Majid Khan’s Sentence Ends, But, Disgracefully, He’s Still Trapped at Guantánamo, Along with 19 Other Men Approved for Release


Majid Khan, photographed as a student in 1999, and in recent years at Guantánamo.

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Over ten years ago, on February 29, 2012, Majid Khan, a Pakistani national held at Guantánamo since September 2006, and previously held and tortured in CIA “black sites” for three and a half years, agreed to a plea deal in his military commission trial at Guantánamo, admitting that, as an Al-Qaeda recruit, he had taken $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 12 people.

Khan, who had already been in a CIA “black site” for five months when the attack happened, was thoroughly remorseful about his actions, and agreed to cooperate with the US authorities, providing information that would help in the prosecution of others involved in terrorism, both at Guantánamo and elsewhere. In exchange, it was promised that his sentence would be capped at 19 years from the time of his capture; in other words, that it would be served by March 5, 2022.

At the time, his sentencing was due to take place in four years’ time — in 2016 — but delays in the broken military commission system, which I wrote about here and here, meant that he was not finally sentenced until October last year, when he was finally allowed to describe, in harrowing detail (as I posted here and here), his horrendous treatment at the hands of the CIA, and the authorities in Guantánamo, and also to explain at length how, as a young man distraught at the death of his mother, he was preyed on by Al-Qaeda members, taking advantage of his vulnerability. He also, as has been apparent throughout his imprisonment, once more apologized profusely for his crimes.

The military jury was so shocked by the details of Khan’s torture, and so impressed by his cooperation and contrition, that seven of the eight jury members took the unprecedented step of urging clemency from the Convening Authority for the military commissions, Army Col. Jeffrey D. Wood of the Arkansas National Guard.

In the end, Khan received a 26-year sentence, from the date of his plea deal in February 2012, but, as Carol Rosenberg explained in an article for the New York Times three weeks ago, on March 11 Col. Wood officially reduced that sentence to ten years, meaning that it ended on March 1, just four days earlier than the date that was first mentioned at the time of Khan’s plea deal back in February 2012.

As a result, it seems clear that the US authorities have known for ten years that Khan would be eligible for release in March 2022, and yet, it seems, in all that time no steps have been taken to prepare for his release. After Col. Wood’s sentence reduction was announced, Carol Rosenberg blandly declared that, “Now US diplomats have to find a place for him to go,” overlooking the fact that they have had ten years to prepare for this day, and have clearly done nothing about it.

Complicating matters — and adding to the requirement for US officials to have thought about this sooner — is the fact that Khan cannot be repatriated, because, as Rosenberg also explained, “His lawyers say he cannot be returned to Pakistan because, when he first pleaded guilty, he became a US government witness, and his life could be in danger were he sent there.” He also cannot be freed in the US, where he was a legal resident the time of his capture, because, as Rosenberg put it, “By law, no Guantánamo detainee can be taken to the United States.”

Wells Dixon, Khan’s lawyer at the Center for Constitutional Rights, stated after the sentence reduction was announced, “There is no basis left to continue to hold Majid Khan at Guantánamo. The United States must send him to a safe, third country where he can be reunited with his wife and his daughter, who he never met.”

The failure to prepare for the end of Majid Khan’s sentence is shameful, but it is typical of the US authorities’ continuing adherence to supposedly legal positions at Guantánamo that, in fact, fatally undermine the rule of law. At the time of his plea deal, for example, Khan was, as I described it at the time, 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.’”

The US authorities have never followed through on this completely unjustifiable position, although that is not because of any respect for the rule of law, but only because reneging on release dates stipulated in plea deals would undermine future efforts to persuade prisoners held at Guantánamo to cooperate.

Moreover, as I encourage everyone who reads this to recognize that the Biden administration has now been holding Majid Khan illegally for the last month, it’s also important to remember that the contempt for the law that permeates Guantánamo also extends to 19 of the other 37 men still held at Guantánamo, who have been approved for release by Periodic Review Boards, but are still held, and who, in one case, that of the Afghan prisoner Asadullah Haroon Gul, have also been approved for release by a US court granting their habeas corpus petition.

As Shelby Sullivan-Bennis, a lawyer for a number of the men still held, explained in an online discussion on January 30 this year, it is “appropriate to regard the men held at Guantánamo as political prisoners, because, as she explained, legally there is no mechanism whereby a court, in habeas corpus cases, or the Periodic Review Boards, an administrative, parole-type process, can actually secure the release of men who have ‘won their freedom.’”

Whilst it is reasonable to assume that the US authorities will act with some speed to secure a new home for Majid Khan, to protect the integrity of plea deals in the military commissions, the other men approved for release are still languishing in a legal no-man’s land where their release is political, rather than legally required, subject to the Biden administration reading the political temperature in the US — and especially in Congress — and acting, or not acting, accordingly.

And just so we’re clear what the real-life impact is of approving men for release but then not freeing them actually means, although 14 of these 19 men have been approved for release since President Biden took office, meaning that they have been held for less than a year since they were told they would be freed, one other man has been waiting for a year and half, another has been waiting for nearly five and a half years, and three others have been waiting for over 12 years, having been told that the US had no interest in continuing to hold them endlessly without charge or trial back in January 2010, when President Obama’s first review process, the Guantánamo Review Task Force, approved them for release.

Astonishingly, most people either don’t know or don’t care about these men — or how broken the system is that can approve them for release, but then not free them — but to those of us who do care this continuing injustice makes a mockery of any claims by the US that the bitter and ongoing legacy of Guantánamo is, in any fundamental way, being addressed.

* * * * *

Andy Worthington is a freelance investigative journalist, activist, author, photographer (of an ongoing photo-journalism project, ‘The State of London’), film-maker and singer-songwriter (the lead singer and main songwriter for the London-based band The Four Fathers, whose music is available via Bandcamp). He is the co-founder of the Close Guantánamo campaign (and see the latest photo campaign here) and the successful We Stand With Shaker campaign of 2014-15, and the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. He is also the co-director (with Polly Nash) of the documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (available on DVD here, or you can watch it online here, via the production company Spectacle, for £2.50).

In 2017, Andy became very involved in housing issues. He is the narrator of the documentary film, ‘Concrete Soldiers UK’, about the destruction of council estates, and the inspiring resistance of residents, he wrote a song ‘Grenfell’, in the aftermath of the entirely preventable fire in June 2017 that killed over 70 people, and he also set up ‘No Social Cleansing in Lewisham’ as a focal point for resistance to estate destruction and the loss of community space in his home borough in south east London. For two months, from August to October 2018, he was part of the occupation of the Old Tidemill Wildlife Garden in Deptford, to prevent its destruction — and that of 16 structurally sound council flats next door — by Lewisham Council and Peabody. Although the garden was violently evicted by bailiffs on October 29, 2018, and the trees were cut down on February 27, 2019, the struggle for housing justice — and against environmental destruction — continues.

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9 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    When I posted this on Facebook, I wrote:

    It’s ten years since Pakistani national Majid Khan agreed to a plea deal at Guantanamo, accepting that he had acted as a courier for Al-Qaeda, apologising profusely for his actions, and pledging to cooperate in any way he could with cases against other men accused of terrorism at Guantanamo and elsewhere.

    It’s also a month since his sentence came to an end, and yet, despite it being clear throughout this entire period that he would be eligible for release in March 2022, the US government has made no plans for his release.

    To add to this disgraceful state of affairs, the US government also continues to hold 19 other men who have been approved for release by high-level review processes, because, uniquely at Guantanamo, no legal mechanism exists to actually secure the release of men who have been approved for release.

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    Natalia Rivera Scott wrote:

    Your articles on him have been some of the most difficult to translate. Everything has been so cruel. The fact that the plea deal was ten years ago and he’s still there … US government monsters.

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    Yes, a harrowing story, Natalia – particularly, I think, his comments about how he told them the truth but they continued torturing him anyway.

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    Anne Laurie wrote:

    Ironic that what helped to recruit him to join Al Qaeda was the GTMO videos. Why did his family flee Pakistan to begin with to take asylum in USA? – and he goes back there? Planning and helping with the bombings is such a horrific thing to do but if he is still being tortured in GTMO that is just as horrific. He at least should be moved somewhere else more humane and allowed to finally meet his daughter and see his wife. He is going to need mental help and therapy which he needed when he was younger but especially now after all he’s been through.

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    Asiya Muhammad wrote:

    Who knows what the truth even is, Anne? The USA kidnaps people, literally plants a story on them, and tortures them in the most horrific ways until they repeat the USA’s story and then makes them out to be terrorists. People are repeating anything to make it stop. So only this man knows the truth, you can’t believe anything USA claims about people.

  6. Andy Worthington says...

    Anne Laurie wrote:

    That is always a possibility, Asiya. Someone was needed to give them the inside information on Al-Qaeda and identify people in pictures.

  7. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks for your thoughts, Anne. You seem to have taken a close interest in his case. I am hopeful that, with the support he has received from his lawyers, and from supportive US personnel, that he has reached a place where he can balance what he did with the effort to rebuild his life.

  8. Andy Worthington says...

    That’s a very good point in general, Asiya, which people need to remember. The files released by WikiLeaks in 2011 are full of false allegations made by prisoners held at Guantanamo against their fellow prisoners, often because of torture and abuse. How much more pressure was exerted in the “black sites” to encourage people to talk, regardless of whether what they said was truthful or not?

  9. Andy Worthington says...

    For a Spanish version, on the World Can’t Wait’s Spanish website, see ‘Termina la sentencia de Majid Khan, pero, lamentablemente, todavía está atrapado en Guantánamo, junto con otros 19 hombres cuya liberación ha sido aprobada’:

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Andy Worthington

Investigative journalist, author, campaigner, commentator and public speaker. Recognized as an authority on Guantánamo and the “war on terror.” Co-founder, Close Guantánamo and We Stand With Shaker. Also, photo-journalist (The State of London), and singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers).
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