The first war-crimes proceedings under U.S. President Barack Obama against Canada’s Omar Khadr were delayed for several hours Wednesday as lawyers scrambled to read-up on a new 281-page rule book.
The delay occurred as one of Khadr’s Canadian lawyers said the defence team had rejected a plea-bargain offer by prosecutors for a military commission that wants its “pound of flesh.”
“We’re not interested in any plea bargain that doesn’t deal with the opportunity for Omar getting out of that hell-hole of Guantanamo Bay and coming home,” Dennis Edney said.
The military-commission manual, which implements new laws enacted by the Obama administration last year, was only made available to counsel at Guantanamo Bay on Tuesday evening.
Denny LeBoeuf, a prominent lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union, called the situation unprecedented, and said it only raised further questions about the fairness of the process.
Normally, she said, such rules would be made public months in advance of their effective date to allow them to be studied properly.
“There is no set of circumstances like this,” LeBoeuf said from New Orleans.
“This would literally never happen, not in the most benighted backwoods court you can imagine. It would simply never happen.”
Among other things, the new rules lay out under what circumstances coerced statements can be admitted as evidence.
The manual is important to Khadr’s defence team, given that the pre-trial proceedings this week centre on whether self-incriminating statements will be admissible at his trial.
The defence maintains Khadr, who faces a maximum sentence of life in prison, made the statements to interrogators only after extreme abuse.
The prosecution, on the other hand, insists Khadr’s claims of torture are baseless and self-serving, and that the various statements should be allowed as evidence.
The Toronto-born Khadr, 23, is charged with murder for allegedly throwing a hand grenade that killed an American special forces soldier in Afghanistan in July 2002. Khadr was 15 at the time.
He was badly wounded and near death when he was captured in the rubble of a compound. He has been held at the American naval base prison in Cuba since the fall of 2002 — the only westerner still held there.
His trial is scheduled to begin in late July.
The military commissions, instituted by former U.S. president George W. Bush, have been widely derided by legal and human-rights groups both within the United States and abroad.
Obama pledged in January last year to shut down the commissions and the infamous prison, but those promises have so far gone unkept.
Instead, the Military Commissions Act was rejigged last fall in an effort to make the process more acceptable.
However, LeBoeuf said the latest issue around the rule book only called that further into question.
“Our allies and our enemies are very skeptical of the fairness of the military commission system and then they pull a stunt like this?” she said.
Despite global criticism of the commissions, the Harper government has consistently refused calls to press for Khadr’s repatriation.
On Wednesday in Ottawa, Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon said Canada recognizes the independence of the U.S. military commission proceedings.
The government was aware of reports about the plea discussions, he said.
Edney called it “dreaming” to think the Canadian government would be involved in plea discussions.
“They want this case prosecuted,” he said.