Maryland high school grad Majid Khan returns to Guantánamo war court

Maryland-educated Majid Khan, then 32, pleads guilty at the U.S. Navy base at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, on Feb. 29, 2012, in this courtroom sketch by artist Janet Hamlin that was approved for release by a court security officer.
Maryland-educated Majid Khan, then 32, pleads guilty at the U.S. Navy base at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, on Feb. 29, 2012, in this courtroom sketch by artist Janet Hamlin that was approved for release by a court security officer. MCT

U.S.-educated al-Qaida volunteer Majid Khan returns to the war court Wednesday for the first time since 2012 for a brief hearing with a new judge and prosecutor and expanded defense team.

Khan, 36, who was held for more than three years in the CIA black sites, is awaiting sentencing in 2018 on a guilty plea for joining al-Qaida, serving as a courier of $50,000 linked to a 2003 terrorist bombing of a Marriott hotel in Indonesia and agreeing to be a suicide bomber in an unrealized plot to murder former Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf.

Under the plea agreement, he pledged to turn government witness and, with consideration, would get out of prison no later than 2037, at age 57. But he has only appeared once at court, to plead guilty, and no other case has gone to trial.

Since then, both the Senate and Khan’s attorneys have released lurid descriptions of his treatment in agency custody, including having pureed food pumped into him rectally during a hunger strike, water torture and systematic deprivation of sunlight. Khan spent his high school years near Baltimore, graduated from Owings Mills High School in 1999, and had a tech job before returning to his native Pakistan, after the 9/11 terror attacks. He was captured in Karachi in 2003.

The reason for the hearing is to let him withdraw a guilty plea on one of the charges — providing material support for terrorism — because two federal appeals courts ruled it illegitimate, not a war crime at the military commissions created by Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama.

First, however, lawyers for Khan get to question a new case judge, Army Col. Tara A. Osborn, on whether she can preside impartially. Osborn, an Army officer since 1988, has never served at Guantánamo before.

In 2012, she presided at the capital court-martial of Army Maj. Nidal Hasan, the psychiatrist who killed 13 people in a 2009 shooting rampage at Fort Hood in Texas. Hasan is now on Death Row at Fort Leavenworth, appealing his sentence.

Other new lawyers at this week’s hearing include lead prosecutor Bill Schneider, a former Maine attorney general and judge, and Army Maj. David Abdalla. The chief defense counsel has also added two more attorneys to Khan’s team: 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 and Wells Dixon of the Center for Constitutional Rights, Khan’s first lawyer at Guantánamo.

Khan pleaded guilty in February 2012 to murder, spying, conspiracy and other charges for, among other things, acting as a courier of cash linked to the Aug. 5, 2003, terrorist bombing of a Marriott in Jakarta. Eleven people were killed and at least 81 were wounded in the suicide truck bombing, which occurred after Khan was in CIA custody.

Jackson told reporters the day of the plea that Khan was “going to join Team America, do the right thing to make sure that he has a chance for a productive, meaningful life.” But he has yet to testify in any case.

Prosecutor Schneider is a West Point graduate and former Green Beret who was paralyzed in a car accident and has used a wheelchair throughout his law career. The Office of Military Commissions recently undertook some renovations at this remote base to accommodate people who use wheelchairs at Guantánamo Bay, and the prison has been discussing adding ramps inside the Detention Center Zone for aging detainees.

Khan’s stipulation of guilt, a long narrative of his activities disclosed at his 2012 hearing, describes him deciding to leave the United States in January 2002 to marry in Pakistan, learn about jihad and consider living under sharia law in Afghanistan.

The U.S. war on al-Qaida and the Taliban was already underway, and Khan left the United States for Pakistan a week before the Pentagon opened Camp X-Ray at Guantánamo. Once there, at one point, he recorded the “martyrdom video” of a suicide bomber.

The narrative of his confessed al-Qaida activities names several other captives currently at Guantánamo as having a role in or directing his terrorist activities. They include Khalid Sheik Mohammed and Ammar al Baluchi, both awaiting a death-penalty trial as alleged architects of the Sept. 11 attacks. Khan’s guilty plea narrative also describes him seeing Yemeni Hassan bin Attash assembling a suicide bomb vest and how Khan delivered cash to a Malaysian captive known as “Zubair,” Mohd Fariq Bin Amin, in Thailand while traveling there in the company of his recent bride. Neither Bin Attash nor Zubair have been charged with crimes.

Carol Rosenberg: 305-376-3179, @carolrosenberg

Additional reading

▪ Majid Khan’s pre-sentencing agreements signed in 2012.

▪ Coverage of his first court appearance in 2012.

▪ His lawyers released new descriptions of his CIA torture in 2015.

▪ Pentagon plans for prison operations after Obama.