By EVAN PEREZ
The U.S. military is moving ahead with the first trial under the Obama administration's new military commissions, despite U.S. officials' concerns about starting with a Guantanamo-detainee case beset by troubles.
Barring a last-minute plea deal, the trial of Canadian Omar Khadr, 15 years old when he was captured on the battlefield in Afghanistan in 2002, is expected to begin with jury selection as early as Aug. 9.
He is accused of throwing a grenade that killed a U.S. soldier. The U.S. says Mr. Khadr, now 23, admitted to interrogators that he threw the grenade and planted land mines to kill U.S. soldiers.
Mr. Khadr's lawyers say he didn't throw the grenade and allege that Mr. Khadr was threatened by a military interrogator with rape. Military prosecutors say that Mr. Khadr wasn't mistreated and that the court will decide whether the interrogation was appropriate.
International human-rights groups call Mr. Khadr a "child soldier," and his case is major news in Canada.
In recent weeks, Mr. Khadr has fired his attorneys and threatened to boycott the trial, though he has since allowed his military lawyer to continue his defense. On Monday, Mr. Khadr's lawyer filed a last-ditch request with the U.S. Supreme Court seeking to halt the tribunal.
Military commissions have had a topsy-turvy history since the Bush administration conceived them shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks as a means of trying "illegal enemy combatants." They were retooled after U.S. court rulings called into question legal safeguards for detainees.
Last year, Congress added protections for defendants at the request of President Barack Obama. The new rules tighten the kind of evidence that can be introduced and exclude statements elicited through cruel or degrading treatment.
On July 7, in the first conviction of the Obama-era commissions, Ibrahim al Qosi, an alleged al Qaeda operative, entered into a plea agreement with military prosecutors and admitted to providing support to terrorists. Sentencing is set for Aug. 9. His is the fourth conviction won in the tribunals since 2001.
Given the tensions over Mr. Khadr's case, White House and Justice Department officials earlier this year urged the Defense Department not to make his the first trial under what the administration describes as a much-improved military-tribunal system, according to U.S. officials familiar with the matter.
A senior Defense Department official disputed that the department had gotten such advice from the White House or the Justice Department, saying the decision whether to proceed with the Khadr trial was the Pentagon's alone.
The Defense official said the government has encouraged plea negotiations in the Khadr case. "We're aware of the circumstances of this case," this person said.
Lt. Col. Jon S. Jackson, Mr. Khadr's military attorney, said: "If the prosecution of Omar Khadr continues, it will echo forever in future situations of children affected by war."
In a May letter to Dennis Edney, his Canadian attorney, Mr. Khadr wrote: "If the world sees the U.S. sentencing a child to life in prison, it might show the world how unfair and sham this process is."
Mr. Khadr's defense centers on his youth and the fact he has spent a third of his life at Guantanamo. Mr. Edney says Mr. Khadr was abused both by U.S. authorities and by his family in taking him from Canada to a place where he could be put in harm's way.
Pentagon officials say the controversy surrounding Mr. Khadr doesn't mean the prosecution's case is weak, and they say a military tribunal is the right place to try someone accused of having the blood of U.S. soldiers on his hands.
"What distinguishes the Khadr case from many of the other cases at Guantanamo is that this is truly a battlefield case, so there's no doubt this is an appropriate use of military commissions," said Capt. David Iglesias, a Navy officer and a former U.S. attorney who is now military prosecutor with the tribunals.
As for the defendant's youth, Defense Department spokesman Col. Dave Lapan said: "His age at the time of the firefight is relevant only as a mitigating factor at a sentencing hearing. It is not unprecedented for juveniles to face the possibility of a war-crimes trial."
The issue of Mr. Khadr's interrogation has hung over the case. Military-intelligence interrogator Sgt. Joshua Claus testified in May that in a bid to obtain intelligence from Mr. Khadr, he told the detainee a fictitious story about another Afghan prisoner who was gang-raped in American custody, according to the Miami Herald. Sgt. Claus pleaded guilty and was sentenced to five months in prison in 2005 in a separate court martial related to mistreatment of prisoners in Afghanistan.