Guantanamo's Youngest Detainee Pleads Guilty

The youngest detainee at Guantanamo Bay prison has pleaded guilty to terrorism charges. Omar Khadr was 15 when he was arrested in Afghanistan for allegedly killing a U.S. soldier. The plea deal avoids a war crimes trial, but Khadr faces a sentencing hearing before a military jury.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

A Guantanamo detainee has pleaded guilty to terrorism charges. Omar Khadr was accused of killing an American soldier with a grenade in Afghanistan. He was 15 years old when he arrived at Guantanamo Bay, and his youth became an international issue. NPR's Dina Temple-Raston is with us now to talk about it.

Dina, good morning.

DINA TEMPLE-RASTON: Good morning.

INSKEEP: She's with us live.

We should mention Omar Khadr is in his 20s now - his mid-20s. What did he plead guilty to?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, the plea agreement hasn't been formally released yet. But what we understand is that he pleaded guilty to being a member of al-Qaida, to conspiring with al-Qaida, to building roadside bombs and then throwing this grenade you talked about into an American Jeep killing this Special Forces medic Christopher Speer. So basically everything he was accused of he plead guilty to.

INSKEEP: So does that amount to a victory for the United States and for the Obama administration?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, the administration's been under a lot of pressure from the U.N. and Human Rights groups, because they said Khadr shouldn't be tried for war crimes before a military commission, because, as you said, he was just 15 when these crimes were committed. And so he was really a child solider, so he should be in a civilian court.

And the Obama administration held its ground on this and tried him in Guantanamo Bay. And he was supposed to be sort of this test case to show that the alternative to civilian courts - basically these military commissions -could indeed provide a fair trial.

But what ended up happening, is that this child soldier issue clouded the process, so I think the administration's relieved that he took a plea. And they've been trying for months to get him to plead guilty and Khadr had said he never would.

INSKEEP: Well, do you have any idea why, in the end, he decided that he would plead guilty here?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, a couple of things. I talked to people close to the case. And they said that it dawned on Khadr when his trial started back in August, that not only would a military court find him guilty, but they could maybe sentence him to life in prison. And he wanted to get out of Guantanamo and go back to Canada where his mother and his siblings live. And it looks like they worked that out.

He's likely to spend the next year in Cuba and then he can apply to Canada for repatriation and serve out the rest of his sentence there.�I mean, we don't know exactly what that sentence is going to be until a sentencing hearing finishes up later this week, but what we think we know is that he won't serve more than eight more years. And that's what the plea agreement lays out.

INSKEEP: So something in the neighborhood of - well, something between that one year and those eight years that you just mentioned. So he would be, instead of 24 years old as he is now, somewhere in the neighborhood of 30 when he gets out of prison. What happens to him then?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Exactly. He'll be in his 30s. Well, he would serve this year. And apparently then, you know, Canada, after he serves all this time, agreed to take care of his rehabilitation, getting him used to being back in society. But one of the things that nobody's really talking about is how hard that's going to be.�Almost all he's ever known is al-Qaida and Guantanamo.

His father was a financier for al-Qaida.�He was just 10 years old when his father moved the family to Afghanistan. Apparently Omar Khadr actually played with Osama bin Laden's kids and they lived in the same compound in Afghanistan.�And he didn't really freely choose to be part of al-Qaida, it was just part and parcel of his life. You know, his father had indoctrinated him. So Canada is going to have to find a way to reverse a lifelong process.

But no one's really talking about that.�You know, right now, both the Obama administration and defense attorneys sort of see that they have this behind them.�You know, the administration now doesn't have to answer questions about trying a child for war crimes, and defense attorneys don't have a client spending the rest of their life in jail. So I think they're calling this a draw.

INSKEEP: A couple of seconds, Dina. Are they still many questions about what's going to happen with other detainees as other court proceedings near?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Very much so. There's nothing in the pipeline until February, but that's when we'll see sort of the next military commission I think.

INSKEEP: OK. Dina, thanks very much.

TEMPLE-RASTON: You're welcome.

INSKEEP: NPR's Dina Temple-Raston this morning, giving us the latest on the guilty plea of Omar Khadr, on terrorism charges.

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