FORT MED, Maryland – A military jury on Friday imposed a 26-year prison sentence on a former Maryland man who admitted joining al-Qaeda and was held at Guantanamo Bay. But under the plea agreement, the man could be released as soon as next year due to his cooperation with US authorities.
Majid Khan’s sentencing is the culmination of the first military commission trial of one of the 14 alleged detainees who were sent to the US Naval Base in Cuba in 2006 after being held in a secret network of CIA detention centers abroad. They were subjected to a harsh interrogation program developed in response to the 9/11 attacks.
Khan, a 41-year-old Pakistani national who came to the US in the 1990s and graduated from high school near Baltimore, earlier pleaded guilty to war crimes charges that included conspiracy and murder for his involvement in al-Qaeda plots such as the deadly attack. The bombing of the JW Marriott Hotel in Jakarta, Indonesia, in August 2003.
He apologized for his actions, which included planning al-Qaeda attacks in the United States after 9/11 and a failed plot to kill former Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf. During a two-hour testimony to the jury on Thursday, he said, “I did it all, with no excuse. And I’m so sorry to everyone I’ve hurt.”
The jury of eight military officers was required to reach a sentence of 25 to 40 years. Jurors heard about Khan’s extensive cooperation with US authorities after his guilty plea and heard a two-hour statement from the prisoner describing the brutal interrogation of the CIA and his family in the three years prior to his arrival at Guantanamo.
In addition to the ruling, the grand jury said that seven of the eight jurors drafted a letter to Pentagon legal authorities recommending pardon to the defendant, an option under the military commission legal system.
A pre-trial agreement means he can be released as early as February, at which point he will be resettled to a third country that has yet to be determined. He cannot return to Pakistan.
The jurors were not told of the pretrial agreement, which requires a Pentagon legal official known as the convening authority to reduce his sentence to no more than 11 years for cooperating. He will also be given credit for some of the time he has already spent in custody.
It will be up to the Biden administration, which is working to close the detention center that now houses 39 men, to find a country willing to accept Khan’s resettlement with his wife and daughter born after his capture in Pakistan.
Wells Dixon, an attorney for the Center for Constitutional Rights who was part of the defense team, said he expects Khan to complete his sentence in February. He said Khan’s team looked forward to working with the Biden administration to ensure he “has the support necessary to allow him to move forward with his life and be a positive, contributing member of society.”
Despite the pre-trial agreement, the prosecution urged the jury to recommend a sentence at the higher end of the scale as the defense urged jurors to consider Khan’s cooperation and remorse and the brutal conditions of his family.
“Since these crimes were committed, Majid is a different person,” said Army Major Michael Lessis, a military defense attorney. “Majid Khan is fittest and worthy of your mercy.”
Army Colonel Walter Foster, the lead attorney general, sought to discredit Khan’s story of how radical Islam had gone astray as a young man. He admitted that the prisoner had also suffered “extremely cruel treatment” at the hands of the CIA, but moved to remind the court of the 11 people killed in the Marriott bombing.
“He is still alive and with us today, a luxury that the dead and victims of the JW Marriott Hotel bombing do not enjoy,” Foster said.
Khan’s cooperation is expected to help with other war crimes cases at Guantanamo, a case involving five men held there accused of planning and aiding the September 11, 2001 attacks. Such cases have bogged down for years at the pre-trial stage at the base and have become one of the obstacles to the prison’s closure.