Top U.N. official calls defendant a 'child soldier,' says proceedings violate international legal norms

By Michael Isikoff

GUANTANAMO BAY NAVY BASE, Cuba 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.