MIAMI (Reuters) - The decision to replace the judge in the Guantanamo trial of a young Canadian prisoner was “completely unrelated” to any ruling or actions by that judge, the tribunals’ chief judge said on Monday in a rare public statement.
Judge Army Col. Peter Brownback was replaced because his duty orders expire later this month, said Marine Col. Ralph Kohlmann, the chief judge in the U.S. war crimes court at the Guantanamo naval base.
Brownback had presided in the case against Omar Khadr, a Canadian captive accused of murdering a U.S. soldier with a grenade during a firefight at a suspected al Qaeda compound in Afghanistan in 2002.
Kohlmann notified lawyers last week that a new judge had been assigned to the case but did not give a reason, prompting criticism in the United States and Canada.
Khadr’s U.S. military defense lawyer suggested Brownback was dismissed because he had made a ruling favorable to the defense, refusing to set a trial date until prosecutors turned over Khadr’s prison camp records.
The American Civil Liberties Union said the decision sent a message that the Pentagon “is unwilling to let judges exercise independence if it means a ruling against the government.”
The Pentagon issued a statement on Friday saying Brownback and the Army had mutually decided he would return to retirement when his active-duty orders expire later this month.
But Kohlmann said in statement on Monday that Brownback had been willing to stay on as long as needed. He said the Army declined in February to extend Brownback’s service “based on a number of manpower management considerations” unrelated to the trials.
Kohlmann said it was generally inappropriate for the Guantanamo judges to join public debate over the trials, but that he felt he should comment since his decision had prompted discussion of judicial independence.
Brownback retired from the military in 1999 and was recalled to active duty as a Guantanamo judge in 2004, initially for a year but with annual extensions set to expire on June 29, Kohlmann said. He said that when it became clear the trial would not finish before then, he decided to hand the case to a new judge before the next trial phase began.
“My detailing of another judge was completely unrelated to any actions that Col. Brownback has taken in this or any other case,” Kohlmann said.
“Any suggestion that Col. Brownback asked to return to retired status before the case of US v. Khadr was completed is also incorrect.”
Khadr’s lawyer, Navy Lt. Cmdr. William Kuebler, called the explanation “odd to say the least,” given that the Defense Department had recently put out a call urging Navy lawyers to volunteer as judges, prosecutors and defense attorneys in the Guantanamo trials, as a national priority assignment.
“Whatever the case, this latest gaffe seriously undermines any integrity or perception of legitimacy these proceedings once possessed,” Kuebler said.
Khadr is among 18 prisoners facing charges in the tribunals established after the September 11 attacks to try non-American captives whom the Bush administration consider unlawful “enemy combatants” not entitled to the legal protections granted to soldiers and civilians.
The defendants include five men facing arraignment on Thursday on death penalty charges of plotting the hijacked plane attacks that killed nearly 3,000 people in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania in 2001.
Editing by Eric Walsh