GUANTANAMO BAY U.S. NAVAL BASE, Cuba (Reuters) - A Canadian Guantanamo prisoner who pleaded guilty to killing a U.S. soldier with a grenade in Afghanistan told the man’s widow on Thursday he was “really, really sorry,” but she told him, “You will always be a murderer in my eyes.”
The emotional testimony came during a sentencing hearing for Omar Khadr, a 24-year-old Toronto native who pleaded guilty on Monday to murder and terrorism conspiracy charges in the U.S. war crimes tribunal at the Guantanamo Bay naval base in Cuba.
Khadr admitted throwing the grenade that killed a special forces soldier, U.S. Sergeant 1st Class Christopher Speer, during a 2002 firefight in which Khadr himself was shot twice in the back and blinded in one eye. Khadr was 15 at the time.
Speer’s widow, Tabitha Speer, cried and rocked back and forth during her testimony earlier in the day. She showed photos of her husband with their young daughter and baby son, now aged 11 and 8.
She glared across the courtroom at Khadr, who was captured during a battle in Afghanistan. Khadr is the first person since World War Two prosecuted in a war crimes tribunal for acts committed as a minor.
A few hours later, Khadr stood in the courtroom and told her, “I‘m really, really sorry for the pain I’ve caused you and your family and I wish I could do something that would take this pain away from you.”
Speer shook her head as Khadr spoke later, seeming to reject his apology.
Speer told the military jury that Khadr had the choice to leave with the women and children before the firefight broke out at the al Qaeda compound where he lived, but chose instead to stay and fight U.S. forces.
“Everybody wants to talk about how he’s the victim, how he’s the child. I don’t see that,” the dark-haired woman said. “He made a choice. My children had no choice. ... (They) didn’t deserve to have their father taken by someone like you.”
Khadr, now a 24-year-old with a full beard, bowed his head down as she testified and read letters from her children.
“I think that Omar Khadr should go to jail because of the open hole he made in my family and killing my dad,” 8-year-old Tanner Speer wrote. “Bad guys stink.”
‘BEAUTIES OF LIFE’
Khadr is the only person held responsible for the death of a U.S. soldier in Afghanistan, where more than 1,000 American troops have died in hostilities during nine years of an ongoing war.
Smiling at times, Khadr said he hoped to have a chance to experience “the wonders and beauties of life” for the first time when he was eventually released from the Guantanamo camp where he has spent eight years.
He said he hoped to become a doctor someday.
Khadr pleaded guilty to all five charges against him, including conspiring with al Qaeda to attack civilians, and making and planting roadside bombs for use against U.S. convoys in Afghanistan.
His plea deal calls for his repatriation to Canada in one year to serve the rest of his sentence, which is reportedly capped at eight years. If the jury issues a different sentence he would serve whichever is shorter.
The former top legal adviser at the Guantanamo detention camp, Navy Captain Patrick McCarthy, testified on Thursday he believed Khadr could be rehabilitated. He described him as a respectful young man who had a positive influence on the adult prisoners around him and often acted as an intermediary to help defuse tension in the camp.
Khadr is the son of an al Qaeda financier who took his family to Afghanistan when Omar was a boy, sent him to weapons training camp and apprenticed him to al Qaeda bomb-makers.
“Fifteen-year-olds, in my opinion, should not be held to the same standard of accountability as an adult would be,” McCarthy testified. “His father made a very informed, voluntary decision to become associated with al Qaeda. Mr. Khadr (Omar) was a child who was taken with his father.”
Editing by Pascal Fletcher and Will Dunham