ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
Today, the youngest detainee at the Guantanamo Bay prison pleaded guilty to terrorism charges. His name is Omar Khadr. He's Canadian and he was just 15 years old in 2002 when U.S. forces arrested him in Afghanistan. They said he was a member of al-Qaida and they accused him of throwing a grenade into an American jeep and killing a U.S. soldier.
NPR's Dina Temple-Raston is following this story and joins us now from New York. Hi, Dina.
DINA TEMPLE-RASTON: Hi there.
SIEGEL: Omar Khadr has rejected plea agreements in the past, what changed this time?
TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, his trial had started a couple of months ago, and he had pleaded not guilty. Even though he's been at Guantanamo all this time, he said he would never plead guilty to murder because he didn't throw the grenade that killed this American medic Christopher Speer. But in the meantime, I guess his attorneys appeared to convince him that there was a chance that a jury of military officers wouldn't only find him guilty, but sentence him to life in prison. And that seemed to focus his mind a bit. So he decided pleading guilty now was probably the better option.
SIEGEL: And what do we know about what's in the plea agreement?
TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, they haven't released it yet and probably won't release it in its entirety until later this week, after a sentencing hearing. I mean, basically what happens now is seven military officers will decide his sentence without any information about what Khadr has agreed to in this plea agreement. And they essentially issue the sentence for the record. And then the judge has the discretion to reveal what was agreed to in this plea. And if the two sentences are different, then the shorter one is imposed.
Sources tell NPR that the agreement calls for an additional eight years in prison. One of those years would be served in Guantanamo. And then Khadr would be able to apply for repatriation and serve the rest of his sentence in Canada.
Apparently Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has spoken with the Canadians and they've agreed to take Khadr back. That's a big switch. Until now, they've absolutely refused to interfere in the case. And Khadr is the last Westerner at Guantanamo. So it's a big deal if he actually leaves the base.
SIEGEL: Dina, what do you think this tells us about how the military commission system is actually working?
TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, they managed to get a plea deal. So to that extent the commissions have worked in this case. On the other hand, you know, human rights officials are saying Khadr should never have been tried before a military commission for war crimes because he was a child soldier. He was only 15 when the crime was committed. And there was a real concern that the trial would sort of cast a pall over the military commissions at Guantanamo because he was so young and that became the big issue.
SIEGEL: Yeah, what's the story here? How did he become involved with al-Qaida at age 15?
TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, his father was a financier for al-Qaida. And when he was just a small boy, he was born in Canada, his father moved the family to Afghanistan. And apparently Omar Khadr actually played with Osama bin Laden's kids and they lived in the same compound. Until now, you know, his age has been a real backseat issue. He was being tried as an adult. But now that the sentencing phase is coming up, his age is becoming more important.
I mean, what's clear in all of this is that both the Obama administration and his defense attorneys are breathing a big sigh of relief because the administration 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 his life in jail.
SIEGEL: Okay, thank you, Dina.
TEMPLE-RASTON: You're welcome.
SIEGEL: That's NPR's Dina Temple-Raston talking about the guilty plea today from the youngest detainee at Guantanamo Bay, Omar Khadr.
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