In accepting the services of a military lawyer, Omar Khadr may have saved himself from a punitive sentence.
In a turnaround from the defiant position he took last week, when he sacked his US lawyers and stated that he would either boycott his impending trial by Military Commission, or would represent himself, Omar Khadr, the Canadian citizen who was just 15 years when he was seized in Afghanistan in July 2002, and who is accused of throwing a grenade that killed a US soldier, Sgt. Christopher Speer, has told his Canadian lawyers that he is now prepared to be represented by his US military defense lawyer, Army Lt. Col. Jon Jackson. His trial, which was scheduled to begin on August 9, will now begin at a later date, although pre-trial hearings will resume on that date.
This is probably a wise move on Khadr’s part, although it does shut the door on the perhaps remote possibility that his defiance could have prompted the Obama administration to put pressure on the Canadian government to demand his repatriation before the trial begins. As I explained in an article on Friday, “Defiance in Isolation: The Last Stand of Omar Khadr,” the Canadian government has a wretched record regarding Omar Khadr, having ignored demands for his return that have been issued by the Federal Court, and having also ignored a strongly-worded condemnation of its actions that was issued by the Supreme Court.
However, the prospect of a one-sided trial, boycotted by Khadr, might have made the Obama administration -- already unnerved by the implications of its own willingness to prosecute a former child soldier for war crimes -- so uncomfortable that senior officials could have attempted to exert extra pressure on Stephen Harper’s government to request Khadr’s repatriation.
On the ground at Guantánamo, these deliberations have, in any case, been studiously avoided by Khadr’s military judge, Army Col. Patrick Parrish, who was extremely unwilling to allow Khadr to represent himself. In a pre-trial hearing last Monday, Khadr began by declaring that he intended to represent himself, after firing his lawyers, but then, after a recess, announced his intention to boycott the proceedings entirely, prompting Col. Parrish to declare that he would not let Khadr fire his military lawyer if he intended to boycott his trial. Col. Parrish then “directed Lt. Col. Jackson to consult his professional bodies, including the Arkansas bar, as to his obligations regarding Mr. Khadr’s defense,” as the Globe and Mail explained.
Over the weekend, Lt. Col. Jackson responded to the judge’s order by stating that he was “ethically required” to defend Khadr, adding, in a robust defense of Khadr’s rights that also included a ringing denunciation of the Commissions:
Therefore, I intend to provide him with a zealous defense at his trial in August. Omar Khadr continues to be the victim in this case. I never envisioned a scenario in my career as an Army lawyer that would require me to defend a child-soldier against war crimes charges levied by the United States. I always believed we were better than that.
Khadr’s decision to accept Lt. Col. Jackson as his military defense lawyer, which Dennis Edney, one of his Canadian civilian lawyers, confirmed today, means that “a defense motion will proceed on Aug. 9, over the question of whether prosecution evidence against Mr. Khadr was obtained through torture and coercion,” as the Globe and Mail explained. The defense motion follows up on hearings in May in which a psychiatrist and a psychologist, commissioned by Khadr’s defense team, stated that, in their assessment, Khadr was traumatized by his experiences in US custody, and a number of interrogators -- some summoned by the prosecution -- revealed the dubious circumstances in which Khadr was first interrogated in the US prison at Bagram airbase, immediately after being discharged from the hospital where his life-threatening wounds had been treated, and, in one session, revealed that Khadr had been threatened with gang rape in a US prison if he failed to cooperate.
As the Globe and Mail described it, “If Lt. Col. Jackson had decided differently and that suppression motion not gone forward, it could have ended one of Mr. Khadr’s best defenses.” This is undoubtedly true, although doubts remain about the gray areas in the Commission’s rules regarding self-representation, and what the rules are if a prisoner wishes to boycott the proceedings entirely.
One person who has practical experience of these issues is Air Force Lt. Col. David Frakt, who told the Globe and Mail that, over the weekend, Lt. Col. Jackson had “turned to [him] for advice on how to proceed in Mr. Khadr’s case.” Lt. Col. Frakt was the military lawyer for Ali Hamza al-Bahlul, a Yemeni who produced a video for al-Qaeda, and for Mohamed Jawad, an Afghan teenager accused of throwing a grenade that wounded two US servicemen and an Afghan translator in a marketplace in Kabul in December 2002.
In Jawad’s case, Lt. Col. Frakt’s tenacious representation of his client was invaluable, leading to the collapse of the charges against him in his proposed trial by Military Commission, and, last July, a successful habeas corpus petition in the District Court in Washington D.C. that led to his release. In al-Bahlul’s case, however, all the issues raised last week by Omar Khadr emerged in a riot of confusion that severely dented the Commission’s attempts at credibility.
Since first being charged in 2004 (in the first incarnation of the Commissions, ruled illegal by the Supreme Court in 2006), al-Bahlul had expressed his desire to represent himself, and in 2005 this led to a crisis for his court-appointed military defense lawyer, Army Maj. Tom Fleener, who was obliged to represent him under the Commissions’ rules at the time. Speaking to GQ in 2007, Maj. Fleener explained, “The concept of compelled representation has always bothered the crap out of me. You just don’t force lawyers on people. You don’t represent someone against his will. It’s never, ever, ever done.”
When the Commissions were revived by Congress in the fall of 2006, prisoners were allowed to represent themselves, leading to some lively pre-trial hearings involving Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and four other men accused of involvement in the 9/11 attacks that furtherundermined the Commissions’ attempts at credibility.
However, as Sean Flynn explained in the GQ article, “there were reasons to be skeptical, to suspect that the provision wasn’t as clear as it seemed.” The Military Commissions Act stated, “The accused shall be permitted to represent himself, as provided for by paragraph (3), ” but paragraph (3) included “a list of caveats that allowed self-representation to be revoked if the defendant didn’t behave to the presiding officer’s liking.” As Flynn asked, “So what would happen if a man’s idea of representing himself was to boycott his trial? Would a lawyer be forced on him then? That wasn’t clear at all.”
In al-Bahlul’s case, the judge, Air Force Col. Ronald Gregory, responded to these problems by ruling that al-Bahlul could not represent himself, and this was how I described what happened next as his trial began on October 27, 2008:
As the court convened today, [al-Bahlul] sat in silence as his appointed military defense lawyer, Maj. David Frakt, announced that al-Bahlul was boycotting the trial, and that he had two specific reasons: firstly, because the judge had repeatedly denied his requests to represent himself, and secondly because he did not wish to be represented by a military lawyer.
Noting that he was obliged to respect his client’s wishes, Maj. Frakt then asked to be relieved, and when the judge, Air Force Col. Ronald Gregory, refused, he declared that he too was unable to participate. “I will be joining Mr. al-Bahlul’s boycott of the proceedings,” he said, “standing mute at the table.” He then refused to answer any further questions from Col. Gregory.
In response, Col. Gregory attempted to argue that Maj. Frakt was “obliged to participate,” as the Associated Press described it, and insisted, “The commission will not proceed with an empty defense table.” However, he then appeared to concede that it was not in his power to force Maj. Frakt to represent al-Bahlul, and determined to proceed with a trial based solely on evidence provided by the prosecution.
The result, as I explained in a follow-up article, was that al-Bahlul received a life sentence after a one-sided trial in which neither he, nor Maj. Frakt, uttered a word in his defense, which, of course, only succeeded in bringing the words “show trial” to mind.
Bringing the story up to date with reference to Omar Khadr’s case, Lt. Col. Frakt explained to the Globe and Mail that the problems he encountered in the fall of 2008 had still not been adequately addressed, and that “Lt. Col. Jackson’s conclusion didn’t come from a bar association or military directive” (Jackson himself “would not elaborate on whether the ethics opinion came from his Army judge advocate corps or his Arkansas Bar,” as the Miami Herald reported). Lt. Col. Frakt added that the lawyers in the Commissions are left “to sort of fend for themselves on these things,” and that their responses only arise after “lengthy discussion[s].”
“In these situations there’s two concerns a lawyer has,” Lt. Col. Frakt continued. “One is, ‘How do I represent the client and carry out the client’s wishes?’ And, two, ‘How do I not lose my license to practice law?’ … There’s an added layer of complexity in these cases because the court is ordering Jackson to represent [Mr. Khadr], but what does that really mean?”
Nevertheless, in Khadr’s case, as Lt. Col. Frakt also explained, the most crucial element is that he “needs an active defense.” He added that refusing to provide a defense or insisting on representing himself would have been “basically a recipe for getting convicted on all counts and getting a very lengthy sentence. Al-Bahlul was willing to sacrifice himself for what he saw as a greater cause, [but] Khadr, from my understanding he’s not a jihadist, he’s not a martyr. He’s just a scared, angry kid that wants to go home.”
Under the rules of the new Military Commissions Act (PDF, pp. 9-10), introduced by President Obama, who bears the ultimate responsibility for reviving Khadr’s prosecution by Military Commission, rather than in a federal court, the accused still has the right to self-representation, if he “knowingly and competently waives the assistance of counsel, subject to the provisions of paragraph (4)” (which replaces the earlier paragraph (3) mentioned above). This stipulates, as before, that the right to self-representation is dependent upon “deportment” and “conduct” that conforms “to the rules of evidence, procedure, and decorum applicable to trials by military commission.”
For now, at least, Omar Khadr has stepped back from testing the rules on self-determination, and is undoubtedly in a far better position to actually defend himself as a result of Lt. Col. Jackson’s assistance. As Lt. Col. Frakt explained in an article in May, this ought to mean that the government is required to explain how, under the Commissions’ absurd rules, he can be “charged with murder in violation of the law of war,” even though “there is no evidence that he violated the law of war” in allegedly throwing the grenade that killed Sgt. Speer.
If all goes to plan, Lt. Col. Jackson will be able to expose this absurdity, as well as other glaring holes in the government’s case, in Khadr’s favor (including airing the long-established claim that he never even threw the grenade that killed Sgt. Speer), leaving the unresolved issues about self-representation -- and the headache that will undoubtedly represent for the government -- for some other prisoner to raise instead.