GUANTANAMO BAY U.S. NAVAL BASE, Cuba (Reuters) - A U.S. war crimes tribunal on Sunday sentenced Canadian captive Omar Khadr to 40 years in prison for charges that included murdering an American soldier in battle, but his plea agreement capped his sentence at eight years.
That means the Toronto native will only serve eight more years, in addition to the eight he has already spent in detention at the Guantanamo Bay naval base.
His plea deal calls for him to be sent home to Canada in one year to serve the rest of his sentence there, although “The decision on that is solely up to the Canadian government,” said the judge, Army Colonel Patrick Parrish.
Diplomatic notes exchanged between Washington and Ottawa gave assurances that would happen, the lawyers said.
Khadr pleaded guilty on Monday to all five charges against him, including conspiring with al Qaeda to commit terrorist acts, making roadside bombs to target U.S. troops in Afghanistan, spying on American military convoys and providing material support for terrorism.
Khadr was 15 years old when captured in Afghanistan in 2002 and is now 24. He is the first person since World War Two to be prosecuted in a war crimes tribunal for acts committed as a juvenile.
Now tall and broad-shouldered with a full beard, Khadr wore a gray suit and stood to face the seven U.S. military officers of the jury as the verdict was read. He stared straight ahead, then seemed to smile in relief.
Tabitha Speer, the widow of the U.S. special forces soldier Khadr admitted killing with a grenade, cheered and raised a fist in the air as the jury’s decision was read in the hilltop courtroom at the Guantanamo Bay U.S. naval base in Cuba.
Her husband, Sergeant 1st Class Christopher Speer, was among more than 1,000 U.S. troops killed in hostilities during the ongoing war in Afghanistan. Khadr is the only person held liable for any of those deaths.
The chief prosecutor, Navy Captain John Murphy, denied he had faced political pressure from the U.S. and Canadian governments to resolve the case, which has dragged on for five years.
He said the plea deal provided certainty in the strongest terms — Khadr’s own admission of guilt under oath — and spared the Speer family from the possibility of appeals.
“This case is over today,” Murphy said.
The chief defense lawyer, Marine Colonel Jeffrey Colwell, said he did not think Khadr posed any risk at all. Once Khadr is back in Canada, the Canadian government could choose to parole him before the eight year sentence is up, he said.
Khadr was taken to Afghanistan by his father, a senior al Qaeda member, who apprenticed the boy to a group of bombmakers who opened fire when U.S. troops came to their compound. Khadr was captured in the battle, during which he was blinded in one eye and shot twice in the back.
“Omar Khadr didn’t choose his parents,” Colwell said.
Khadr’s father was killed by Pakistani police but his mother and several siblings live in the Toronto area.
Khadr is the fifth man convicted by the war crimes tribunal established after the September 11 attacks in 2001 to try foreign captives on terrorism charges.
Khadr is the second person to plead guilty during the presidency of Barack Obama, whose efforts to close the Guantanamo detention camp have been blocked by Congress.
Only one other detainee is currently facing charges. The military lawyers were waiting to hear from the Obama administration on how to proceed in other cases, including that of five men accused of plotting the September 11 attacks. The Obama administration said they would be tried in a civilian court in New York but has seemed to waver on that.
“We’d just like somebody to make a darn decision so we can march forward,” Colwell said.
Human rights activists have long criticized the Guantanamo tribunals as a second-rate system that is rigged to convict and affords defendants fewer rights than regular U.S. military and civilian courts.
Prosecutors urged the jury to sentence Khadr to 25 years in prison, despite having already agreed to the eight-year limit that everyone except the jurors already knew about.
“Having a false sentencing that is basically thrown out the window the minute the jury leaves the room does not look like a fair process in the eyes of the world,” said Andrea Prasow, who monitored the trial for Human Rights Watch.