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Guantanamo trial a key test for Obama administration


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By Michael Isikoff
National investigative correspondent

The Obama administration is facing the first big road test of its new military commission system when the Pentagon early next week convenes the long-delayed trial of Omar Khadr, a Canadian citizen accused of lobbing a hand grenade that killed a U.S. soldier in a firefight in Afghanistan eight years ago.

Khadr, now 23, was 15 years old at the time of his 2002 capture. He is scheduled to go to trial Tuesday at the U.S. military base at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba on charges that include conspiring to commit terrorism and murdering a U.S. soldier. (The U.S. Supreme Court on Friday refused to halt the trial.)

A successful conviction in a trial that is perceived internationally as fair may be key to administration plans to try 30 to 40 detainees under new military commission rules that were approved by Congress last year and signed by President Barack Obama.

It also could bolster the arguments of those inside the administration who want Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and other Sept. 11 co-conspirators to be tried before military commissions, rather than a civilian court, as Attorney General Eric Holder originally proposed.

But the case is fraught with ironies and has caused more than a few headaches for senior administration officials. The trial will take place at “Camp Justice,” the high-tech courtroom at the U.S. detention facility in Guantanamo — the very same base that Obama once pledged to close but which remains very much open for business with no prospect it will be shuttered anytime soon.

The case also involves a defendant who at the time of the alleged offense was only 15. That has caused Khadr to be dubbed “the child soldier” and made his case a cause celebre for international human rights groups, who have condemned the entire idea of prosecuting a minor for war crimes.

“It’s beyond me why they insist on going forward with this,” said Jameel Jaffer, the director of national security project for the American Civil Liberties Union. “I can’t imagine anybody in the Obama administration sees this as a proud moment.”
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