March 2, 2012
Guantánamo briefly emerged from the
shadows on Wednesday, February 29, when Majid Khan, a Pakistani
national described as one of 14 "high-value detainees" when
he arrived at Guantánamo in September 2006, after
three and a half years in secret CIA
prisons, appeared in public for the first time since his capture almost nine
Khan, now 32, pleaded guilty to five charges — conspiracy,
murder and attempted murder in violation of the law of war, providing material
support for terrorism, and spying — as part of a plea deal designed to
help him avoid spending the rest of his life imprisoned, and to help the U.S.
authorities to prosecute other "high-value detainees" also
held in Guantánamo.
A resident of Baltimore from 1996 onwards, Khan was granted asylum in
1998, graduated from high school in 1999, and worked in computing. In
January 2002, he traveled to Pakistan, was introduced
to Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the "high-value detainee" who
stated in his tribunal
at Guantánamo in 2007 that he was the mastermind of
the 9/11 attacks, and apparently became involved with al-Qaeda until his
capture at his home in Karachi on March 5, 2003.
His charge sheet states that he conspired with Khalid Sheikh Mohammed
to blow up fuel tanks in the United States and to assassinate Pakistan’s president,
Pervez Musharraf, although neither of those plots materialized. In contrast,
Khan did apparently take $50,000 from Pakistan to Thailand as funding for the
terrorist group Jemaah Islamiyah, whose attack on a
hotel in Jakarta, Indonesia, in August 2003 killed eleven people.
However, he was already in U.S. custody at the time of that attack —
in a secret CIA prison, as he explained in his hearing at Guantánamo
on Wednesday. He was held "illegally,"
he said, adding, "I was kidnapped." Although Carol
Rosenberg in the
Miami Herald noted that, in the courtroom, he "agreed that he made the plea voluntarily,"
she also noted that he "seemed baffled by the conspiracy portion of
"Even though I delivered the money,"
he said, "I did not know where the money was going. I was not aware of
the conspiracy." Further diminishing his
supposed significance, he "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-Qaeda." Explaining his misgivings about that particular
charge, he said, "I never met him, obviously."
In exchange for his cooperation, Khan’s sentence is reported to be
capped at 19 years, although he will not know for certain until
four years’ time, when he is officially sentenced — allowing
time for him to prove his willingness to testify against other prisoners —
presumably including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. Maybe this is fair, but it seems
like yet another example of the kind of invented justice that is typical of the
military commissions, especially when other factors are considered — e.g., Khan’s
torture during his 42 months in secret detention, which, conveniently for the
authorities, he has agreed not to discuss until after his release. He has also
agreed never to try to sue those responsible for it.
Nevertheless, Khan’s torture is barely hidden and it
clearly makes the authorities jumpy. In the hearing, as the
New York Times reported, when
he said, "'Basically, you’re
saying I can’t sue the CIA or any agency for what happened to me,’
security officers briefly stopped the video feed and blocked sound from the
courtroom with loud static."
Absurd to say, Khan was also required to acknowledge that, even after his
sentence is served, "he could be held endlessly as an ordinary
'enemy combatant’ for 'the rest of my life.’" Asked how he felt about this, he told
the judge, Army Col. James Pohl, "I’m making a leap of faith
here, sir. That’s all I can do."
Beyond Majid Khan’s immediate case,
however, what Wednesday’s proceedings ought to do is to
remind those watching Guantánamo that 170
other men are still held and that most of them are not being given the opportunity
to cut deals to get out of the prison, even in 19 years’ time. That is
not because they are regarded as particularly significant, like Khan. Rather, it is because the
interagency Guantánamo Review Task Force established by Barack Obama
to review all the prisoners’ cases in 2009
recommended only 36 prisoners for
trial — or plea deals.
Eighty-nine other prisoners were
cleared for release. Nevertheless, they remain
held either because it is unsafe for them to be repatriated, and no other
country has been found that is prepared to take them (including the United States), or
because they are Yemenis, and the administration and Congress both believe that
it is appropriate
to release cleared prisoners to Yemen because of security concerns. That is nothing
less than "guilt by nationality," and it ought
to be unacceptable in a supposedly civilized society.
Forty-six others are even more unfortunate, as they were
for indefinite detention without charge or trial on the
distinctly dubious basis that they are too dangerous to be released, but that there
is insufficient evidence for them to be put on trial — or offered a
plea deal — even though most of them are obviously regarded as less
significant than the "high-value detainees."
Add to this the recent discussions about
a handful of significant Taliban prisoners as part of negotiations preceding
the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan, and it’s clear that, although
justice may be negotiable
for those regarded as significant, it has disappeared completely for the
low-level prisoners and for those supposedly awaiting release, who have been
sacrificed through fear-mongering and political
The last living prisoner released from Guantánamo left in January 2011. Since then, two
more have left — but in coffins. One died
taking exercise; the other
committed suicide. Without some willingness on the part of those in
power to amend this terrible stalemate, others — beyond the handful
able to negotiate plea deals in exchange for testifying against their fellow
prisoners — will also find that the only way for them to leave Guantánamo is by dying.
Andy Worthington is the author of The
Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s
Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press) and serves as policy advisor
to the Future of Freedom Foundation. Visit his website at