MIAMI (Reuters) - The U.S. military judge in the war crimes trial of a young Canadian prisoner at Guantanamo was abruptly relieved of further duties in the case on Thursday.
The dismissal came on the same day that Pentagon prosecutors filed new charges against three other Guantanamo prisoners and defense lawyers accused the prosecutors of trying to rush cases to trial before the November U.S. presidential election.
The chief judge for the U.S. war crimes court at the Guantanamo naval base notified lawyers that a new judge had been assigned to hear the case of Canadian prisoner Omar Khadr, who is accused of murdering a U.S. soldier with a grenade during a firefight at a suspected al Qaeda compound in Afghanistan in 2002.
The e-mailed notice, forwarded to journalists by Khadr’s military defense lawyer, did not even mention the judge previously handling the case, Army Col. Peter Brownback, nor say why a new judge was assigned.
Brownback had said previously he wanted to retire. But Khadr’s lawyer, Navy Lt. Cmdr. William Kuebler, called the timing suspicious because Brownback had recently threatened to suspend the Khadr case unless prosecutors turned over key evidence to the defense lawyers.
“Clearly, Brownback was making an effort to make the process at least look a little more fair,” Kuebler said.
He noted that Brownback had complained of being “badgered and beaten and bruised” by the prosecution to set a trial date for Khadr, who was 15 years old when captured and faces life in prison if convicted.
Prosecutors also filed new charges on Thursday against three prisoners accused of operating an al Qaeda bomb-making cell.
Saudi Arabian captives Jabran al Qahtani and Ghassan al Sharbi and Algerian prisoner Sufyian Barhoumi were charged with conspiring with al Qaeda and providing material support for terrorism.
The charges allege they trained at al Qaeda camps in Afghanistan, then traveled to a safe house in Pakistan, where Barhoumi taught Qahtani and Sharbi to build remote-control detonators for car bombs to be used against U.S. forces in Afghanistan.
The charges still must be approved by the Pentagon official overseeing the Guantanamo court, where charges are pending against 17 of the 270 prisoners. They include five men facing arraignment next week on death penalty charges of plotting the September 11 attacks that triggered the Bush administration’s war on terrorism.
Defense lawyers in those cases have alleged that senior military officials were trying to rush the cases to trial in September in order to influence the November elections to choose a successor to President George W. Bush.
Since the Guantanamo detention camp opened in 2002, only one case has been resolved and that was through a plea bargain that averted trial in the tribunals formally known as “military commissions.”
Defense lawyers and the former chief prosecutor have said the flurry of new charges were part of a politically motivated attempt to get the trials moving before the next president takes office. All three leading presidential candidates have said they would close the widely criticized Guantanamo prison operation.
“I think the rush is based on the theory that a new administration would have difficulty stopping the commissions if they are in full swing. The only real way the system survives is inertia, essentially,” said Army Lt. Col. Bryan Broyles, appointed to defend Qahtani on earlier charges.
Those charged on Thursday are known as the Faisalabad Three, for the Pakistani town where they were captured with al Qaeda operations director Abu Zubaydah in March 2002.
They had been charged in the first court system set up by the Bush administration to try non-American captives on terrorism charges at Guantanamo. The charges were dissolved when the U.S. Supreme Court struck down that court as illegal in 2006, and refiled in the current system.
Qahtani, an electrical engineer who is about 30, had previously called the United States an enemy of God and said it had no right to try him in a military tribunal.
Sharbi, 33, a U.S.-trained electrical engineer, told the earlier tribunal that he fought against the United States, was proud of it and would consider it a matter of honor to spend the rest of his life in prison.
Barhoumi, 34, told a military review panel he had never fought Americans and bore them no animosity. He is missing most of his left hand, which he said was blown off by a land mine while he was training in Afghanistan to go fight Russians in Chechnya during the late 1990s.
Editing by Eric Walsh