US military jury condemns terrorist’s torture and urges clemency
By Carol Rosenberg
In a stark rebuke of the torture carried out by the CIA after 9/11, seven senior military officers who heard graphic descriptions last week of the brutal treatment of a terrorist while in the agency’s custody wrote a letter calling it “a stain on the moral fiber of America.”
The officers, all but one member of an eight-person jury, condemned the U.S. government’s conduct in a clemency letter on behalf of Majid Khan, a suburban Baltimore high school graduate-turned-al-Qaida courier.
They had been brought to the U.S. Navy base at Guantánamo Bay to sentence Khan, who had earlier pleaded guilty to terrorism charges. They issued a sentence of 26 years, about the lowest term possible according to the instructions of the court.
At the behest of Khan’s lawyer, they then took the prerogative available in military justice of writing a letter to a senior official who will review the case, urging clemency.
Before sentencing, Khan spent two hours describing in grisly detail the violence that CIA agents and operatives inflicted on him in dungeonlike conditions in prisons in Pakistan, Afghanistan and a third country, including sexual abuse and mind-numbing isolation, often in the dark while he was nude and shackled.
“Mr. Khan was subjected to physical and psychological abuse well beyond approved enhanced interrogation techniques, instead being closer to torture performed by the most abusive regimes in modern history,” according to the letter, which was obtained by The New York Times.
The panel also responded to Khan’s claim that after his capture in Pakistan in March 2003, he told interrogators everything, but “the more I cooperated, the more I was tortured,” and so he subsequently made up lies to try to mollify his captors.
“This abuse was of no practical value in terms of intelligence, or any other tangible benefit to U.S. interests,” the letter said. “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.”
In his testimony Thursday night, Khan became the first former prisoner of the CIA’s so-called black sites to publicly describe in detail the violence and cruelty that U.S. agents used to extract information and to discipline suspected terrorists in the clandestine overseas prison program that was set up after 9/11.
In doing so, Khan also provided a preview of the kind of information that might emerge in the death penalty trial of the five men accused of plotting 9/11, a process that has been bogged down in pretrial hearings for nearly a decade partly because of secrecy surrounding their torture by the CIA.
The agency declined to comment on the substance of Khan’s descriptions of the black sites, which prosecutors did not seek to rebut. It said only that its detention and interrogation program, which ran the black sites, ended in 2009.
More than 100 suspected terrorists disappeared into the CIA’s clandestine overseas prison network after 9/11. The agency used “enhanced interrogation techniques” such as waterboarding, sleep deprivation and violence to try to have prisoners divulge al-Qaida’s plans and the whereabouts of leaders and sleeper cells, but with no immediate plans to put its captives on trial.
President George W. Bush disclosed the existence of the CIA program in September 2006, with the transfer of Khan and 13 other so-called high-value detainees to Guantánamo. President Barack Obama ordered the program shut down entirely after taking office in 2009.
Khan, 41, was held without access to either the International Red Cross, the authority entrusted under the Geneva Conventions to visit war prisoners, or to a lawyer until after he was transferred to Guantánamo Bay. He pleaded guilty in February 2012 to terrorism crimes, including delivering $50,000 from al-Qaida to an allied extremist group in Southeast Asia, Jemaah Islamiyah, that was used to fund a deadly bombing of a Marriott hotel in Jakarta, Indonesia, five months after his capture. Eleven people were killed, and dozens more were injured.
The clock on his prison sentence began ticking with his guilty plea in 2012, meaning the panel’s 26-year sentence would end in 2038.
But Khan, who has cooperated with the U.S. government, helping federal and military prosecutors build cases, has a deal that was kept secret from the jury that could end his sentence in February or in 2025 at the latest.
In closing arguments, Khan’s military lawyer, Army Maj. Michael Lyness, asked the panel for a minimum sentence and then to consider drafting a letter recommending clemency.
The lead prosecutor, Army Col. Walter Foster IV, asked the panel to issue a harsh sentence. He conceded that Khan received “extremely rough treatment” in CIA custody but said he was “still alive,” which was “a luxury” that the victims of al-Qaida attacks did not have.
The jury foreman, a Navy captain, said in court that he took up the defense request and drafted the clemency letter by hand, and all but one officer on the sentencing jury signed it, using their panel member numbers because jurors are granted anonymity at the national security court at Guantánamo.
Ian Moss, a former Marine who is a civilian lawyer on Khan’s defense team, called the letter “an extraordinary rebuke.”
In exchange for the reduced sentence, Khan and his legal team agreed to drop their effort to call witnesses to testify about his torture, much of it most likely classified, as long as he could tell his story to the jury.
The jurors were also sympathetic to Khan’s account of being drawn to radical Islam in 2001 at age 21, after the death of his mother, and being recruited to al-Qaida after 9/11. “A vulnerable target for extremist recruiting, he fell to influences furthering Islamic radical philosophies, just as many others have in recent years,” the letter said. “Now at the age of 41 with a daughter he has never seen, he is remorseful and not a threat for future extremism.”
The panel was provided with nine letters of support for Khan from family members, including his father and several siblings — U.S. citizens who live in the United States — as well as his wife, Rabia, and daughter, Manaal, who were born in Pakistan and live there.