U.S. defends removal of Guantanamo judge

guantanamo.jpgBy | The military judge in charge of the U.S. war crimes trials at Guantanamo Bay is defending the removal of the army colonel who presided over Omar Khadr’s case as critics of the process and the Canadian suspect’s lawyers continue to cry foul.

In a statement yesterday, Marine Col. Ralph Kohlmann said Col. Peter Brownback was removed because the army had turned down an application to extend his active-duty status.

“It is my understanding that this decision was based on a number of manpower management considerations unrelated to the military commission process,” Kohlmann wrote, noting that “as a general rule, it is inappropriate” to comment on such matters but that the controversy convinced him to speak out.

“My detailing of another judge,” he wrote, “was completely unrelated to any actions that Col. Brownback has taken in this or any other case.”

The surprise announcement of Brownback’s retirement came in an email to senior officials last Thursday. Khadr’s military lawyer, navy Lt.-Cmdr. Bill Kuebler then forwarded the email to the media, speculating that Brownback’s removal was politically motivated.

While Brownback has denied dozens of the defence’s motions — most importantly, one to dismiss the proceedings because Khadr should be treated as a child soldier and rehabilitated not prosecuted — he has also repeatedly frustrated the prosecution’s attempts to set a trial date.

There’s a push from the Pentagon to have a trial completed before the Nov. 4 U.S. presidential election in an effort to salvage Guantanamo’s tarnished reputation and criticism about the indefinite imprisonment of terrorism suspects without trial.

Kohlmann’s comments yesterday did not end the debate. Soon after his statement was made public, Kuebler sent a press release saying the explanation “raised more questions than answers.”

“Brownback was the judge on one of the first two commission cases to go to trial — are we really supposed to believe that `manpower management considerations’ would cause the army to remove him from such a high-visibility, high-priority assignment?” he asked.

Toronto-born Khadr, now 21, was 15 when he was captured in Afghanistan in July 2002 following a firefight with U.S. forces. The Pentagon has charged him with five war crimes, including murder in the death of Sgt. Christopher Speer.

He is expected to return to court June 18 for a pre-trial hearing.