Early last month, Col. Peter E. Brownback III, the judge presiding over the case of Omar Ahmed Khadr at Guantanamo Bay, put his foot down. The prosecution had to hand over documents detailing Khadr's medical, interrogation and incarceration records to his defense attorney, or the case would not proceed.
Now, less than a month later, Brownback has quietly been replaced. It's just the latest development at Gitmo to cause suspicion among human rights groups and defense lawyers that Pentagon officials are more concerned with scoring a PR coup than with justice.
It's an understatement to say that the military commissions at Guantanamo Bay have not gone speedily. Innumerable complications, such as multiple legal appeals all the way to the Supreme Court (many successful) and allegations of torture, have seen to that. Six years after the prison opened, the commissions have resulted in a single guilty plea. (The detainee in that case was Australian David Hicks, who as part of his plea deal was sent back to Australia and then months later, released.)
Still, administration officials and prosecutors have been trying to move things along. And Brownback's rulings repeatedly frustrated the case's progress. Last summer, he dismissed the government's case against Khadr, a ruling that was overturned on appeal. During a later hearing, Brownback said that Pentagon officials had made clear they "didn't like" his ruling.
He must have made himself no more popular with his insistence that the prosecution turn over Khadr's records, another decision that threatened to grind the trial to a halt. Brownback had said that the prosecutor in the case had "badgered and beaten and bruised" him in an effort to get Brownback to set a trial date.
Khadr's case is expected to be among the first to go to trial at Gitmo. And besides the looming prosect of the Supreme Court's impending decision on the constitutionality of the commissions, Khadr's lawyer also says that prosecutors are eager to get the case moving before Canada demands his repatriation. Khadr, a 21-year-old Canadian citizen, is charged with killing a U.S. soldier in Afghanistan.
No one at the Defense Department has explained why Brownback was replaced. The Pentagon has not commented, and a tribunal spokesman only said that the move was a "mutual decision" between Brownback and the Army. No reporter has been able to contact Brownback himself for an explanation.
But if you're looking for an explanation, Khadr's defense lawyer, Lt. Cmdr. William C. Kuebler, has a simple observation: “The judge who was frustrating the government’s forward progress in the Khadr case is suddenly gone.”