GUANTANAMO BAY U.S. NAVAL BASE, Cuba (Reuters) - A prosecutor urged a U.S. war crimes tribunal on Saturday to sentence a young Canadian and admitted al Qaeda murderer to 25 more years in prison and said anything less would give license to militants.
A military defense lawyer said Omar Khadr, who was captured in a firefight in Afghanistan at age 15, had abandoned the jihadist teachings of his al Qaeda financier father, apologized to his victims and accepted responsibility for his actions.
He called Khadr “a child with a bad dad” and urged the military jurors to free him and give him a chance to go to school and become a contributing member of society.
“This case is about giving Omar Khadr a first chance because he’s never had it,” Lieutenant Colonel Jon Jackson told the jury. “There’s going to be no good keeping him here.”
Khadr, now 24, pleaded guilty on Monday to five war crimes after being held at the Guantanamo detention camp for eight years.
He admitted conspiring with al Qaeda, making bombs for use against U.S. troops and killing an American soldier with a grenade during a battle in which Khadr was shot twice and blinded in one eye.
The jury deliberated for more than five hours on Saturday then retired for the night. They could order anything from no further punishment to life in prison.
Their decision could be largely moot because the Toronto native’s plea agreement reportedly limits the sentence to eight years, most of it to be served in Canada. The jury could subtract but not add to that.
Prosecutor Jeffrey Groharing said Khadr joined al Qaeda with the full knowledge it was a militant group that hid among civilians while launching deadly attacks against American embassies, warships, buildings and passenger airlines.
“Send a message that this type of warfare is despicable and reprehensible and there are consequences,” said Groharing, a former U.S. Marine. “Failing to punish Omar Khadr severely would print licenses for al Qaeda.”
He acknowledged Khadr’s age and radical upbringing but said “at 15 you know the difference between right and wrong.”
“The accused has caused tremendous pain and suffering for which he must be punished severely,” Groharing said.
Khadr’s father was a senior al Qaeda member and confidant of Osama bin Laden who moved his family between Pakistan and Afghanistan. He sent 15-year-old Omar to learn from and translate for al Qaeda bombmakers in Afghanistan who opened fire when U.S. troops came to their compound a month later.
Jackson showed the jury a picture of Khadr as a blood-soaked and dust-covered teenager with fist-sized bullet wounds after the four-hour battle. He asked jurors to consider the circumstances of the murder Khadr pleaded guilty to.
U.S. troops dropped two 500-pound bombs on the compound and fired thousands of rounds during the firefight in July 2002. But because Khadr was not a soldier fighting for a uniformed army of any nation, he had no legal right to throw the grenade that killed U.S. Sergeant 1st Class Christopher Speer.
“Omar Khadr was a lawful target in that battle but he didn’t have the right to fight back,” Jackson said.
He dismissed a prosecution psychiatrist’s testimony that Khadr was too dangerous for release, in part because he had been “marinated in jihad” during the years he was locked up with radical adult prisoners at Guantanamo.
That was the U.S. government’s fault, said Jackson. He portrayed Khadr as a rule-abiding prisoner and eager student who deserved a chance at rehabilitation and had come to realize that “hate solves nothing.”
Editing by John O'Callaghan