US NAVAL BASE AT GUANTANAMO BAY, Cuba – Military officials at Guantanamo Bay on Monday held the first open hearing of the Obama administration, in the case of a Canadian accused of killing a US soldier in Afghanistan when he was 15 years old.
The session highlights the many challenges President Barack Obama faces in changing the military commissions system and, as he has vowed, closing the prison at Guantanamo Bay, the US naval base in southern Cuba where 240 "war on terror" detainees are still held.
Judge Patrick Parish, a US Army colonel, has decided to publicly examine the arguments of the parties in the case of Omar Khadr, and the Toronto-born detainee immediately made it clear he wanted to dismiss his legal team, whose members he said have been bickering for months.
"For the past four months, there's been a conflict," Khadr, now 22, told the military commission in one of his first public statements since he was arrested in 2002 in Afghanistan, where the US government alleges he killed a US sergeant with a grenade.
"I can't trust them. I am going to excuse all of them but I can't represent myself," Khadr said, in some of his first court statements since his incarceration in the US "war on terror" prison here.
The proceedings were the first at Guantanamo since President Barack Obama's inauguration day on January 20, when he obtained a 120-day suspension of all terror cases here.
That request expired last month, but the prosecution has asked for a new suspension.
"We've asked for an additional 120 days to complete the review process," said US Navy Captain John Murphy, the chief prosecutor for the Guantanamo trials.
The request applies to 11 detainees who had been formally placed through the military commissions process by the administration of former president George W. Bush.
Murphy said the latest request was filed Friday and two judges have already agreed to the suspension. The move corresponds to an ongoing review by the administration of all pending cases at Guantanamo and of strategies to prosecute terror suspects.
"The administration needs to properly conduct the review to determine what forum would be the most appropriate to try them," he said.
Obama said last month that he would retain the special military trials, a system devised by his predecessor, but with some changes: banning the use of evidence obtained through coercion, limiting hearsay evidence and granting detainees the right to choose their lawyers.
Parish expressed his irritation with the detainee's military lawyers present and warned that Khadr should not be left without legal representation until a new hearing set for July.
He granted Khadr's request, however, but stressed that the defendant would need to maintain at least one attorney because "I am not going to allow you to go unrepresented until July 13."
Khadr said he would keep his lead lawyer, Lieutenant-Commander William Kuebler, who last year described Khadr as a "frightened, wounded, 15-year-old boy... wrongfully involved in armed conflict" in Afghanistan.
But the July hearing could be delayed, as Judge Parish also said he would consider the prosecution's petition to suspend debate until September while the government reviews the military commissions themselves.
"Apparently there's going to be some changes in the rules," he said, referring to the Obama administration's move to maintain the military trials but with alterations.
About 20 inmates are to face military tribunals under revised rules. US Defense Secretary Robert Gates has said about 50-100 of the terror suspects cannot be released and also cannot be tried in either military or civilian court. Others are set to be tried in US federal courts.
Some 50 detainees, meanwhile, have been approved for transfer, but only France and Britain have so far each accepted to take in one inmate.
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