A former Maryland resident has pleaded guilty to helping al-Qaida plot attacks from his native Pakistan, reaching a deal with the US government that limits his sentence.
Majid Khan, held at Guantanamo, is charged with helping self-proclaimed mastermind of 9/11 attacks Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in planning to blow up fuel tanks in the US and assasinate former Pakistani president Pervez Musharraf, and providing other assistance to al-Qaida. The plea deal, the first reached by one of the military's "high-value" detainees at Guantanamo, says Khan, 32, could serve less than 19 years in prison as long as he provides "full and truthful cooperation," to authorities building cases against other prisoners.
Khan's attorneys wanted details of the deal kept confidential, but the judge declined the request. Wells Dixon, one of his civilian lawyers, said his client feared for the safety of family members in the US and abroad. "There is a specific, historical basis for the concern," he told the judge.
Khan faced life sentence if convicted on all charges, which includes conspiracy, murder and spying. Documents released before Wednesday's hearing mentioned that the pre-trial agreement capped his sentence at 25 years. The judge said his sentencing would be delayed for four years, giving him time to provide testimony against other detainees, and that the Convening Authority, the Pentagon legal official who oversees the tribunals, would not approve a total sentence that exceeds 19 years.
Khan would get credit for time served until his sentencing but not for the nine years he has already been in custody. The judge told him that there was nothing in the agreement that specifically prevents the US from continuing to detain him after he completes his sentence, though there are no indications that would happen.
Khan is the seventh Guantanamo prisoner to be convicted of war crimes and is considered the most significant. He is the first prisoner who was held in secret CIA custody overseas – where prisoners endured harsh treatment, which lawyers and human rights groups have labelled as torture.
Andrea Prasow, a Human Rights Watch lawyer who was at the hearing as an observer, said Khan could have got a longer sentence if convicted, but the government now gets the benefit of his assistance and can avoid allegations that Khan and other prisoners were tortured. "They get a lengthy sentence, minimum 19 years with cooperation, and no one has to hear about what happened to him when he was in CIA custody," she said outside the court.
There were four previous plea bargains at Guantanamo. "There is a stronger incentive to plea bargain in Guantanamo if you have no idea how long you will be held or if you will ever be released or if you will ever get a fair trial," she said.
Khan's appearance Wednesday, dressed in a dark blazer and tie and with neatly trimmed hair and beard, was the first time he has been seen in public since his capture in March 2003.
Khan moved to the US with his family in 1996 and was granted political asylum. He graduated from Owings Mills High School in Baltimore and did several office jobs and worked at his family's gas station.
Military prosecutors said he travelled to Pakistan in 2002, where he was introduced to Mohammed as someone who could help al-Qaida because of his fluent English and familiarity with US. Prosecutors say that at one point he discussed a plot to blow up underground fuel storage tanks.
Prosecutors say Khan later travelled with his wife, Rabia, to Bangkok, Thailand, where he delivered $50,000 to the Jemaah Islamiyah, an al-Qaida affiliate, to help fund the suicide bombing of the Marriott hotel in Jakarta, Indonesia. The attack, on 5 August 2003, killed 11 people and wounded 81.