GUANTANAMO BAY NAVY BASE, Cuba — Majid Khan, a 1999 Maryland high school graduate who claims he was kidnapped by the CIA and tortured, walked into court in a suit and tie Wednesday and confessed to serving as a foot soldier for al Qaida. He walked out three hours later, taken back to a prison cell as a convicted terrorist turned government witness.
In between, the 32-year-old Pakistani native pleaded guilty to war crimes for joining the terror organization after the Sept. 11 attacks and moving $50,000 used to fund a 2003 terrorist bombing of a Marriott hotel in Southeast Asia. He also admitted to conspiring with the self-proclaimed 9/11 mastermind, Khalid Sheik Mohammed, to blow up fuel tanks and poison water supplies in the United States and to assassinate former Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf. Neither plot was realized.
But under a plea deal, he agreed to testify at future war crimes trials and postpone his sentencing until 2016 with hopes of eventual freedom.
“I’m making a leap of faith here, sir,” Khan told his military judge, Army Col. James Pohl. “That’s all I can do.”
Or as his Pentagon-appointed defense attorney, Army Lt. Col. Jon Jackson, put it: “For the next four years he’s going join to Team America, do the right thing to make sure that he has a chance for a productive, meaningful life.”
This was the first public sighting of Khan since security forces in Pakistan turned him over to the CIA in 2003. He was brought here in 2006, and captured in an intelligence photo released by WikiLeaks with the trademark full beard of a Muslim fundamentalist. Wednesday morning he walked into court, unshackled, sporting a neat goatee, dark suit and pink tie as he waived the right to a translator in flawless English.
“Sure thing, your honor,” he said, declining the offer of a court-appointed linguist. “Appreciate it, thanks.”
He also waved off a suggestion by the case prosecutor, Courtney Sullivan of the Department of Justice, that the judge give Khan a mid-morning prayer break.
The trial judge reviewed with Khan his signed “Stipulation of Fact,” a narrative confession-style guilty plea. Khan agreed that he made the plea voluntarily but seemed baffled by the conspiracy portion of the charges. Eleven people died in the Aug. 5, 2003 bombing of the Marriott hotel in Jakarta, Indonesia, and dozens more were wounded. But by then Khan was already in CIA custody.
“Even though I delivered the money, I did not know where the money was going,” said Khan. “I was not aware of the conspiracy.”
Khan also appeared puzzled by the portion of his signed stipulation that said he had conspired with Osama bin Laden by being in league with al Qaida. “I never met Sheik Osama, obviously,” he said.
Army Brig. Gen. Mark Martins, the Pentagon’s chief war crimes prosecutor, told reporters that Khan would likely serve 19 to 25 years.
But Khan also noted to the judge that, under war on terror policy, he could be held indefinitely as an ordinary “enemy combatant.”
Khan, whose family lives in suburban Baltimore, pleaded guilty to charges that included conspiracy, terrorism and murder in violation of the law of war as part of a secret deal that postpones his formal sentence hearing for four years.
In a portion of the hearing that was punctuated by a court security officer hitting a white-noise button to obscure information that was deemed secret, Khan also agreed not to sue over his CIA custody — or discuss it — until after his sentence is served. Khan’s lawyers filed a partially sealed habeas corpus petition in federal court in 2007 that alleged the former U.S. resident was subjected to “a sophisticated, refined program of torture operating with impunity outside the boundaries of any domestic or international law.”
The lawyer who wrote that brief, Wells Dixon of New York’s Center for Constitutional Rights, stood up at the war court and agreed to withdraw that lawsuit until the conclusion of Khan’s war crimes prison sentence. Judge Pohl did, however, grant Khan permission to include his treatment as a mitigating factor at his sentencing.
Under the plea deal, a military jury will hear the case and sentence Khan in 2016. The jury can order him to serve up to 40 years, after which a military judge would reduce it to at-most 25 years. A senior Pentagon official would then have the authority to suspend any or all of it. Once the sentence is over, it would be up to the Executive Branch to decide whether to keep him as a post 9/11 war-on-terror prisoner like the vast majority of the 171 captives here.
Khan becomes the seventh of the 779 captives who’ve been held at Guantánamo since 2002 to be convicted of war crimes, and the fifth through guilty plea as a means of release. He also becomes the first former CIA “high-value detainee” to be convicted at a military commission. Two other so-called high-value cases are in the war court pipeline.
Among those wounded in the Marriott bombing victim was Californian Patricia Pond, 62, who was brought in to this base for the hearing by the Pentagon. After the proceedings, she told reporters the punishment “seems fair.”
A General Electric employee from California, Pond was teaching a class for Indonesian workers at the time of the blast and was badly burned. She contracted HIV from reused needles at a Jakarta hospital in the attack’s chaotic aftermath.
“I don’t feel any anger or need for revenge against anybody.”