GUANTANAMO BAY U.S. NAVAL BASE, Cuba (Reuters) - Canadian captive Omar Khadr strolled across the sun-baked yard in one of the communal camps at the Guantanamo Bay U.S. detention centre in Cuba, clearly aware that journalists were staring at him through the fence.
But under the strict “gawk but don’t talk” rule that governs media and prisoner encounters at Guantanamo, any member of the media who tries to talk to a prisoner can be expelled from the U.S. military base.
So none of the sweaty journalists shouted out the question on all their minds — “Omar, are you going to take the deal?”
Khadr is scheduled to return to the Guantanamo war crimes tribunal on Monday to reveal whether he will plead guilty or continue with his trial on charges that include conspiring with al Qaeda and killing a U.S. soldier in a firefight.
Khadr was 15 when captured in the rubble of a bombed-out al Qaeda compound in Afghanistan and has spent more than eight years at Guantanamo. He first entered the hilltop courtroom as a pimple-faced teen but is now a broad-shouldered and bushy-bearded 24-year-old who towers above many of his guards.
His lawyers said they were trying to negotiate a plea agreement but won’t comment publicly on reports the deal would let him serve one more year at Guantanamo, followed by seven years in his native Canada.
The U.S. and Canadian governments would both have to agree to any such deal. Both sides said U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke on Friday with Canadian Foreign Minister Lawrence Cannon, but neither would say whether they discussed the Khadr case.
Cannon’s spokeswoman refused to give details, but said, “Monday could be a big day.”
A plea deal would halt the trial that makes the United States the first nation since World War Two to try someone in a military tribunal for acts allegedly committed as a minor, a distinction the Obama administration is eager to avoid.
If Khadr pleads guilty, the judge, Army Colonel Patrick Parrish, would go through the five-count charge sheet line by line and ask Khadr to admit he helped al Qaeda operatives make roadside bombs, spied on U.S. convoys in Afghanistan and threw the grenade that killed U.S. Army Sergeant 1st Class Christopher Speer during the battle in which Khadr himself was shot twice in the back and blinded in one eye.
A sentencing hearing would follow, with the seven military officers on the jury hearing testimony from Speer’s widow, Tabitha Speer, and from at least one other U.S. soldier wounded in the firefight.
They would also hear testimony from psychologists who have met with Khadr and are expected to discuss how his upbringing affected his choices. Khadr’s late father was a confidant of al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and sent his Toronto-born son to weapons-training camps as soon as the boy was big enough to hold an AK-47.
The jury would then be asked to issue a sentence. If it differs from that specified in the plea agreement, whichever is shorter would be the actual sentence.
Khadr would be the fifth man convicted at Guantanamo. He would join bin Laden’s cook, his driver and his videographer, and an Australian al Qaeda trainee on the roster of war criminals.
Khadr would be the only person held liable for the death of a U.S. soldier in Afghanistan, where more than 1,000 U.S. troops have been killed in hostilities.
If Khadr rejects a plea deal, as he said he did with an earlier one, his trial would proceed and he could face life in prison if convicted in a case the United Nations has criticized as being “of dubious legality.”
His lawyers argued unsuccessfully that Khadr is a child soldier, who by law should be rehabilitated rather than tried in a war crimes tribunal.
The jury has already seen a video of Khadr making and helping plant roadside bombs, and would hear testimony from several U.S. interrogators who say Khadr gave them detailed confessions.
Editing by Philip Barbara