutor dramatically laid out the U.S. government’s case against so-called "child soldier" Omar Khadr on Thursday, depicting him as a dedicated al-Qaida terrorist who took pride in his efforts to kill American soldiers.

But the trial was thrown into doubt when Khadr's only defense lawyer keeled over in pain and was rushed to the hospital. With only a half hour to go in Thursday's session, Lt. Col Jon Jackson coughed, asked for a short recess and then collapsed in court. 

Bryan Broyles, the deputy chief defense counsel for the military commisssions, said that Jackson had recently undergone gallbladder surgery and may be experiencing complications. Doctors were to evaluate his condition overnight.

If it is determined he needs surgery, he will be flown off of the island and the trial may be delayed indefinitely. If not, the trial could resume next week. Jackson is the only lawyer that can represent Khadr in court, Broyles said. Khadr fired two other American attorneys in July.

Earlier, chief prosecutor Jeff Groharing told the jury of seven military officers that when Khadr was first brought to Guantanamo in the fall of 2002 he told an FBI agent: "I am a terrorist trained by al-Qaida." When asked by the agent what in life he was most proud of, Khadr replied: "conducting operations against the Americans," Groharing said.

Before his collapse, Jackson offered a sharply different image of Khadr. Jackson depicted him at the time of his alleged crimes as a scared and impressionable 15-year-old who had been brought to Afghanistan by his dominating father, a trusted associated of Osama bin Laden, and was then threatened with rape and even death by a U.S. military interrogator following his capture. "This case is about who we are as Americans," Jackson said.

Khadr has pleaded not guilty to five charges including murder, spying and supporting terrorism. He faces a maximum life sentence at a trial expected to last roughly three or four weeks.

The dueling pictures of Khadr — a Canadian citizen, now 23, who has spent more than a third of his life in detention at Guantanamo — is at the heart of a war crimes trial that has become the first big test of the Obama administration’s revamped military commissions. The Pentagon is hoping a successful outcome will pave the way for them to try 30 to 40 Guantanamo detainees — including possibly alleged 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and his co-conspirators — in military commission trials. But the case has provoked an outcry from human rights groups who say "child soldiers" like Khadr should be considered victims, not war criminals.

Although thrown on the defensive by the criticism, Pentagon officials have been suggesting for some time that when members of the public hear the full evidence against Khadr they will understand better why military prosecutors have so aggressively pursued the case for the past five years. Groharing on Thursday sought to do that, explaining how on July 27, 2002, U.S. forces in Afghanistan moved in on an al-Qaida compound in Afghanistan after getting a tip that a terrorist "bombmaker" was holed up there.

But they encountered fierce resistance that led to a four-hour firefight, causing U.S. commanders to call in airstrikes. As soldiers finally moved in on the compound, an al-Qaida fighter hurled a hand grenade that exploded at the feet of Army Special Forces medic Christopher Speer, causing shrapnel to shatter his brain and ultimately killing him.

Groharing said he will present testimony from multiple soldiers who were present at the firefight that day, and "every one of those soldiers will tell you that Omar Khadr was in the exact spot where that grenade came from."

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Groharing said that day "was not the first time that Omar Khadr attempted to kill Americans." In the rubble of the compound, U.s. forces found weapons and bomb-making components. During a later search, they uncovered a video they said showed Khadr and other al-Qaida operatives assembling and planting IEDs. Later, the prosecutor said, Khadr told his interrogators that he positioned the IEDs on the side of roads near mountains in order to "maximize the blowback" and  "kill as many Americans as they could."

Image: Omar Khadr
The Canadian Press via AP File
This undated picture shows Omar Khadr before he was imprisoned in Guantanamo Bay.

Khadr "decided to conspire" with al-Qaida and is "responsible for his acts" and those of his co-conspirators, the prosecutor told the jury. "This trial is about holding an al-Qaida terrorist accountable for his actions and vindicating the laws of war."

But Jackson aggressively challenged that premise, stating that Khadr was only in Afghanistan in the first place because his father, who was a trusted associate of bin Laden.

Khadr's father "hated his enemies more than he loved his son," Jackson said. In the Muslim culture, Jackson said, young boys "didn’t say no" to their fathers. Khadr had been dispatched by his father to the compound to be a translator.

As for Khadr's later purported confession, Jackson said the prosecutor had "cherry-picked" statements he made and didn’t tell the jury "the full story." In particular, he said, Groharing had omitted any reference to the military interrogator who first questioned Khadr at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan.

That interrogator was later court-martialed for mistreating another detainee, Jackson said. The interrogator — who has been identified in media reports as Joseph Claus — will take the stand and describe how he had sought to frighten Khadr by telling him a made-up "story," Jackson added. In that story, the interrogators allegedly told Khadr about another detainee who "got sent to an American prison" and then was raped by "four big black guys."

"We couldn’t help the kid," Jackson said the interrogator told Khadr. "We’re not sure but we think that he died."

Khadr was "scared to death and he’s being threatened with rape and murder," Jackson said, describing his client’s state of mind at the time. It was only after that Khadr confessed to "throwing anything" that day.

The prosecution called two witnesses to the stand later Thursday. The first, who is referred to as “Colonel W”, was present for the firefight in Afghanistan where Khadr was wounded. He wrote a memo saying Khadr was the person who threw the grenade that killed Speer.

Colonel W admitted in court to changing details in the memo in the years since the firefight. The defense is trying to call into question the validity of the written documentation of Khadr’s actions.

The second witness, identified as “Sergeant Major D,” testified under questioning by the prosecution to shooting Khadr. If the trial continues Friday, he will be called back to the stand by the defense.

NBC News' Shawna Thomas contributed to this report.

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Video: Guantanamo's limbo

Photos: Guantanamo Bay detention center

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  1. A U.S. military guard arrives for work at Camp Delta in the Guantanamo Bay detention center on March 30, 2010. Two days after his inauguration in January 2009, President Barack Obama signed an executive order to close the facility in one year and review each detainee’s case individually, but he has missed the deadline by months and has struggled to transfer, try or release the remaining detainees. (These pictures have been reviewed by the U.S. military.) (John Moore / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Detainees prepare to eat lunch at Camp 6 in the Guantanamo Bay detention center on March 30, 2010. The U.S. military currently holds 183 detainees at Guantanamo, including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the self-described mastermind of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. The detention center has held nearly 780 detainees in an assortment of camps that were built to accommodate different levels of security. In Camp 6, detainees spend at least 22 hours a day in single-occupancy cells. (John Moore / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. In this picture, a detainee stands in Guantanamo’s Camp 6, his face obscured by a wire fence. There are strict rules on the publication of photographs of detainees – any distinguishing features or clear pictures of detainees’ faces are not allowed past Guantanamo’s gates. (John Moore / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. A detainee reads a magazine in the library at Camp 6. One of the obstacles President Obama faces in shutting down the detention facility is that Congress has blocked funding for a plan that would transfer some detainees to a prison in the United States. (John Moore / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. The Department of Justice is currently reviewing each detainee’s case individually and categorizing them into three groups: those who face trial, those who will be transferred to detention facilities in other countries, and those who are deemed a danger but cannot released or tried because of sensitive evidence – and must continue to be held. There are 48 detainees in this category. Here, detainees prepare to eat lunch at Camp 6. (John Moore / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. In this photo, a detainee attends a class in "life skills" inside Camp 6. In November 2009, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and four other Sept. 11 suspects would be prosecuted in a federal court in New York City, setting off a heated debate that put the White House on the defense and has forced it to reconsider the plan. The Obama administration has also designated six detainees for trial by military tribunal, including Canadian Omar Khadr, whose trial will be the first at Guantanamo during the Obama presidency. (Brennan Linsley / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. A U.S. Navy guard prepares to escort a detainee after a "life skills" class in Camp 6. Meantime, the war crimes tribunal convened in Guantanamo on April 28, 2010, to decide what evidence can be used against Omar Khadr, a Canadian citizen who was just 15 when he was detained in Afghanistan in 2002. (John Moore / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Congressional Republicans and some Democrats oppose the plan to prosecute detainees in federal courts because that would give suspects full U.S. legal rights and could lead to the release of dangerous terrorists. Supporters, however, say military courts unfairly limit defendants’ rights and contend that federal courts are just as capable of bringing suspects to justice. In this photo, U.S. Army guards are briefed at the Guantanamo Bay detention center on March 30, 2010. (John Moore / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. A U.S. Army soldier patrols past a guard tower at Camp Delta. A final difficulty in closing the detention facility is skepticism about how well some countries would monitor and rehabilitate detainees transferred there – and whether they would be at risk of being recruited into terror networks. Yemen, in particular, is under scrutiny after the failed Christmas Day airplane bombing by Nigerian Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who is believed to have been trained by al-Qaida in Yemen. The Obama administration has since suspended all transfers to Yemen. (John Moore / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
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