GUANTANAMO BAY U.S. NAVAL BASE, Cuba (Reuters) - The Guantanamo war crimes court wheezed back into session long enough on Monday to allow a young Canadian defendant to fire most of his squabbling U.S. military lawyers.
In the first session since President Barack Obama took office in January, defendant Omar Khadr told the military judge he could no longer trust his Pentagon-appointed defense lawyers because they had been fighting among themselves for months.
“They’ve been accusing each other and pointing fingers at each other ... I want to erase all of them,” said Khadr, who is accused of killing a U.S. soldier with a grenade during a firefight in Afghanistan seven years ago.
His lawyers would not discuss specifics but said they disagree on what is in Khadr’s best interest.
The judge let Khadr fire all but one of them until his Canadian advisers can help him choose a permanent replacement.
Obama has ordered the Guantanamo detention operation shut down by January 2010 and asked military judges to freeze the pending trials for 120 days to give his administration time to decide how to proceed.
The freeze expired and prosecutors have asked for another 120 days’ delay as the Obama team sorts out which of the 240 Guantanamo prisoners should be tried, where and how.
Khadr’s judge will not rule on extending the stay until he determines which lawyer speaks for Khadr. He set a hearing on July 13 to revisit the issue.
Khadr was first charged in 2005 but the charges have been dropped and refiled several times as the court itself has been dissolved and reincarnated to address legal challenges and fairness issues that critics have called insurmountable.
Khadr was 15 when captured in Afghanistan and 16 when sent to the detention camp on the U.S. Navy base in southeast Cuba. He is now a 22-year-old with a short bushy beard and would face life in prison if convicted of murder and conspiring with al Qaeda.
No new trial date has been set and the Obama administration has not announced whether Khadr will stay in the military tribunal system. But the judge, Army Colonel Patrick Parrish, warned Khadr that switching lawyers would not necessarily win him further delays.
“It’s not the first unfairness I‘m going through,” Khadr replied. “I‘m expecting more unfairness.”
While that dispute played out at a hilltop courtroom at Guantanamo, a U.S. judge in Washington ruled that the government cannot keep secret the unclassified evidence that it says justifies the continued imprisonment of more than 100 Guantanamo Bay prisoners.
And in another part of the Guantanamo camp, a group of prisoners who have been ordered freed by the U.S. courts held an impromptu news conference to express their frustration at still being held.
Journalists are not allowed to speak to prisoners or record their voices, but the Chinese Muslim captives known as Uighurs used newly issued sketchbooks and art supplies to make a book of protest signs. One held the book while another flipped the pages for reporters to read through a razor-wire topped fence.
“We are the Uighurs being oppressed in prison though we had been announced innocent according to the verdict of court,” one page said. “We need to freedom,” read one poorly spelled sign.
Guards shooed reporters away when the Uighurs started shouting, “Obama didn’t release us, why? Obama is a communist or democracy?”
The United States acknowledges the 17 Uighurs pose no threat but will not send them to China because it believes they will be persecuted there. It has not found another country to take them but has refused to settle them in the United States.
The Obama administration is sorting detainees into four groups -- those to be released or sent to other countries; those to be tried in the regular U.S. courts; those to be tried in revised military tribunals and those to be held indefinitely because they cannot be prosecuted but pose a threat.
Obama has been deluged with criticism, especially after announcing he would move some foreign terrorism suspects to maximum security prisons in the United States.
He also outraged liberal supporters with his decision to keep the widely criticized Guantanamo tribunals established by the Bush administration but is rejigging the rules to limit hearsay evidence and ban the use of evidence obtained through cruelty and coercion.
Editing by Jim Loney and Cynthia Osterman