Khadr Admitted to Being a Murderer — But Did He Mean It?
Omar Khadr accepted a plea deal yesterday that called for him to plead guilty to all of the charges against him in exchange for serving one more year at Gitmo and then being repatriated to Canada to serve another seven years in prison. Predictably, the government is claiming that the guilty plea is proof that Khadr is factually guilty; as the chief prosecutor at Guantanamo colorfully put it after the hearing, “Omar Khadr stands convicted of being a murderer, and also an al-Qaida terrorist. The evidence… came from a source that the law recognizes as the most powerful evidence known to the law, and that is his own words,”
I don’t know whether Omar Khadr is innocent, although I suspect that he is — the government’s evidence that he committed murder has always been extremely weak, relying primarily on testimony elicited through coercive interrogation techniques, if not outright torture. But I do know that his willingness to plead guilty in no way indicates that he is factually guilty, given the unfairness of the military-commissions system:
Yesterday, when reporters asked Edney why Khadr might plead guilty, he said, “There’s not much choice.” Edney added, “He either pleads guilty to avoid trial or he goes to trial, and the trial is not a fair process.”
Indeed, the prospect of trial in the illegitimate military commissions system was an awful one. Khadr could have faced life imprisonment if convicted. Self-incriminating statements that were coerced out of him by interrogators at Bagram and Gitmo were to be used against him at trial. And under a new military commisions rulebook issued in the spring, he could not get credit for the eight years he has already served. Omar Khadr’s entire military commissions experience thus far has been a circus spanning several years, 11 lawyers, more than three arraignments, and multiple sets of rules since he was first charged in 2004. It has been plagued by legal and procedural problems since the beginning, and any result at trial would probably have been subject to years of appeals.
One of the dirty secrets of the domestic criminal-justice system is that innocent people often plead guilty, either because they are convinced they will be convicted if they go to trial or because a plea offer is so good that they are not willing to run the risk of a conviction. Khadr faced the same pressures — and the additional pressure of the Obama administration’s position that individuals acquitted in civilian courts or military commissions remain subject to indefinite detention under the “laws of war.”
Given the near-certainty that Khadr would be convicted, the possibility of a life sentence, the fact that any sentence would be in addition to the eight years he had already served, and the threat of indefinite detention, an eight-year sentence that would be primarily served in Canada was an excellent deal, especially as the Canadian government has already acknowledged that Khadr might be able to serve some of his sentence in home detention, where conditions are presumably a bit nicer than at Gitmo. Under the circumstances, Khadr had to take the deal — even if he was innocent.
In the weeks that come, we will no doubt hear many triumphant claims by the Obama administration that Khadr’s plea means that he is guilty and that the military commissions work. Unfortunately, nothing could be further from the truth.