GUANTANAMO BAY U.S. NAVAL BASE, Cuba (Reuters) - A Canadian captive admitted throwing a grenade that killed a U.S. soldier in Afghanistan during an interview eight years ago that an FBI agent described on Wednesday as “comfortable” and “friendly,” once the hood and handcuffs were removed.
The FBI agent’s testimony kicked off the first substantive hearing in the U.S. war crimes tribunal at Guantanamo since President Barack Obama took office in January 2009.
A military judge will decide whether defendant Omar Khadr’s statements to interrogators were the illegal products of torture, as his lawyers claim, or voluntary confessions that can be used as evidence in his July murder trial.
“We never put our hands on Mr. Khadr,” testified FBI agent Robert Fuller, who questioned Khadr seven times at the Bagram U.S. air base in Afghanistan in October 2002.
Now 23, Khadr was 15 years old and badly wounded when captured during a firefight at a suspected al Qaeda compound near the Afghan city of Khost in July 2002. He has spent a third of his life locked up at Guantanamo and is accused of killing a U.S. special forces soldier with a grenade and making explosives for use against U.S. troops.
Fuller said guards escorted Khadr to an upstairs room in an old Russian aircraft hangar at Bagram, sat him on a plastic chair and removed his handcuffs and the cloth hood that covered his head before the FBI interviews began.
He said the sessions were friendly, comfortable and nonconfrontational, and included snacks and bathroom breaks.
“He appeared happy, as happy as he could be. He seemed pleased to talk to us,” Fuller said.
The FBI agent was one of more than 30 people who questioned Khadr in at least 142 sessions at Bagram and later at the Guantanamo Bay U.S. naval base in southeast Cuba, defense lawyers said. So far they have been allowed to question three of those interrogators, they said.
The judge agreed to review a sworn statement from Khadr in which he said he gave false confessions after he was beaten, doused in freezing water, spat on, chained in painful positions, forced to urinate on himself then used as a human mop, terrorized by barking dogs and subjected to sleep deprivation and rape threats.
“Certainly anything that would flow from that would be inadmissible,” defense lawyer Kobie Flowers said.
Khadr wore a white prison uniform, had a thick beard and wrote on a notepad during the hearing, casting his eyes downward as the abuse claims were described.
He is the youngest captive among the 183 held in the detention camp for terrorist suspects at Guantanamo, and the only one from a Western nation. Lawyers have been trying to negotiate a deal that would let him plead guilty to reduced charges in exchange for leniency, a defense attorney said.
A plea deal would spare Obama from presiding as military commander in chief over the first U.S. war crimes tribunal to prosecute someone for acts allegedly committed as a child.
“As of right now there is no deal. We are always open to discussion and we’re hopeful of reaching a resolution,” defense attorney Barry Coburn told reporters.
Khadr could be jailed for life if convicted on all five charges against him. The Toronto Star newspaper said he had rejected an offer that would have limited his sentence to five more years in custody at Guantanamo or a U.S. prison, citing unidentified sources.
Coburn would not confirm that but said, “There have been a variety of numbers thrown around.”
Obama signed a new law in October 2009 that prohibits the use of evidence obtained through coercion and makes it harder to use hearsay evidence in the widely criticized Guantanamo tribunals.
But the rule manual implementing the changes was only completed and signed by Defense Secretary Robert Gates on Tuesday night and lawyers were still examining its potential impact on Khadr’s case.
Editing by Pascal Fletcher and Cynthia Osterman