Jury selection for the U.S. military commission trial of Canadian Omar Khadr began Tuesday in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
The Toronto-born Khadr, now 23, was captured as a teenager after a fatal firefight with U.S. special forces in Afghanistan in July 2002. He is accused of throwing a grenade that killed an American soldier involved in the firefight and has spent the last eight years in custody.
As his Pentagon-appointed attorney introduced him to the jury pool of 15 U.S. military officers drawn from across the armed forces, Khadr stood in a suit and tie and asked them in English: "How are you?"
The military officers in the jury pool, whose identities are shielded under court order, were asked whether they believed it fair to try 15-year-olds as adults. All said they did, depending on the nature of the alleged crimes.
Once a panel of at least five officers is seated, opening arguments will begin in a trial expected to last several weeks.
Khadr's case was dealt a serious blow Monday when Col. Patrick Parrish, the presiding judge, ruled the confessions Khadr made to police after his capture can be entered as evidence. The confessions include an admission he threw the grenade that killed the U.S. sergeant.
Parrish said he will also allow into evidence video purportedly showing the Canadian making and planting bombs in Afghanistan.
Pleads not guilty to 5 charges
Khadr faces five charges related to the death of the soldier, including murder in violation of the laws of war.
Khadr formally pleaded not guilty to all five charges at a pretrial hearing Monday.
At the same hearing, one of his lawyers argued that one of Khadr's interrogators had made threats of rape and death and that this should render his client's confessions coerced and unreliable.
Parrish rejected the argument without justifying it.
Khadr's Canadian lawyer, Dennis Edney, was upset by the judge's decision but said he was not surprised by it. He wore his expectations literally on his sleeves: "Guilty" said one of his cufflinks; "Not guilty" said the other.
"We think [Parrish is] just a toady," Edney told the CBC. "We've never won a single ruling. And what we hope to do through trial is speak to the jury. We don't have to speak to Parrish anymore."
Liberal Senator Romeo Dallaire, a retired Canadian general who served with UN forces in Rwanda and a well-known advocate for the protection of child soldiers, slammed Parrish's ruling and the trial process.
"What this kangaroo court has done once again is go completely against the international optional protocol of child rights and child protection," Dallaire said. "That is to say that 15-year-olds can be tried for actions taken in conflict when the whole world, including us, has said that we cannot do that."
Daphne Eviatar of Human Rights First says it will be up to the jury to decide whether Khadr's confessions, made while he was only 15, were spoken freely or under duress.
"They can still decide, 'Well, given the circumstances, we don't believe it.' But they're going to hear it all," she told the CBC. "It's certainly going to be a much longer trial now.