GUANTANAMO BAY U.S. NAVAL BASE, Cuba (Reuters) - A U.S. war crimes tribunal on Sunday sentenced a young Canadian to 40 years in prison, but he may serve only a few more years under a deal that included his admission he was an al Qaeda conspirator who murdered a U.S. soldier.
Toronto native Omar Khadr’s plea agreement capped his sentence at eight years, in addition to the eight he has already spent in detention at the Guantanamo Bay U.S. naval base in Cuba.
The deal calls for Guantanamo’s youngest prisoner to be sent home to Canada in one year to serve the rest of his sentence. Washington and Ottawa exchanged diplomatic notes that said both governments supported the transfer, and acknowledged Khadr could apply for parole in Canada after serving one third of the sentence.
Khadr pleaded guilty last week to all five charges against him, including conspiring with al Qaeda to commit terrorist acts, making roadside bombs to target U.S. troops in Afghanistan, spying on American military convoys and providing material support for terrorism.
Khadr was 15 years old when captured in Afghanistan in 2002 and is now 24. He is the first person since World War Two to be prosecuted in a war crimes tribunal for acts committed as a juvenile.
Now tall and broad-shouldered with a full beard, Khadr stared at the seven U.S. military officers of the jury as the sentence was read, then seemed to smile in relief.
Tabitha Speer, the widow of the U.S. special forces soldier Khadr admitted murdering with a grenade, cheered and raised a fist in the air.
She later called the jury’s 40-year sentence “a victory not just for my family but for hundreds of families out there.”
Her husband, Sergeant 1st Class Christopher Speer, was among more than 1,000 U.S. troops killed in hostilities during the ongoing war in Afghanistan. Khadr is the only person held liable for any of those deaths.
A former U.S. soldier blinded in one eye during the battle that led to Khadr’s capture called the eight-year cap “an outrage” and the result of “political meddling.”
The chief prosecutor, Navy Captain John Murphy, denied he faced political pressure from the U.S. and Canadian governments to resolve a case that had dragged on for five years.
He said the plea deal provided certainty in the strongest terms — Khadr’s own admission of guilt under oath — and spared the Speer family from the possibility of appeals.
“This case is over today,” Murphy said.
The chief defense lawyer, Marine Colonel Jeffrey Colwell, said he did not think Khadr posed any risk at all.
Khadr was taken to Afghanistan by his father, a senior al Qaeda member who apprenticed the boy to a group of bombmakers who opened fire when U.S. troops came to their compound. Khadr was captured in the firefight, during which he was blinded in one eye and shot twice in the back.
“He’s not a radical jihadist. He’s a victim of his family, his father, adults, and he’s a victim of this system,” said Khadr’s Canadian lawyer, Dennis Edney.
Khadr’s father was killed by Pakistani police but his mother and several siblings live in the Toronto area.
Khadr is the fifth man convicted by the war crimes tribunal, established after the September 11 attacks in 2001 to try foreign captives on terrorism charges.
Only one other prisoner currently faces charges. The military lawyers were waiting to hear from the Obama administration on how to proceed in other cases, including that of five men accused of plotting the September 11 attacks. The Obama administration said they would be tried in a civilian court in New York but has seemed to waver on that.
“We’d just like somebody to make a darn decision so we can march forward,” Colwell said.
Human rights activists criticize the tribunals as a second-rate system rigged to convict that affords defendants fewer rights than regular U.S. military and civilian courts.
Prosecutors urged the jury to sentence Khadr to 25 years in prison, despite having already agreed to the eight-year limit everyone except the jurors already knew about.
“Having a false sentencing that is basically thrown out the window the minute the jury leaves the room does not look like a fair process in the eyes of the world,” said Andrea Prasow, who monitored the trial for Human Rights Watch.
Editing by Jerry Norton