GUANTANAMO BAY U.S. NAVAL BASE, Cuba (Reuters) - A Canadian who admitted he was a teen terrorist has grown more dangerous after being “marinated in radical jihadism” at the Guantanamo detention camp, a psychiatrist told a U.S. war crimes tribunal on Tuesday.
Toronto native Omar Khadr pleaded guilty on Monday to all five terrorism charges against him, including conspiring with al Qaeda to commit terrorist acts and murdering a U.S. soldier with a grenade during an Afghanistan firefight.
Now 24, he was captured at age 15 and has been locked up with adult prisoners at the Guantanamo Bay U.S. naval base in Cuba for more than eight years. At his sentencing hearing, the U.S. military jury heard from a forensic psychiatrist hired by prosecutors to meet with Khadr and assess his dangerousness.
The witness, Dr. Michael Welner, described Khadr as the angry and remorseless favourite son of a senior al Qaeda member, and as held in high esteem by other prisoners because he killed a U.S. soldier.
Welner said Khadr had been “steeped and marinaded in radical jihadism” among fellow captives at Guantanamo. Khadr memorized the Koran, grew more dangerous and devout and became a highly sought-after prayer leader, he said.
“He is the rock star at Gitmo,” Welner said, referring to the navy base by its nickname.
Khadr’s guilty plea made him the first person since World War Two convicted in a war crimes tribunal for acts committed as a juvenile. His lawyers argued unsuccessfully that he was a child soldier who should be rehabilitated rather than prosecuted.
Khadr’s plea deal reportedly capped his sentence at eight years, and if the jury’s sentence differs, he would serve whichever is shorter. His lawyers said U.S. and Canadian diplomats gave assurances Khadr would be released from Guantanamo in a year to serve the rest of his sentence in Canada.
The Toronto native could have faced life in prison if convicted on all counts during a contested trial.
He admitted making and planting roadside bombs in Afghanistan and murdering U.S. Sergeant 1st Class Christopher Speer with a grenade during a battle in which Khadr himself was blinded in one eye and shot twice in the back.
An FBI agent testified Khadr told him during an interrogation at Guantanamo that “the proudest moment of his life” was building and planting improvised explosives on a route used by U.S. military convoys in Afghanistan.
But in a stipulation of facts signed by both sides, prosecutors acknowledged Khadr had disclosed the bombs’ location to U.S. interrogators after his capture, allowing all 10 of the devices to be removed safely before anyone was harmed.
Khadr admitted that when he was angry with his U.S. jailers at the Bagram base in Afghanistan where he was held after his capture, the then 15-year-old consoled himself with the knowledge he had killed an American soldier.
“Khadr indicated that when he would get pissed off with the guards at Bagram, he would recall his killing of the U.S. soldier and it would make him feel good,” the document said.
Khadr said he knew all along that his late father, Ahmed Said Khadr, was a senior al Qaeda member who raised money to fund weapons training camps. The Khadr family had moved between Pakistan and Afghanistan since 1995, when Omar was nine years old, often staying at al Qaeda camps and visiting Osama bin Laden.
The elder Khadr arranged for his son to get basic training, then apprenticed him to a bomb-making group in Afghanistan in June 2002. Omar Khadr was captured after U.S. forces bombed and shot up the compound a month later.
He said in his statement that he had considered himself a trained al Qaeda terrorist who shared the group’s goals of killing Americans and Jews and “plundering their money.”
He also said he knew he could have left the bombmakers’ compound with the women and other children before U.S. troops started dropping 500-pound bombs on it, but decided instead to stay with the men and fight.
Defence lawyers are expected to present mitigating evidence about the effect Khadr’s youth and upbringing had on his actions.
Khadr is the second person to plead guilty in the tribunals during the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama, whose efforts to close the Guantanamo detention camp have been blocked by Congress.
He is the fifth prisoner convicted since the United States established the tribunals to try foreign captives on terrorism charges after the September 11 attacks in 2001.
Editing by Jerry Norton