Guantanamo court resumes with squabbling lawyers

Mon Jun 1, 2009 1:07pm EDT

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* Canadian defendant fires most of his military lawyers

* Prosecutors want to further delay trials

By Jane Sutton

GUANTANAMO BAY U.S. NAVAL BASE, Cuba, June 1 (Reuters) - The Guantanamo war crimes court wheezed back into session on Monday to settle a squabble over which U.S. military lawyers would represent a young Canadian defendant.

Omar Khadr, accused of killing a U.S. soldier with a grenade during a firefight in Afghanistan seven years ago, tried to fire his entire Pentagon-appointed defense team, which has been beset by infighting.

"Right now I can't trust them," Khadr told the military judge. "They've been accusing each other and pointing fingers at each other ... I want to erase all of them."

The lawyers would not discuss the disputes except to say they disagree on what is in Khadr's best interest.

The clearly annoyed judge ordered the military defense lawyers to behave in a "professional and dignified manner." Then he let Khadr fire all but one of them until his Canadian advisers can help him choose a permanent replacement.

The hearing was the first since President Barack Obama took office in January and ordered the Guantanamo detention operation shut down by January 2010.

Military judges froze pending cases for 120 days to give the new administration time to decide how to proceed. The freeze expired and prosecutors have asked for another 120 days' delay as the Obama team sorts out which of the 240 Guantanamo prisoners should be tried, and where and how.

Khadr's judge will not rule on extending the stay until he determines which lawyer speaks for Khadr. He set a hearing on July 13 to revisit the issue.

The Pentagon's chief defense counsel had fired Khadr's longtime lead attorney, Navy Lieutenant Commander William Kuebler, in April and barred him from visiting Khadr.

But the judge, Army Colonel Patrick Parrish, said that was done without authority and temporarily reinstated Kuebler. On Monday, he let Khadr fire two other members of the team, and expressed annoyance that a third had already left to take a new job without notifying the court.

PATTERN OF CHAOS

The hearing continued a pattern of chaos that has plagued the Guantanamo court since it first convened in 2004.

Khadr was first charged in 2005 but the charges have been dropped and refiled several times as the court itself has been dissolved and reincarnated to address legal challenges and fairness issues that critics have called insurmountable.

Khadr was 15 and gravely wounded when captured in Afghanistan and 16 when sent to the detention camp on the U.S. Navy base in southeast Cuba. He is now a strapping 22-year-old with a short bushy beard and would face life in prison if convicted of murder and conspiring with al Qaeda.

No new trial date has been set and the Obama administration has not announced whether Khadr will stay in the military tribunal system. But the judge warned Khadr that switching lawyers would not necessarily win him further delays.

"It's not the first unfairness I'm going through," Khadr replied. "I'm expecting more unfairness."

The Obama administration is sorting the 240 Guantanamo detainees into four groups -- those to be released or transferred to other countries, those to be tried in the regular U.S. federal courts, those to be tried in revised military tribunals, and those to be detained indefinitely because they cannot be prosecuted but pose a threat.

Obama has been deluged with criticism, especially after announcing he would move some foreign terrorism suspects to maximum security prisons in the United States.

He also outraged liberal supporters with his decision to keep the widely criticized Guantanamo tribunals established by the Bush administration, but is rejigging the rules to limit hearsay evidence and ban the use of evidence obtained through cruelty and coercion. (Editing by Jim Loney and Alan Elsner)



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