Tortured Guantánamo detainee is freed in Belize

It was the first resettlement of a detainee since President Barack Obama’s administration and culminated months of secret diplomacy.|

BELIZE CITY, Belize — A small Central American nation, known for its barrier reef and ecotourism, has taken in a former terrorist turned U.S. government informant whose tale of torture by the CIA moved a military jury at Guantánamo Bay to urge the Pentagon to grant him leniency.

U.S. forces released Majid Shoukat Khan, 42, to the custody of authorities in Belize on Thursday after a two-hour flight from the U.S. Navy base in Cuba.

It was the first resettlement of a detainee since President Barack Obama’s administration and culminated months of secret diplomacy. All other prisoners released in the intervening years were repatriated. But Khan, who completed his prison sentence nearly a year ago, had nowhere to go.

“I have been given a second chance in life, and I intend to make the most of it,” Khan said in a statement in which he pledged to become “a productive, law-abiding member of society.”

“I continue to ask for forgiveness from God and those I have hurt,” he said.

The circumstances of his resettlement were not immediately known. But he was expected to be joined by his wife and teenage daughter, who was born after his capture in Pakistan in 2003.

Khan was among the better-known prisoners of Guantánamo Bay, in part because he went to high school in Maryland, then left his immigrant family for his native Pakistan to join al-Qaida after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

From 2003 to 2006, he was held incommunicado in secret CIA prisons overseas and kept in dungeonlike conditions that included beatings, nudity, brutal forced feedings, waterboarding and other physical and sexual abuse.

In 2012, he agreed to testify against other prisoners. He also pleaded guilty to plotting a never-realized suicide bombing years earlier of Pakistan’s president at the time, Pervez Musharraf, and to delivering $50,000 that was used to finance a deadly attack in Indonesia.

His release in Belize was noteworthy for several reasons.

He was the first prisoner to be freed from Guantánamo Bay who had been held there as a “high-value detainee,” the intelligence community’s term for a former prisoner of a CIA black site who was subjected to the Bush administration’s secret torture program of “enhanced interrogation.”

A damning 2014 Senate investigation of the covert program disclosed what the CIA did to Khan when he went on a hunger strike in his second year of detention: His captors “infused” a purée of pasta, sauce, nuts, raisins and hummus into his rectum. His lawyers called it rape.

At his sentencing in 2021, Khan expressed remorse for his crimes and related his story to a U.S. military jury at Guantánamo, which followed war court guidelines and sentenced him retroactively to 26 years in prison. Seven of the jurors then urged granting him clemency.

“This abuse was of no practical value in terms of intelligence, or any other tangible benefit to U.S. interests,” they said in a handwritten letter from the jury room. “Instead, it is a stain on the moral fiber of America; the treatment of Mr. Khan in the hands of U.S. personnel should be a source of shame for the U.S. government.”

On Thursday, Eamon Courtenay, the foreign minister of Belize, called his country’s decision to resettle Khan “a humanitarian act.”

“Though Khan may have contributed to acts of terrorism, he was brutally abused and tortured, has repudiated radicalism, cooperated with U.S. authorities in the fight against terrorism — and has served his time,” Courtenay said.

The transfer agreement was reached last year in talks between senior Belize government officials and Ian C. Moss, a deputy counterterrorism coordinator at the State Department, said a U.S. official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of diplomatic sensitivities. As a lawyer, Moss had helped defend Khan at Guantánamo Bay during the Trump administration.

Courtenay visited the prison last year to meet with Khan and evaluate his suitability for life in the English-speaking nation of about 400,000 citizens, among them fewer than 1,000 Muslims.

On Thursday, Courtenay told reporters: “Mr. Khan is not coming to Belize as a detainee. He has served his sentence and is a free man. He is being resettled on humanitarian grounds, just as our country has done for thousands of migrants and refugees throughout the years.”

Courtenay said the United States had provided funds to buy Khan a house and furnish it, as well as a car, a laptop and a phone.

He added, however, that Khan had agreed to have his activities monitored and to meet with the police, and that he understood that he would not be free to travel abroad for some time.

Tina Kaidanow, the Biden administration’s senior representative for Guantánamo affairs, and the U.S. ambassador to Belize, Michelle Kwan, joined the foreign minister in speaking with the news media. Kaidanow sought to reassure local reporters that the former prisoner presented no threat: “If you encounter Mr. Khan anywhere, I hope you will say hello,” she said. “He is so happy to be here. He is very grateful.”

The case had been of interest to the international law and human rights community in part because, even though Khan’s sentence had ended, he had been imprisoned in the same razor-wire ringed compound at Guantánamo for nearly a year. His lawyers asked a federal court in a habeas corpus petition to order his release onto the base until a country could be found for him.

Moss said in a court filing this summer that diplomats had approached 11 countries in an urgent effort to find a place for Khan.

“We are thrilled that Majid is free,” J. Wells Dixon of the Center for Constitutional Rights said in a statement. He has represented Khan in federal and military courts since his arrival at Guantánamo in 2006.

Katya Jestin, a lawyer at Jenner & Block, who joined the case pro bono in 2009, called Khan’s release “a historic victory for human rights and the rule of law, but one that took far too long to reach.”

With this week’s transfer, the Pentagon now holds 34 prisoners at the Guantánamo Bay detention facility. Of them, 11 have been charged in the military commissions, including six who are awaiting capital trials. Three others, all former CIA prisoners, are being held as indefinite detainees in the war on terrorism — not accused of any crimes but considered too dangerous to release.

The other 20 men, half of them Yemenis, have been approved for transfer to other countries with security agreements that satisfy the secretary of defense, arrangements that have required far more complex diplomacy and at times unknown enticements by the United States.

U.S. and Belizean officials said the release of Khan furthered the Biden administration’s ambition of ending detentions at Guantánamo Bay.

“We remain dedicated to a deliberate and thorough process focused on responsibly reducing the detainee population at Guantánamo Bay and ultimately closing the facility,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said.

Courtenay said his government saw Khan’s arrival for resettlement “as another step toward the permanent closure of the Guantánamo Bay detention camp in Cuba.”

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