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Khadr deal wouldn't halt U.S. jury verdict

Canadian defendant Omar Khadr attends his hearing in the courthouse for the U.S. military war crimes commission at the Camp Justice compound on Guantanamo Bay U.S. Naval Base in Cuba, Wednesday, April 28, 2010.


Even if Omar Khadr, the only Canadian and the only child soldier facing a Guantanamo war-crimes trial, makes a plea deal that eventually frees him to return to Canada, the jury of U.S. military officers at his murder and terrorism trial will still hear sentencing testimony and deliver its verdict on sentencing.

The panel - as the military jury is called - will be told a guilty plea has been entered but not whether a deal has been cut between prosecutors and defence. So they will hear from mental-health experts from both sides and probably from Mr. Khadr himself before they consider sentence.

Pentagon prosecutors, for instance, will probably call the widow of Sergeant Christopher Speer, the U.S. special forces soldier killed during the raging firefight in July, 2002, in which a severely wounded Mr. Khadr, then 15 years old, was the sole survivor among those inside the Afghan compound repeated bombed by U.S. warplanes.

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"Surviving every day without Christopher has been utter hell," Tabitha Speer, said in a affidavit, sworn on Remembrance Day, 2005. "Ten million dollars is insufficient for what I and my children have endured," she added. The couple's daughter, Taryn, was 3 when Sgt. Speer was killed. Their son, Tanner, was too young to remember his father.

Mr. Khadr's defence team, meanwhile, is expected to present international legal experts who will tell the military panel - the equivalent of a jury at the war-crimes tribunals being held at Guantanamo - about UN treaties that outlaw putting child soldiers on trial.

Mr. Khadr, now 24, is charged with murder and attempted murder in violation of the laws of war, conspiracy, providing material support for terrorism and spying.

The panel isn't supposed to know that a plea-bargain deal has been done - although given the unprecedented international news coverage that one is in the works, they will almost certainly be aware. However, if the panel sets a sentence that is less that the one agreed in the plea deal - widely expected to add another eight to 10 years to the eight years Mr. Khadr has already spent in prisons in U.S. custody - then the shorter sentence would prevail.

"Any decision rendered by the fundamentally flawed military commissions will be subject to legal challenges for years to come," said Andrea Prasow, senior counterterrorism counsel at Human Rights Watch. "If the US is serious about its international legal commitments, it will stop this trial before it becomes an even bigger embarrassment."

Military Judge Colonel Patrick Parrish ordered another delay - this time only for a week - in the on-again, off-again case that has attracted intentional attention since Guantanamo's youngest detainee was first formally charged nearly five years ago.

What may be the final phase of Mr. Khadr's long and tortuous war crimes case may finally start Oct. 25. But any plea deal will hang in the balance, especially given Mr. Khadr's proven willingness to impulsively reject the carefully crafted plans of his defence team. At least three times he has fired teams of lawyers. He routinely threatens to boycott his own trial and has periodically failed to show up at tribunal sessions.

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If, as is expected Mr. Khadr is supposed to make a statement taking responsibility for his actions - both in preparing and planting roadside bombs and, perhaps, tossing the grenade that killed Sgt. Speer - it will mark a complete reversal of his previous claims both that he will never take a plea-bargain deal and that he never threw any grenades.

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