US NAVAL BASE AT GUANTANAMO BAY, Cuba – The first Guantanamo trial of Barack Obama's presidency opened Tuesday with Canadian detainee Omar Khadr, who was captured by US troops in Afghanistan at age 15, facing a military tribunal.
Khadr appeared in the courtroom dressed in western clothing and a tie, as deliberations began in choosing a jury of military officers to hear the case of the 23-year-old who has spent more than a third of his life under US detention.
Khadr's US military lawyer Jon Jackson and military prosecutors will interview 15 officers before selecting at least five for the jury in the trial, which is expected to last at least three weeks at the US naval base on the southeastern tip of Cuba.
Khadr, accused of throwing a grenade that killed a US soldier during a July 2002 battle in Afghanistan, kept up the suspense about his court appearance until the last minute. In July he threatened to boycott the military tribunal process, which he criticized as an unfair "sham."
He is the last remaining Westerner at Guantanamo and the only detainee charged with murder, and he is alleged to have been trained by Al-Qaeda and joined a network organized by Osama bin Laden to make bombs.
Canada has not requested the young man's return, preferring to allow the US trial to run its course.
"It's very clear that the government of the US and the government of Canada have decided not to intervene in this case and therefore we are going to see the first case of a child soldier in modern history," Jackson said prior to the trial.
Khadr, who was seriously wounded in the 2002 battle in Afghanistan and lost vision in his left eye, has so far refused Washington's offer of 30 years in prison -- including 25 in Canada -- in exchange for a guilty plea.
On Monday Jackson sought the withdrawal of Khadr's statements he made at Bagram air base and at Guantanamo, insisting they were made under duress.
"Without question, Mr. Khadr was exposed to degrading treatment and threat of death," he told military judge Patrick Parrish.
But Parrish ruled in a pre-trial hearing that Khadr's alleged confessions can be heard, angering Khadr's defense team which labeled the decision "disgraceful."
Tuesday's court proceedings began with an official reading out the five charges brought against Khadr, including murder, espionage and material support for terrorism.
The 15 officers were told by the judge that the burden of proof rests with the prosecution, and that as jury members they would be instructed to reach their conclusions "beyond a reasonable doubt" but that they would not need to rely on "mathematical certainty."
The prosecution then began by asking the potential jurors questions, including "Does anyone consider it unfair to use statements the accused made?" The defense team will also query the officers.
Khadr's is among two cases to be heard this week. The other is the sentencing of Ibrahim Ahmed Mahmoud al-Qosi, 50, a former bin Laden bodyguard who pleaded guilty last month to conspiring to provide material support to terrorism.
The cases are the first to be heard since the tribunals, created by former president George W. Bush, were revamped last year by the Obama administration and Congress to give greater rights to defendants.
Since 2001, four men have been convicted of terrorism-related charges in Guantanamo military trials, two of whom pleaded guilty, while US federal courts have sentenced some 200 extremists over the same period.
There are now about 180 detainees left at Guantanamo, but the administration has yet to lay out a definitive timeline on how it will close the controversial facility.
Obama came into office pledging to shutter it within a year, but was unable to meet that deadline amid difficulty repatriating some detainees and determining how and where to detain and prosecute others.
© AFP 2013