Confessed al-Qaida foot soldier Majid Khan withdrew a legally clouded terror charge from his 2012 guilty plea Wednesday and invoked President Barack Obama’s attitude toward the CIA’s secret prison program that tortured captives like him: “Just move on.”
The military judge, Army Col. Tara Osborn, dismissed a charge of providing material support to terrorism from Khan’s four-year-old plea agreement but left intact his conviction through guilty plea on charges of conspiring with al-Qaida, murder, attempted murder and spying. Under the plea agreement, he could be sentenced in February 2019, after turning government witness, and be released from prison at the earliest at age 51.
Khan, 36, pleaded guilty to serving as a courier of $50,000 linked to the Aug. 5, 2003, terrorist truck bombing of a Marriott hotel in Jakarta, Indonesia, that killed 11 people and wounded dozens of others. He also admitted to agreeing to be a suicide bomber in an unrealized plot to murder former Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf.
Khan was held for more than three years in the CIA’s secret prison network where, according to his lawyers and the Senate’s so-called Torture Report, he was subjected to water torture, systematic deprivation of sunlight and had pureed food pumped into him rectally during a hunger strike.
Wednesday, after amending his guilty plea in only his second court appearance in a decade at Guantánamo, he sought forgiveness from people hurt by his actions, thanked Allah for showing him the right path, said he aspired to some day counsel “jihadi wannabees” and invoked Obama’s approach to the Black Site program.
“I made obviously some grotesque mistakes in my life. That’s how I ended up here,” he said. “I’m not honestly interested in the whole enhanced interrogation thing. Like the president says, just move on.”
Of the victims, he said: “Maybe Allah can put forgiveness … in their hearts.”
Khan, born in Pakistan, lived for six years with his family in the United States, graduated from Owning Mills High School in Maryland in 1999 and returned to his homeland after the Sept. 11 attacks to marry and learn about jihad. According to a stipulation of facts that underpin his guilty plea, he became a follower of the alleged 9/11 attack mastermind, Khalid Sheik Mohammed, whose seat Khan took in court Wednesday.
He looked chunkier than in his 2012 court appearance, his full head of hair and goatee were gone in favor of a clean-shaven face and bristles on his head. He declined an offer from the judge for in-court translation, declaring himself “pretty fluent” in English and agreed to add two new lawyers to his now five-attorney defense team: “More the merrier, ma’am,” he told the judge.
Osborn led Khan through a series of questions to make clear that while one charge was being removed, four others remained under the same pretrial agreement. A military jury can sentence Khan to a maximum life sentence after a presentation of evidence in February 2019, but a senior Pentagon official has agreed to reduce it in exchange for cooperation with the prosecution.
Khan’s lawyers sought to remove the conviction of “providing material support to terror” from his guilty plea after two civilian appeals courts ruled in separate cases that, while legitimate in federal court, it’s not a war crime and is illegitimate at military commissions. An appeals panel is also considering the same issue regarding conspiracy as a war crime, causing Khan to question whether that charge might have to be dismissed, too.
New lawyers at the hearing included lead prosecutor Bill Schneider, a former Maine attorney general and judge, and Army Maj. David Abdalla. Khan has two more attorneys on his side: Navy Lt. Tia Suplizio and Natalie Orpett from Jenner & Block. Jenner’s Katya Jestin was already on the case, as were Army Lt. Col. Jon Jackson, a seasoned war court defender, and Wells Dixon of the Center for Constitutional Rights, one of Khan’s first Guantánamo lawyers.