Biden administration transfers Guantanamo detainee Majid Khan to Belize

The Biden administration transferred a detainee from the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, on Thursday and is preparing to transfer at least two more in the coming weeks, according to two senior U.S. officials and a former senior administration official.

Majid Khan left Guantanamo early Thursday and arrived in Belize several hours later, the officials said. He is the first detainee to be resettled by the Biden administration and one of the few to be sent to a location in the Western Hemisphere.

“I have been given a second chance in life and I intend to make the most of it,” said Khan in a statement issued through his legal team. “I deeply regret the things that I did many years ago, and I have taken responsibility and tried to make up for them. I continue to ask for forgiveness from God and those I have hurt. I am truly sorry. The world has changed a lot in 20 years, and I have changed a lot as well. I promise all of you, especially the people of Belize, that I will be a productive, law-abiding member of society. Thank you for believing in me, and I will not let you down. My actions will speak louder than my words.”

Majid Khan. (Courtesy Center for Constitutional Rights)
Majid Khan. (Courtesy Center for Constitutional Rights)

A Pakistani citizen and Guantanamo’s only known legal U.S. resident, Khan was granted asylum while attending high school near Baltimore in 1998. He returned to Pakistan in 2002 and, according to a Defense Department detainee assessment, joined Al Qaeda and became a direct subordinate to Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, often known as KSM, Al Qaeda’s senior operational planner and the principal architect of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

KSM, according to the U.S. documents, tasked Khan with delivering money and transporting another senior Al Qaeda figure to carry out a deadly attack on the Marriott Hotel in Jakarta, Indonesia, in August 2003. KSM intended to use Khan to attack U.S. gas stations and water reservoirs, the U.S. alleges.

Khan was arrested in Karachi in March 2003 and taken to a CIA black site where, according to a Senate Intelligence Committee report on the CIA’s detention and interrogation program, he was subjected to sleep deprivation, an ice water bath, and forced rectal feeding and rehydration. In the report, the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., called the treatment torture.

In September 2006, then-President George W. Bush announced that Khan was one of 14 “high value detainees” being transferred from CIA detention facilities to Guantanamo Bay to face the military tribunal system. One of the other high-value detainees was KSM, who had also been captured in Pakistan in March 2003 and held at black sites.

In 2012, Khan pled guilty to terrorism-related charges and was sentenced to 10 years detention. That sentence ended March 1, 2022. Khan still has family in the U.S., but federal law does not allow Guantanamo detainees to be resettled in the U.S.

This February 2017 photo provided by his lawyers shows Khalid Shaikh Mohammad in Guantanamo Bay prison in Cuba. On Friday, Aug. 30, 2019, a military judge set Jan. 11, 2021 for the start of the long-stalled war crimes trial of Mohammad and four others being held at Guantanamo on charges of planning and aiding the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. (Courtesy Derek Poteet via AP file)

The Biden administration reached out to about a dozen countries to find a place to resettle Khan, now 42. In the end, Secretary of State Antony Blinken was personally involved in negotiating the deal with Belize, according to two U.S. officials. A senior State Department official said the issue was one of the items on the agenda during a meeting with the Belizean prime minister in September, but said the U.S. and Belize had been discussing the issue for months before that.

The senior State Department official said the U.S. looked at a lot of countries where Khan might be transferred, factoring in locations that have a good relationship with the U.S., have the ability to support the individual, including any medical or security requirements, and have the political willingness.

“This is a political ask,” the official said. “Belize was a great choice because, ultimately, we have a lot of things to do with them.” The official said Belize was willing to take Khan in part as a humanitarian gesture.

The official praised Belizean officials, saying, “They asked all the right questions when this process started,” and did a “terrific job of trying to evaluate” if this was the right decision to take in Khan.

“We are very satisfied the things we asked of them they can do and will do,” the official said.

The two senior U.S. officials and senior State Department official declined to provide specific details about any security or humanitarian assurances Belize provided or any aspects of the resettlement deal.

J. Wells Dixon of the Center for Constitutional Rights, an attorney for Khan, declined to comment on specifics of the case and referred to the public record in his military commission case and his habeas corpus case.

Another attorney for Khan, Katya Jestin, said of his release, “This is a historic victory for human rights and the rule of law, but one that took far too long to reach.”

Asked about the possible movements, Defense Department spokesperson Lt. Col. César Santiago said, “We are aware of these reports and have nothing to announce at this time.”

Two brothers from Pakistan, Abdul Rahim Ghulam Rabbani and Mohammed Ahmed Ghulam Rabbani, are also nearing transfer, according to two senior U.S. officials. The Rabbani brothers are both cleared to leave the detention facility and could be transferred in the coming weeks, but the details are still being worked out.

Abdul, believed to be the older brother and among the oldest detainees currently at Guantanamo, was born in 1967 and is alleged to have worked directly for KSM from 1999 until his arrest in September 2002. In 1998, Abdul’s younger brother Ahmed recruited him to travel to Afghanistan to attend the Khaldan camp near Khowst for basic weapons training, according to a U.S. government detainee profile.

Abdul was kicked out of the camp for smoking. He returned to Karachi and, according to a U.S. government detainee review, he began to run Al Qaeda safe houses there, playing a key role in moving its fighters from Afghanistan to Pakistan, as well as transporting money, documents and equipment. Despite his close association with KSM, the U.S. believes that he did not have specific insight into Al Qaeda operational planning, according to his detainee assessment.

On May 13, 2021, a Guantanamo Bay Periodic Review Board determined “continued law of war detention is no longer necessary to protect against a continuing significant threat to the security of the United States,” and Abdul was cleared for release.

Both Abdul and Ahmed were arrested in Karachi in September 2002 and held at a CIA black site for months, and according to the Senate Intelligence Committee report, Ahmed was one of 17 detainees subjected to torture at CIA black sites without the approval of CIA headquarters. The brothers were transferred to Guantanamo in September 2004.

The U.S. government maintains that Ahmed, also known as Abu Badr, also ran safe houses in Karachi. He has maintained he was merely a taxi driver and the victim of mistaken identity. He was cleared for release from Guantanamo in October 2021.

U.S. officials say that one of the brothers is very sick and they have been working to transfer him with the hope that his health improves. Both brothers have engaged in extended hunger strikes.

In 2018, Ahmed wrote in The Los Angeles Times about the torture he endured at the CIA site. He said the pain he faced while being hanged with his hands bound above his head was so severe that he tried to amputate his own hand.

Torture makes you go mad. Sometimes I catch myself going mad again now. Every time I am force-fed, every time I meet with my lawyer, every time I see a doctor, they use some kind of metal detector device to do a cavity search. They have never found anything in all these years. What I am meant to be hiding, I have no idea. It is pointless. But I have to wonder if the radiation it emits isn’t my own private Hiroshima or Nagasaki — four, six, eight times a day. Maybe I am paranoid, but I feel that something bad is happening to me, deep inside,” he wrote.

“There is no morning and no evening. There is only despair.”

There are now 34 detainees remaining at the Guantanamo Bay detention facility, which at its peak held about 660 detainees.

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