Warped Justice

In reaching a plea deal to end the prosecution of Omar Khadr, a former child soldier held at the Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, detention center, the Obama administration achieved its political goal of avoiding having this disturbing case be the first to go to trial under its revamped military commissions. But this is not a legal victory anyone can feel proud about.

Mr. Khadr, a 24-year-old Canadian, was captured in Afghanistan when he was 15. He was thrown into armed conflict by his Al Qaeda-linked father, who was killed by Pakistani forces in 2003. As part of the plea deal, Mr. Khadr admitted that he threw a grenade that killed an American soldier during a 2002 firefight and that he planted roadside bombs. In exchange, his sentence was capped at eight years. After a year, he will be allowed to transfer to Canada to serve the remainder of his term.

It is hard to know what to make of Mr. Khadr’s admission of guilt. It may be truthful or driven by a fear that going to trial would mean a life sentence.

That concern became more acute following an appalling pretrial ruling by the military judge. He refused to exclude from evidence incriminating statements obtained under coercive and abusive circumstances by Mr. Khadr’s interrogators — including someone who implicitly threatened the frightened and severely wounded youngster with gang rape and was later convicted of detainee abuse in another case.

The case had other troubling aspects. Usually in war, battlefield killing is not prosecuted. The United States argued that Mr. Khadr lacked battlefield immunity because he wore no uniform. On the eve of a hearing, commission rules were hastily rewritten to downgrade “murder in violation of the laws of war” to a domestic law offense from a war crime in order to avoid seeming to concede that Central Intelligence Agency drone operators who reportedly fly the aircraft from agency headquarters in Virginia and also kill while not wearing uniforms commit war crimes.

United Nations officials and human rights groups objected to the prosecution’s dubious legality under international law. They noted the dangerous precedent set by making him the first person in many decades prosecuted for war crimes allegedly committed as a juvenile.

Then there is the matter of Mr. Khadr’s abusive treatment in custody. One witness at his pretrial hearing told of seeing him hooded and handcuffed to his cell with his arms extended painfully above his shoulders. In January, the Supreme Court of Canada criticized his lack of counsel and inclusion in the “frequent flier” program, which used sleep deprivation to get prisoners to talk.

Under military rules, Mr. Khadr’s case still had to go to a jury after the plea deal for a verdict that is mostly ceremonial. In a shabby yet perversely fitting conclusion, the prosecution asked the jury to recommend a long sentence and called a forensic psychiatrist who pronounced Mr. Khadr “highly dangerous.” On cross-examination, it turned out, the doctor’s views were colored by the work of a notorious Danish psychologist, Nicolai Sennels, who has called the Koran a “criminal book that forces people to do criminal things” and urges Western countries to halt all Muslim immigration.

A plea deal of eight years is better, obviously, than requiring Mr. Khadr to live his entire life behind bars. But he has already been imprisoned for eight years. That should have been enough.

Editorial, Wall Street Journal

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Full article: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/11/09/opinion/09tue1.html