High Stakes Poker at GTMO

October 26, 2010

This morning Omar Khadr pled guilty, at a Military Commission hearing held in Guantanamo Bay, to five charges: murder in violation of the law of war, attempted murder in violation of the law of war, providing material support to Al Qaeda, espionage and conspiracy.

Omar Khadr was only fifteen at the time of the incident out of which the charges derived. By the terms of the International Convention on the Rights of the Child he was, at worst, a child soldier. The crime of material support was not even on the statute books. The charge of espionage makes him the youngest spy outside of children’s fiction.

The action at the heart of the case – the detonation of a grenade that killed a US Army medic – has been characterized as a violation of the laws of war. Or, in plain English, a war crime. Many legal scholars are incredulous at this characterization.

International humanitarian law states that a civilian on a battlefield who picks up a weapon becomes a combatant. The penalty they pay is that they become a legitimate target for the opposing force. Khadr paid this penalty in full – he was shot twice in the chest and lost an eye to shrapnel.

The government case against Omar Khadr was a weak one. There were no eye-witnesses to the central event. Khadr’s ‘confession’ was tainted by his entirely plausible allegation that it had been elicited through coercion. The film of him assembling an IED could not be tied to an actual attack. In a real court this was far from a slam-dunk.

However, a disturbing pattern is beginning to emerge at the Military Commissions. Knowing that the odds are so heavily stacked against them and the sentences facing them so out-sized, defendants plead guilty out of desperation, grasping at the straws offered by the Prosecution.

Plea deals, while doubtless an efficient method for dispensing with cases quickly, do not always represent justice being done. They resemble more closely a high stakes game of poker – the defendant reviews his cards and then decides whether to bet on the hand he has been dealt or cut his losses by folding.

The added twist at the Military Commissions is that the house gets to make the rules and stack the deck. Khadr had already written to Judge Parrish expressing his lack of faith that he could receive a fair trial. It seems that, having studied his cards, he decided to fold after all.

AIUSA will continue to campaign against the Military Commissions system – which offer justice for neither defendents nor the victims of terrorist acts. You can take action today by going to www.amnestyusa.org/911trials and sending an email to President Obama or Attorney-General Holder calling for federal trials.