MIAMI (Reuters) - A U.S. military judge on Thursday postponed the Guantanamo war crimes trial of a Canadian prisoner captured in Afghanistan at age 15 while his lawyers tried to reach a deal for him to plead guilty in exchange for leniency.
A military tribunal had been set to resume on Monday at the Guantanamo Bay U.S. naval base for Toronto-born Omar Khadr. But the judge delayed it for a week, to October 25, the Pentagon announced.
A plea deal would end a widely criticized trial that made the United States the first nation since World War Two to prosecute someone in a war crimes tribunal for acts allegedly committed as a juvenile.
Khadr is accused of murdering a U.S. soldier with a grenade during a battle in Afghanistan in 2002, when Khadr was 15 years old.
“There are negotiations going on but there’s no deal and we’re not commenting on the details,” one of Khadr’s Canadian attorneys, Nate Whitling, told Reuters.
The Ottawa Citizen newspaper said the plea deal would allow Khadr, now 24, to serve an eight-year sentence, seven of them in Canada. He was sent to Guantanamo shortly after he turned 16 and has already spent more than eight years there with adult prisoners.
He could face life in prison if found guilty in military court.
Any deal would require agreement from U.S. military prosecutors and the governments of Canada and the United States. U.S. military officials declined to comment.
A spokesman for Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper disputed reports that a deal had already been reached.
“These serious charges would have to be addressed in the U.S.,” spokesman Dimitri Soudas told Reuters. “Therefore there is no such agreement.”
Khadr’s trial has been controversial because of his age and the United Nations has called it of dubious legality.
His U.S. military lawyers argued unsuccessfully that Khadr was a child soldier who should be rehabilitated rather than prosecuted. They said he was conscripted by his father, an alleged al Qaeda financier and confidant of Osama bin Laden who apprenticed Omar to bomb makers in Afghanistan.
Khadr said during a pretrial hearing in July that he had rejected a plea deal that would have seen him sentenced to 30 years in prison, with all but five years suspended.
The case would be the first contested trial at Guantanamo under the administration of President Barack Obama, who criticized the Guantanamo tribunals as a candidate and tweaked them as president.
“I‘m sure the government is trying to put an extremely tempting deal in front of him. They’d love to have this case go away,” said Eugene Fidell, a Yale Law School lecturer who is president of the nonprofit National Institute of Military Justice.
“Nobody’s happy about the fact that we have some guy at the defense table who was a minor at the time of the offense. That’s not cause for celebration.”
In addition to murder, Khadr is charged with making roadside bombs for use against U.S. forces, conspiring with al Qaeda, providing material support for terrorism and spying on U.S. forces.
The charges were filed in 2005 and his trial finally began in August. But it was suspended when his U.S. military lawyer became ill and collapsed in the courtroom during the first day of testimony.
Additional reporting by David Ljunggren in Ottawa; Editing by Xavier Briand