GUANTANAMO BAY NAVAL BASE, Cuba — A tearful but defiant Army widow addressed her husband's killer Thursday, dismissing any suggestion that the actions of the former teenage al-Qaida militant should be excused because of his age.
Tabitha Speer spoke to Omar Khadr from the witness stand at the Guantanamo war crimes tribunal and said he made a choice to stay and fight at the al-Qaida compound in Afghanistan where her husband, a special forces medic, was mortally wounded by a grenade that the prisoner has admitted throwing during a four-hour firefight in 2002.
"My husband was a good man," Speer said. "You will forever be a murderer in my eyes."
Defenders of the Toronto-born Khadr, the last Western prisoner at the U.S. base in Cuba, argue that consideration should be given to the fact that he was only 15 at the time of his capture.
But the widow reminded Khadr, and the military jury considering his sentence, that he had an opportunity to escape the compound with other children and women who were permitted by U.S troops to leave at the start of the battle.
"You had your choice and you stayed," she told him in an hour of often emotional testimony that left some audience members in tears as photos of her dead husband and his two young children were played on a screen in the front of the courtroom.
Khadr bowed his head at the defense table and did not look up as the widow spoke to him. Later, he apologized to her in an unsworn statement, a maneuver that allowed him to address the court without having to face questions from the prosecution yet still make his most extensive public comments since his capture.
"I'm really, really sorry for the pain I've caused you and your family," said Khadr, standing in the witness stand. "I wish I could do something that would take away your pain."
As he spoke, Speer gripped the armrests of her chair and shook her head. After he stepped down, and the jury had left the room, she cried and hugged a victim's representative who has accompanied her to the court sessions.
Khadr has pleaded guilty to five war crimes charges, avoiding a trial that could have resulted in a life sentence and ending what has been one of the most heavily scrutinized Guantanamo war crimes cases.
The widow also spoke directly to the jury of seven military officers and urged them not to be swayed by arguments that Khadr, the son of an al-Qaida leader who was groomed for militancy from an early age, deserves special consideration.
"Everyone wants to say he's the child, he's the victim," Speer said. "I don't see that. My children are the victims."
Khadr, now 24, admitted killing her husband, Army Sgt. 1st Class Christopher Speer, as part of his plea deal. He also acknowledged placing 10 roadside bombs in Afghanistan and spying on U.S. convoys to assess the best ways to attack them. Prosecutors said Khadr was a terrorist and war criminal – a claim challenged by critics of the tribunals – because he was not a legitimate soldier in the battle.
Terms of the plea agreement have not yet been released. The jury has not been told the deal reportedly limits the sentence to eight more years in custody. Khadr's sentence will be whichever is less – the jury's verdict or the amount set in the agreement – and the U.S. has agreed to send him back to Canada after one more year in Guantanamo.
The U.N. representative for children and armed conflict urged the military tribunal to release Khadr and send him to a rehabilitation program in Canada, comparing him to other youths who have been recruited to fight by unscrupulous adults.
"In every sense Omar represents the classic child soldier narrative," Radhika Coomaraswamy, a U.N. undersecretary-general, wrote in a letter circulated Thursday.
Jurors in military tribunals are permitted to submit written questions and one asked Speer if she would feel differently about the circumstances of her 28-year-old husband's death had he been killed by a uniformed enemy soldier. Yes, she said, without elaborating.
Speer was born in Denver and spent his teenage years in Albuquerque, New Mexico. He joined the Army at 19 and ultimately ended up in the special forces, stationed at Fort Bragg, North Carolina.
His fellow soldiers testified he was so skilled as a medic that other troops brought their children to him for medical treatment, and said he was so committed that he ventured into a minefield to save two Afghan children days before his death – for which he received a medal for bravery.
His widow said that when she was told her husband had been wounded and had a head injury, she thought he would somehow survive. "There would be nothing that would keep him from coming home to his family."
She gave a harrowing account of informing the couple's daughter, who was about 3 1/2 at the time, that her father had been killed. The toddler sat on a couch, wedged between relatives, at the Michigan home of the widow's parents. Speer had just returned from Ramstein Air Base in Germany, where surgeons were unable to save her husband. Before she left, Speer had promised to bring him back, a pledge she came to regret.
"As I told her that she let out a scream," Speer said. "She didn't want to hear another word ... That moment, a part of my daughter died with my husband."
The daughter, Taryn, has worked hard to preserve memories of her father, such as playing the Elvis Presley and Dean Martin music he liked, but remains guarded in her feelings because of the traumatic loss of her father, Speer said.
"Someone who is so unworthy stole all of this from her," Speer said.
She read a letter from Taryn in which the girl told Khadr, "I'm mad at you because of what you did to my family."
Their son, who was 9 months old when Speer was killed, has no real memories of his father. "He was just simply too young ... The only thing he has are the photos." The widow said she keeps her husband's cell phone so she can still hear his voice.
In earlier testimony Thursday, Khadr received praise from an unexpected source – a former senior Guantanamo official who described him as a model prisoner, respectful and helpful to military personnel.
Navy Capt. Patrick McCarthy, the former top military legal adviser at the detention center, said Khadr was not one of the "radical" detainees who assaulted guards. At times Khadr even served as a mediator between Guantanamo officials and prisoners to help quell tensions among the long-held men at the U.S. base in Cuba.
"Mr. Khadr was always very respectful," McCarthy said. "He had a pleasant demeanor. He was friendly."
McCarthy told jurors he believes Khadr has the potential to be rehabilitated in part because of his age. "Fifteen-year-olds, in my opinion, should not be held to the same level of accountability as adults," he said.