The resumption of Omar Khadr’s much-delayed war-crimes trial was pushed back another week Thursday amid discussions that would see him plead guilty, apparently in exchange for serving most of his sentence in Canada.
Khadr’s Pentagon-appointed lawyer, Lt.-Col. Jon Jackson, confirmed the trial of Guantanamo Bay’s youngest inmate would now resume Oct. 25 rather than on Monday as scheduled.
Jackson refused to comment on the plea talks.
However, one of Khadr’s Canadian lawyers confirmed defence and prosecution were deep in discussions to avoid a trial, but denied a deal had already been reached.
“As of now, there’s no deal,” Nate Whitling said from Edmonton.
“The two sides are talking. We’re hoping for a potential deal.”
Whitling refused to discuss any details of the talks.
“We’d like to resolve this thing and get Omar out of Guantanamo,” he said.
Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon’s office also said there was no deal with the United States to return Khadr to Canada.
“There is no such agreement,” it said in a statement that repeated the government’s familiar refrain.
“Omar Khadr is facing serious charges in the U.S. These serious charges would have to be addressed in the U.S.”
Presiding judge Col. Patrick Parrish ordered the adjournment following a telephone conference Thursday with the various parties, the Pentagon said.
The Toronto-born Khadr, 24, who has already been held at the notorious prison based in Cuba for eight years, stands accused of killing an American soldier in Afghanistan in July 2002 when he was 15.
The son of a purported al-Qaida financier, Khadr is also accused of providing material support for terrorism and three other charges.
Trying Khadr for alleged war crimes committed as a juvenile before a widely denounced military commission has drawn almost universal condemnation from legal and human rights groups.
Many observers have called the prosecution — the first such trial under President Barack Obama — an embarrassment in light of his broken pledge to close Guantanamo Bay and try its inmates in federal court.
“Under international law, Khadr should have never faced a military commission because he was a child soldier,” said Dixon Osburn, with Human Rights First in Washington, D.C.
“He should have never been tortured; and he should not have been charged with war crimes that were not war crimes at the time of commission.”
The last-minute manoeuvrings came as Khadr’s controversial military commission trial was set to resume Monday in Guantanamo Bay.
The hearing, which began in August after years of delays, was abruptly halted on its first day when Jackson fell ill in the courtroom.
Quoting sources “close to the trial,” news agency Al-Arabiya said Thursday a plea deal had been reached.
The report said the agreement would “assure the U.S. government a conviction” and “ensure Khadr return to Canada to serve the majority of his sentence soon.”
Previous attempts at reaching a plea deal — at least one of which would have meant a lengthy prison term for Khadr — have failed.
In July, Khadr himself said the prosecution was demanding an admission of guilt that would have seen him serve a further five years in custody.
“I am not willing to let the U.S. government use me to fulfil its goals,” Khadr said in explaining why he turned the deal down.
“I will not take any plea offer because it will give an excuse to the government for torturing me and abusing me as a child.”
Defence lawyers have also previously blasted the Canadian government for refusing to get involved in the discussions and agree to repatriate Khadr, the lone westerner still at Guantanamo Bay.
Neither the defence nor Ottawa would discuss whether Ottawa had now come to the table as part of the plea talks.
“State-to-state communications are confidential,” Cannon’s office said.
“We continue to provide consular assistance to Mr. Khadr.”
The government under Prime Minister Stephen Harper has steadfastly refused to intervene in the Khadr case, saying the military commission had to play itself out first.
The government is currently appealing a court decision that Ottawa had flouted the Supreme Court of Canada, which found Canada breached Khadr’s rights.
The court ordered Ottawa to make amends.