SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico – A plea deal that would reportedly keep a Guantanamo prisoner in custody for eight more years isn’t sitting well with a key witness against him: a former Army sergeant who was partially blinded and lost a friend in the firefight that led to the alleged al-Qaida militant’s capture.
Layne Morris said Friday that Canadian-born Omar Khadr should get at least 20 years in prison, and perhaps much longer.
“They ought to lock him up until he’s no longer a threat, and if that’s for the rest of his life, so be it,” Morris said in an interview with The Associated Press a day after Khadr’s lawyers disclosed they were negotiating a possible plea deal.
Khadr, who was 15 when he was captured following the firefight in Afghanistan in 2002, was originally scheduled to go on trial Monday at the U.S. base in Cuba. He faces war crimes charges that include murder for allegedly throwing a grenade that killed Army Sgt. 1st Class Christopher Speer, a special forces medic from Albuquerque, New Mexico. If convicted, he faces a maximum life sentence.
The trial began in August but was put on hold when Khadr’s defense lawyer fell ill and collapsed in the courtroom.
With plea talks under way, a military judge postponed the resumption of the trial, the first at Guantanamo under President Barack Obama. The war crimes tribunal is scheduled to reconvene Oct. 25 — but that could turn into a sentencing hearing if an agreement is reached.
Khadr’s lawyers and U.S. officials declined to release details about any proposed agreement. But the Toronto Star reported that a proposal already approved by the military would impose a sentence of less than 10 years, on top of the time he has already been in custody. Postmedia News, another Canadian outlet, said he would get eight, with one more in Guantanamo and the rest in his native country. Both cited anonymous sources.
There have been plea talks before, but Khadr himself has resisted, saying it would excuse the harsh treatment he endured during captivity. He also denies throwing the grenade that killed Speer.
The Khadr case is problematic for the U.S. because of his age and the fact that his father, who was killed in 2003, had close ties to senior al-Qaida leaders. His lawyers and human rights groups say Khadr was a child soldier, essentially brainwashed by his family, who should be sent home and rehabilitated.
But unlike most war crimes cases at Guantanamo, his involves specific American victims.
Morris, now retired from the Army and living in a suburb of Salt Lake City, Utah, is scheduled to travel to Guantanamo to testify as a witness. He said he appreciates the challenge that prosecutors face with the case but nevertheless hopes for a longer sentence.
“Knowing the facts of the case, I would think your average American would be disappointed that somebody who had demonstrated the capacity and the willingness to kill American soldiers would get a mere eight years,” he said in a phone interview. “That seems short to me.”
Morris was blinded in his right eye during the assault on the militant stronghold in which Speer was killed. He said he doesn’t seek a longer sentence out of vengeance but for the sake of his comrade’s family and because he believes Khadr, now 24, remains a danger to the U.S. It wouldn’t matter to him whether Khadr serves prison time in Guantanamo, Canada or somewhere in the U.S.
“He should get 20 years and then be evaluated to see if he is still a security threat,” Morris said. “And if he is, then he can do another 20 years. And if he has somehow seen the error of his ways, and if someone wants to take a chance with him somewhere in Canada, I would be OK with it.”