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A Guantánamo inmate was released to Belize after suing for wrongful imprisonment

Majid Khan, a 42-year-old Pakistani man, was released from the U.S. military prison in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, on Thursday. Pictured here in 2022, he was sent to Belize after suing for unlawful imprisonment.
Center for Constitutional Rights
Majid Khan, a 42-year-old Pakistani man, was released from the U.S. military prison in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, on Thursday. Pictured here in 2022, he was sent to Belize after suing for unlawful imprisonment.

Editor's note: This story includes graphic descriptions of torture techniques.

A 42-year-old Pakistani man who spent nearly half his life in U.S. custody — first in a secret CIA prison where he was tortured, then at the U.S. military prison in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba — has been released after suing the Biden administration for unlawful imprisonment. He was resettled in the small Central American country of Belize.

Majid Khan is the first "high-value detainee" — a government term for prisoners who were held at the CIA's so-called black sites — to be released from Guantánamo. He is also the first inmate to be transferred by the Biden administration to a country other than his nation of origin; Khan's lawyers said he could not be safely sent to Pakistan because he had cooperated with U.S. authorities.

"I deeply regret the things that I did many years ago, and I have taken responsibility and tried to make up for them," Khan said in a statement. "The world has changed a lot in twenty years, and I have changed a lot as well."

He added: "I have been given a second chance in life and I intend to make the most of it...I promise all of you, especially the people of Belize, that I will be a productive, law-abiding member of society."

Khan was an unusual Guantánamo prisoner in several ways. Although he was born in Saudi Arabia and is a citizen of Pakistan, where he spent part of his childhood, he attended high school in suburban Maryland and speaks fluent English. In his early 20s, after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, he moved to Pakistan to join al-Qaida, and was captured by U.S. forces in 2003.

He pleaded guilty to war crimes in 2012 — becoming one of just two men convicted in the history of Guantánamo's military court — and completed his sentence in March 2022. Yet he remained there for nearly another year, prompting his lawsuit.

"In what system do you finish your sentence, when you were sentenced by a court of law, and remain in jail? Where does that happen?" said one of Khan's attorneys, Katya Jestin of the law firm Jenner & Block, who has represented him pro bono since 2009. "Certainly not in a democracy that is governed by a system of laws."

In total, Khan spent more than three years at a CIA black site and more than 16 years at Guantánamo.

Khan's release from Guantánamo was delayed while the U.S. searched for a country to take him. Last summer, government officials said they were working "urgently" to transfer Khan, but also said they had been in touch with eleven countries and had yet to find one to accept him.

Although Khan has family and a support system in Maryland, near Baltimore, a law passed by Congress in 2015 prevents Guantánamo detainees from entering the U.S. for any reason, ostensibly leaving Khan unable to return to the state. His lawyers argue that law should not apply to him because he is a convicted prisoner who has served his time. That issue remains unresolved, "but, in any event, he plans to make his life in Belize," Jestin said.

Transfer deals like Khan's are delicate: Complicated negotiations and the difficulty of finding countries willing to repatriate or resettle Guantánamo prisoners are a significant challenge, resulting in many inmates there who have been cleared for release yet remain behind bars. Some have been in that limbo state for more than a decade.

With Khan's release, 34 men remain imprisoned at Guantánamo, out of roughly 780 who have passed through its prison since 2002. Twenty of those 34 have never been criminally charged and have been approved for release by a parole-like board, yet remain in confinement while the U.S. searches for countries to take them. While Khan was charged with a crime and went through a court process, the others are considered "forever prisoners" being held indefinitely without charge or trial.

Khan has no prior connection to Belize, an English-speaking country with a population of about 400,000, and U.S. officials have not explained why it agreed to take him. Countries that accept former Guantánamo prisoners must pledge to treat them humanely and provide security assurances.

Belize, where Khan arrived on Thursday, has emphasized he is there as a free man on humanitarian grounds, similar to a migrant or refugee looking for a second chance. Jestin said Khan is learning Spanish, which is also commonly spoken in the country. He also wants to get a job, and expects his wife and daughter to join him, "so I hope he'll assimilate easily," she added.

Another attorney for Khan, Wells Dixon of the Center for Constitutional Rights, has represented him since his arrival at Guantánamo in 2006. In a statement, he said he is "thrilled that Majid is free," adding that "Belize has done an outstanding job to prepare for his resettlement, and their success serves as a model for other countries."

Wells Dixon, left, and Katya Jestin, who have represented Khan for more than a decade, speak with him by phone shortly after his release. Jestin criticized the U.S. operation at Guantánamo, calling it a "Frankenstein court with Frankenstein rules."
/ Matthew Hellman
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Matthew Hellman
Wells Dixon, left, and Katya Jestin, who have represented Khan for more than a decade, speak with him by phone shortly after his release. Jestin criticized the U.S. operation at Guantánamo, calling it a "Frankenstein court with Frankenstein rules."

In its announcement of Khan's transfer, the Defense Department said: "The United States appreciates the willingness of the Government of Belize and other partners to support ongoing U.S. efforts focused on responsibly reducing the detainee population and ultimately closing the Guantánamo Bay facility."

At Khan's sentencing, a military jury urged he get leniency after hearing details of the abuse he experienced during his capture: He was waterboarded, hung from his wrists while naked and hooded, and subjected to forced "rectal feedings" that his lawyers say is equivalent to anal rape, among other abuses.

A military court judge, Col. Douglas K. Watkins, has called Khan's treatment "shocking" and said it "violated the...universal right to be free of torture under U.S. and international law."

Jestin, one of Khan's attorneys, told NPR she is elated he's been released, but had harsh words for the U.S. government's operation at Guantánamo.

"I genuinely was skeptical that this would ever happen," Jestin said, "because nothing at Guantanamo flows in a predictable way that's predicated on a well-established rule of law...It's kind of a Frankenstein court with Frankenstein rules that really deform what one might think of as a democratic criminal justice system."

Guantánamo's military court and prison have cost U.S. taxpayers more than $6 billion since 2002.

This story was edited by Meg Anderson.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Sacha Pfeiffer is a correspondent for NPR's Investigations team and an occasional guest host for some of NPR's national shows.