SALT LAKE CITY — An American soldier blinded in Afghanistan and the widow of another soldier killed there have filed a $44.7 million wrongful death and injury lawsuit against a Canadian man who was held at Guantanamo Bay and pleaded guilty to committing war crimes when he was 15.
Layne Morris of Utah and Tabitha Speer of North Carolina filed their lawsuit Friday in federal court in Utah against Omar Khadr, who signed a plea deal in 2010 that he committed five war crimes, including the killing of U.S. soldier Christopher Speer, in 2002.
As part of the deal, Khadr admitted to throwing the grenade that killed Speer and injured other soldiers, including Morris, who lost sight in one eye from the shrapnel, the lawsuit states. The Toronto-born Khadr is serving the remainder of his eight-year sentence in Canada.
Morris and Tabitha Speer are concerned that Khadr might get his hands on money from a $20 million wrongful imprisonment lawsuit he filed against the Canadian government, said Don Winder, a Salt Lake City-based attorney who is representing them.
“We don’t know if he’ll ever have any money, but we need to make sure that we’re doing the right thing and the principles are right, Winder said, noting that Morris is dealing with his injuries and Tabitha Speer is raising two children without any income from her husband.
The lawsuit seeks damages for Speer’s wrongful death and distress to Speer for suffering from his injuries before dying, in addition to damages for Morris and his wife.
Dennis Edney, a Canadian attorney who has represented Khadr, said in an emailed statement Monday that the Utah case seeks “to avoid a trial on the facts” without allowing Khadr to tell his side of the story.
Khadr has previously said the facts of the 2010 plea deal are false and Khadr signed it so he could return to Canada.
Khadr’s military trial drew criticism because he was captured at age 15 and seriously wounded during a four-hour battle at an Afghanistan al-Qaida compound in 2002. Khadr’s lawyers and human rights groups contended he was groomed to be “child soldier” and should have been sent home for rehabilitation.
They said Speer died in a battlefield killing that did not amount to a war crime.
Khadr was prohibited under the deal from calling witnesses at his sentencing hearing who would support defense claims that he was a “child soldier,” forced into fighting the U.S. by a radical father who was an associate of Osama bin Laden.
“The fact that the trial of a child soldier, Omar Khadr, has ended with a guilty plea in exchange for his eventual release to Canada does not change the fact that fundamental principles of law and due process were long since abandoned in Omar’s case,” Edney said in 2010.
Military prosecutors in the case portrayed Khadr as a dangerous terrorist. Khadr spent 10 years at Guantanamo, the U.S. naval base in Cuba, and was transferred to Canada in 2012 to serve the remainder of his sentence.
Mark Denbeaux, a law professor at Seton Hall University who has represented Guantanamo detainees, said he’s never heard of a similar lawsuit filed against a detainee. He called the case “odd” and “quixotic,” and said there are a variety of legal questions that make it hard to calculate what barriers the lawsuit could face.
Denbeaux questioned how Morris and Speer could expect to recover any money from Khadr unless he wins his wrongful imprisonment lawsuit in Canada. If Khadr is found to have been wrongfully imprisoned, that could undermine the claims made in the Utah lawsuit.
Additionally, Denbeaux said the Utah lawsuit could open the door for Khadr to seek damages of his own in the U.S.
Lawsuits filed by detainees over their treatment by the U.S. government have been dismissed, with judges ruling that federal courts don’t have the authority to hear such claims under the 2006 Military Commissions Act.
If Khadr can be sued in Utah, Denbeaux said that could open the door for his attorneys to attempt to recover damages in the U.S. by filing a counterclaim.
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