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Image: Courtroom sketch of Omar Khadr
Janet Hamlin  /  Pool via AP
Canadian defendant Omar Khadr, left, attends his pretrial hearing in the courthouse for the military war crimes commission at the Camp Justice compound on Guantanamo Bay U.S. Naval Base in Cuba, Monday, Aug. 9.
By Michael Isikoff National investigative correspondent
NBC News
updated 8/10/2010 9:14:08 AM ET 2010-08-10T13:14:08

A top United Nations official on Tuesday denounced the Pentagon's trial of so-called "child soldier" Omar Khadr at Guantanamo Bay, saying the proceeding was a violation of international legal norms and "may endanger the status of child soldiers all over the world."

"Since World War II, no child has been prosecuted for a war crime," Radhika Coomaraswamy, the U.N.'s special representative for Children and Armed Conflict said in a statement distributed by the U.N. on the eve of Khadr's trial here.

"Child soldiers must be treated primarily as victims … The Omar Khadr case will set a precedent that may endanger the status of child soldiers all over the world," he said.

The sharp criticism from the U.N. official created yet another public relations dilemma for Pentagon officials as they prepare to try Khadr, a Canadian citizen who has spent nearly a third of his life at Guantanamo, in the first military commission trial during Barack Obama's presidency.

And although Coomaraswamy has issued objections to Khadr's case before, the statement came on the day a military judge will begin picking a jury to hear charges that the defendant committed murder and attempted murder in violation of the "law of war" for allegedly hurling a hand grenade that killed a U.S. Special Forces medic in Afghanistan eight years ago.

At the time of the alleged incident, Khadr, now 23, was 15 years old.

Hardened al-Qaida operative?
Pentagon officials have vigorously defended their case against Khadr, portraying him as a hardened al-Qaida operative who boasted of his role in planting improvised explosive devices that would kill Americans in Afghanistan.

During a pre-trial argument on Monday, a military prosecutor said that Khadr — the son of a trusted associate of Osama bin Laden — had told a U.S. interrogator that "the proudest moment of his life" was when he hurled the hand grenade that killed Speer.

Asked for comment about the U.N. official's statement, Joe DellaVedova, a spokesman for the military commissions, said a military judge has already ruled that there is no age limit under the Military Commissions Act that would prevent the case against Khadr from proceeding.

But privately, Pentagon officials have acknowledged that the criticism from human rights groups over their decision to proceed with a case against somebody who was a teenager at the time of his alleged crimes has created awkward public relations problems.

Image: Omar Khadr
The Canadian Press via AP File
This undated picture shows Omar Khadr before he was imprisoned in Guantanamo Bay.
David Crane, a former Defense Department official, told NBC this week that when he served as the chief prosecutor for the International War Crimes Tribunal for west Africa, he specifically chose not to prosecute solders under the age of 18.

"No child has the mens rea — the criminal mind — to commit war crimes," Crane said.

The Khadr case is being watched nervously by senior Obama administration officials, who are well aware of the high stakes involved. Pentagon officials realize that their plans for trying as many as 40 Guantanamo detainees — including possibly 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed — before the new military commissions will rest in part on whether Khadr's trial is perceived to be fair and in accordance with established legal principles.

'Shame this process'
In a pre-trial proceeding on Monday, the military judge presiding over the case issued a ruling that, while it will greatly help prosecutors prove their case, could also prompt further criticism.

The judge, Army Col. Pat Parrish, ruled that confessions Khadr made at Guantanamo could be heard by the jury despite pleas from his defense lawyer that the statements were extracted by FBI and military interrogators only after he was threatened with rape and torture .

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Khadr, who sat through morning arguments reading a soccer magazine, reacted with disgust after Parrish announced his ruling in the afternoon.

"We're just embarrassing ourselves by being here," Khadr said, according to his Canadian lawyer Dennis Edney.

Edney said he tried to buck up his client up by telling him: "Our job is to shame this process."

Khadr's claim that he was tortured gained some credence last month when one of his initial interrogators testified that guards and interrogators at Afghanistan's Bagram Air Force Base, where Khadr was initially detained, sought to scare prisoners by telling them they would be raped by "big black guys" and "Nazis" in a prison in the U.S. if they did not cooperate. (Khadr has alleged in a court affidavit that he was threatened with rape while at Bagram.)

Khadr's military lawyer, Jon Jackson, on Monday invoked that testimony to argue that anything Khadr said later at Guantanamo — when he confessed to being an al-Qaida operative and throwing the hand grenade — should be excluded from the case. When he made those later statements, Khadar was still in Defense Department custody, Jackson said.

"He was still under the control of the same people who threatened him with rape and death," he said.

But one of his military prosecutors contended that Khadr's later statements were made to trained FBI agents who treated him professionally and with respect. In those statements, Khadr confessed not only to throwing the grenade that killed Speer but also to having undergone al-Qaida weapons training and being taught to make improvised explosive devices.

Rather than abusing him, U.S. military officials had said they acted swiftly when they learned that Khadr — who was badly wounded in the firefight with U.S. soldiers — needed emergency surgery to save his eyesight.

That was the reason he was flown to Guantanamo, said the prosecutor, Air Force Capt. Chris Eason.

"They went the extra mile for this guy," he said.

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Video: 'Child soldier' Gitmo trial draws criticism

Photos: Guantanamo Bay detention center

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  1. A U.S. military guard arrives for work at Camp Delta in the Guantanamo Bay detention center on March 30, 2010. Two days after his inauguration in January 2009, President Barack Obama signed an executive order to close the facility in one year and review each detainee’s case individually, but he has missed the deadline by months and has struggled to transfer, try or release the remaining detainees. (These pictures have been reviewed by the U.S. military.) (John Moore / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Detainees prepare to eat lunch at Camp 6 in the Guantanamo Bay detention center on March 30, 2010. The U.S. military currently holds 183 detainees at Guantanamo, including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the self-described mastermind of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. The detention center has held nearly 780 detainees in an assortment of camps that were built to accommodate different levels of security. In Camp 6, detainees spend at least 22 hours a day in single-occupancy cells. (John Moore / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. In this picture, a detainee stands in Guantanamo’s Camp 6, his face obscured by a wire fence. There are strict rules on the publication of photographs of detainees – any distinguishing features or clear pictures of detainees’ faces are not allowed past Guantanamo’s gates. (John Moore / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. A detainee reads a magazine in the library at Camp 6. One of the obstacles President Obama faces in shutting down the detention facility is that Congress has blocked funding for a plan that would transfer some detainees to a prison in the United States. (John Moore / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. The Department of Justice is currently reviewing each detainee’s case individually and categorizing them into three groups: those who face trial, those who will be transferred to detention facilities in other countries, and those who are deemed a danger but cannot released or tried because of sensitive evidence – and must continue to be held. There are 48 detainees in this category. Here, detainees prepare to eat lunch at Camp 6. (John Moore / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. In this photo, a detainee attends a class in "life skills" inside Camp 6. In November 2009, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and four other Sept. 11 suspects would be prosecuted in a federal court in New York City, setting off a heated debate that put the White House on the defense and has forced it to reconsider the plan. The Obama administration has also designated six detainees for trial by military tribunal, including Canadian Omar Khadr, whose trial will be the first at Guantanamo during the Obama presidency. (Brennan Linsley / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. A U.S. Navy guard prepares to escort a detainee after a "life skills" class in Camp 6. Meantime, the war crimes tribunal convened in Guantanamo on April 28, 2010, to decide what evidence can be used against Omar Khadr, a Canadian citizen who was just 15 when he was detained in Afghanistan in 2002. (John Moore / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Congressional Republicans and some Democrats oppose the plan to prosecute detainees in federal courts because that would give suspects full U.S. legal rights and could lead to the release of dangerous terrorists. Supporters, however, say military courts unfairly limit defendants’ rights and contend that federal courts are just as capable of bringing suspects to justice. In this photo, U.S. Army guards are briefed at the Guantanamo Bay detention center on March 30, 2010. (John Moore / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. A U.S. Army soldier patrols past a guard tower at Camp Delta. A final difficulty in closing the detention facility is skepticism about how well some countries would monitor and rehabilitate detainees transferred there – and whether they would be at risk of being recruited into terror networks. Yemen, in particular, is under scrutiny after the failed Christmas Day airplane bombing by Nigerian Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who is believed to have been trained by al-Qaida in Yemen. The Obama administration has since suspended all transfers to Yemen. (John Moore / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
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