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Jury to continue weighing punishment in Gitmo 'child soldier' case

Military jurors begin deliberations that will continue Sunday on the sentence for a former teen al-Qaida fighter held at Guantanamo and convicted of war crimes.
Image: In this Pentagon-approved courtroom draw
In this Pentagon-approved courtroom drawing, Prosecutor Jeffrey Groharing, center, addresses the military panel, seen as blue numbered cards, in closing arguments in the sentencing hearing Saturday for Omar Khadr.Janet Hamlin / AFP - Getty Images
/ Source: news services

A prosecutor urged a military jury to send a message to the world Saturday with a 25-year sentence for a former teenage al-Qaida fighter convicted of war crimes — but it would be largely symbolic since a plea deal limits how time the last Westerner at Guantanamo can spend behind bars.

Canadian Omar Khadr, who was 15 when captured in Afghanistan in 2002, does not deserve special consideration because of his age or the radicalism of his father, prosecutor Jeff Groharing told jurors at a hilltop courtroom encircled by razor wire at the U.S. base in Cuba.

Nor should Khadr, now a lanky and bearded 24-year-old, be treated like just another soldier who threw a grenade that mortally wounded a U.S. special forces medic during a four-hour firefight, Groharing told the panel. Al-Qaida does not represent a country and ignores internationally accepted principles of war, he said.

"Omar Khadr is a terrorist and murderer who killed Sgt. First Class Christopher Speer and attempted to murder countless others," he said. "The accused has caused tremendous pain and suffering for which he should be punished severely."

Unbeknownst to the seven jurors, there is a cap on that punishment. A still-sealed plea agreement reportedly limits Khadr to serving no more than eight more years, with the U.S. agreeing to return him to his native Canada after serving one more year at Guantanamo. His actual sentence will be whichever is less — the jury's verdict or the plea agreement.

The jury deliberated for more than five hours on Saturday then retired for the night. They are expected to begin deliberating again after worship services Sunday.

Khadr pleaded guilty to five war crimes charges including murder, for the death of Speer, and attempted murder for planting 10 roadside bombs in Afghanistan. He could have been sentenced to life in prison if convicted on any single count. He does not get any credit for the eight years he has already spent in Guantanamo.

His case has been one of the most scrutinized at the war crimes tribunals because of his age, with critics calling him a "child soldier" whose father, a major al-Qaida figure who was a confidante of Osama bin Laden, pushed him into militancy. His Pentagon-appointed defense lawyer, Army Lt. Col. Jon Jackson, sought to remind jurors of that during his closing arguments, displaying a photo on a screen of Khadr as a young teen with barely a wisp of a mustache.

Khadr was a "child with a bad dad," who was radicalized as a child and has matured and changed while in U.S. custody, Jackson said.

"This case is about giving Omar Khadr a first chance because he's never had it," he said. "Send him back to Canada, let him start his education and career. There is no good for him here. Send him home."

Jackson showed the jury a picture of Khadr as a blood-soaked and dust-covered teenager with fist-sized bullet wounds after the four-hour battle. He asked jurors to consider the circumstances of the murder Khadr pleaded guilty to.

U.S. troops dropped two 500-pound bombs on the compound and fired thousands of rounds during the firefight in July 2002. But because Khadr was not a soldier fighting for a uniformed army of any nation, he had no legal right to throw the grenade that killed U.S. Sergeant 1st Class Christopher Speer.

"Omar Khadr was a lawful target in that battle but he didn't have the right to fight back," Jackson said.

The jury began its deliberations after nearly a week of testimony that included a wrenching hour of testimony from Speer's widow about the loss of her husband and a 10-minute statement from Khadr, who apologized to the soldier's family in his most extensive public statements since his capture.