As the trial of a former Guantanamo detainee proceeded peacefully in a New York courtroom today, U.S. military prosecutors in Cuba were reportedly scrambling to get Omar Khadr, the alleged child soldier on trial for war crimes at Gitmo, to plead guilty to murder. Plea negotiations are reportedly ongoing and his trial, set to resume Monday, has been postponed for a week.
In New York, the government is finally presenting its evidence against Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani, the first former Gitmo prisoner to be transferred to the U.S. for trial.
On Thursday morning, an FBI agent testified about the exhaustive investigation done at the crime scene after the 1998 US embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania -- just the sort of complex investigation that FBI agents are trained to do. Having arrived in Tanzania within 24 hours of the bombing, FBI agents secured the crime scene and analyzed and preserved 661 pieces of evidence. Some of that led to the discovery of pieces of the white Nissan truck that had been turned into a bomb, and to its string of former owners.
Unfortunately for the government, though, a broker for the sale of the truck on Thursday afternoon proceeded to contradict everything he'd told the FBI 12 years ago.
Some of the problems in the Ghailani trial are predictable, given that the government imprisoned Ghailani for six years without trial after capturing him in Pakistan in 2004. Because he was interrogated using "enhanced interrogation techniques" and possibly torture in a CIA black site, none of the evidence obtained there is reliable or admissible. And because the government still didn't put him on trial for four years after transferring him to Guantanamo, witnesses may now have a hard time remembering what they told the FBI when it investigated the bombings more than a decade ago. The investigation led to the conviction of four other men in 2001. All are serving life in prison.
What will happen in Ghailani's case remains unclear. As I pointed out earlier, the defense isn't contesting many of the facts the government is now presenting. Yesterday, for example, we heard a whole day of testimony from victims of the bombing -- horrifying stories of being buried under the rubble and finding severed limbs of colleagues and loved ones. Ghailani's lawyers aren't disputing that any of that happened, and conducted hardly any witness cross-examination.
But when it comes to proving that the diminutive Ghailani (friends called him Foupi, meaning "the little one" in Swahili), actually intended to participate in the bombing plot, that's where the government may have a harder time. Though we've already heard testimony that Ghailani, who was around 22 at the time, was at least with one of the people who purchased the truck, the government has yet to present any direct evidence that Ghailani knew what it was being used for. The prosecution's case will likely depend on arguing that Ghailani should have known, based on the circumstances. Given that the trial is expected to last for up to four months, the government will have plenty of opportunity to present its evidence.
Meanwhile, back at Guantanamo Bay, Omar Khadr, the "child soldier" on trial for allegedly throwing a grenade that killed a U.S. soldier, is reportedly considering pleading guilty and serving one more year at Gitmo, then returning to Canada to serve more time there. Whether he'll agree to plead guilty to crimes that don't really exist remains to be seen. (As I've explained before, none of the crimes he's charged with are actually war crimes that belong in a military commission.)
In addition to the legal flaws in the government's case, there's the problem that the military appears to have no forensic evidence demonstrating that Khadr actually committed the crimes he's accused of. That's in part because, unlike the FBI, military investigators don't carefully gather and preserve evidence at a crime scene, making a subsequent prosecution much more difficult. For all these reasons -- in addition to Khadr's likely anger and bewilderment at having been imprisoned by the U.S. for a third of his life without trial -- the 24-year-old Canadian may now have less incentive to cooperate.
Even if Khadr does plead guilty, the legitimacy of that conviction, and of the entire military commissions process, will remain in doubt.