GUANTANAMO BAY, Cuba — A trained al-Qaida terrorist who bragged about killing Americans. A frightened, wounded child caught up in a deadly situation through no fault of his own.
The starkly differing views of Omar Khadr emerged Thursday in opening statements of his long-awaited war-crimes trial.
Prosecutor Jeff Groharing kicked off the U.S. government’s case against the 23-year-old Canadian by portraying him as a hard-nosed killer.
“Omar Khadr is a terrorist who was trained by al-Qaida who murdered Sgt. 1st Class Christopher Speer,” Groharing told the seven-person jury as the soldier’s widow watched.
“Khadr decided to conspire with al-Qaida so that he could kill as many Americans as possible.”
The accused, Groharing said, confessed to throwing the hand grenade that killed Speer July 27, 2002, at a compound in Khost, Afghanistan.
“The grenade thrown by Omar Khadr would land in the middle of this compound. It would land at (Speer’s) feet.”
Speer died eight days later from shrapnel wounds to the head.
Khadr, who was 15 at the time of his alleged crimes, faces five charges, including murder in violation of the law of war.
A military commission jury of four men and three women, all U.S. military officers, is hearing the case.
“This trial,” the prosecutor told them, “is about holding an al-Qaida terrorist accountable for his acts and vindicating the laws of war.”
Lt.-Col. Jon Jackson, appointed by the Pentagon to defend Khadr, outlined a very different picture.
Jackson described how Khadr had been hit by shrapnel in an eye and cowered in an alcove of the compound as a fierce firefight and bombardment by U.S. forces raged.
“He is a boy, with three other men who are bad men,” Jackson said.
“He is scared. He is bleeding. He is blinded.”
Khadr was at the compound only because his father, Ahmed Said Khadr, a close associate of Osama Bin Laden, told him to be there, the lawyer said.
“Ahmed Khadr hated his enemies more than he loved his son.”
Jackson said the defence would bring in an American interrogator who told a badly wounded Khadr about an Afghan kid who was gang-raped by “four big black guys.”
“That is not just some story,” Jackson said.
“This is someone who is in the control of the United States army and he is scared to death.”
The first prosecution witness, identified as Col. W, testified the events that July day began with an intelligence tip that an al-Qaida cell was operating from the compound, a large model of which was presented in court.
A full-scale battle erupted after two Afghan militiamen went inside to see if they could get a response from the occupants.
“As soon as they did so, they were ambushed,” W said. “I saw them take head hits, chest hits.”
Soon after, an American soldier, Sgt. Layne Morris, was blinded by grenade shrapnel.
After hours of aerial bombardment that included two massive 500-pound bombs, special forces went in to clear the compound.
It was then a grenade went off, hitting Speer.
“I held his hand for a minute. I noticed his eyes were not focused. He was mumbling incoherently. I tried talking to him, tell him things were OK, ask him to hold on,” W said, his breath catching.
W also described seeing Khadr in the rubble.
He had two large gaping wounds in the upper area of his chest.“
“He was mumbling,” W. said.
Lying nearby were three other people, all clearly dead.
W said he wrote a memo to his commander that night in which he said Khadr had been killed.
He wrote a second report a day or two later, but dated the same day as the battle, that said Khadr was alive, based on later information he had received, W told the commission.
Years later, however, at home, he said he altered the first memo to reflect that Khadr was in fact found alive.
Khadr, who was in court in a jacket and tie and sporting a haircut and trimmed beard, faces a life sentence if convicted.