Guantanamo convict ready to join 'Team America'

Reuters News
|
Posted: Feb 29, 2012 5:42 PM
Guantanamo convict ready to join 'Team America'

By Jane Sutton

GUANTANAMO BAY U.S. NAVAL BASE, Cuba (Reuters) - A former CIA "ghost prisoner" who grew up near Baltimore admitted to a U.S. war crimes court on Wednesday that he was an al Qaeda money courier and martyr-in-training now prepared to help prosecute other terrorism suspects.

Pakistani defendant Maid Khan is remorseful and ready "to join Team America, to do the right thing," his Army lawyer, Lieutenant Colonel Jon Jackson, said after the hearing. "He wishes he had never been involved with al Qaeda ever."

After nearly nine years in U.S. custody, Khan appeared in public for the first time at a top-security courtroom on the Guantanamo Bay U.S. naval base in Cuba. He pleaded guilty to all five charges against him, including murder and attempted murder, in a deal that spares him from a potential life sentence in exchange for helping prosecute other prisoners.

Khan, a square-faced 32-year-old with short black hair, goatee and glasses, wore a dark suit, white shirt and mauve tie. He was unshackled and seemed relaxed as the judge asked if he was sure that admitting guilt was in his best interest.

"No doubt sir," Khan replied.

In addition to murder and attempted murder, Khan was convicted of conspiring with al Qaeda, providing material support for terrorism and spying on U.S. and Pakistani targets. A plea agreement that was unsealed in court capped his sentence at 19 years, and deferred sentencing to 2016.

Khan moved to Maryland with his family in 1996 and graduated from a suburban Baltimore high school. He said he was working as a database administrator and watched from his Virginia office building as smoke rose from the Pentagon after a hijacked plane crashed into it on September 11, 2001.

Four months later, Khan went to Pakistan in search of matrimony, jihad and "spiritual cleansing." He met self-described September 11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and started plotting with al Qaeda to poison U.S. water supplies and blow up underground gasoline storage tanks, he admitted.

Those plots were never carried out but under Mohammed's tutelage, Khan proved his willingness to become an al Qaeda suicide bomber.

He donned a bomb vest and waited to set it off in a mosque in Karachi, where he was told then-Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf would show up. A Guantanamo prisoner assessment said the bomb vest was fake but Khan's told the court it was real.

Khan also delivered $50,000 of al Qaeda cash to the group that drove a truck bomb into the JW Marriott Hotel in Jakarta in August 2003, killing 11 people and wounding dozens. The bombing took place five months after Khan was captured.

"Even though I delivered the money, the fact of the matter is I did not know where the money was going. But I voluntarily did that. I was not aware of any conspiracy that was going to happen," Khan told the court.

BEHIND A GLASS WALL

Pat Pond, who was badly cut and burned in the Marriott blast, watched Wednesday's hearing from behind a glass wall in the courtroom spectators' gallery and said afterward that Khan's plea deal "seems fair to me." In the chaos at the Jakarta hospital where she was first treated, needles were re-used and the retired General Electric employee contracted HIV.

Pond, who lives in Park City, Utah, said she was devastated at first but now, "I don't feel any anger or a need for vengeance."

Khan's parents and other relatives were scheduled to watch via closed-circuit television at a Maryland military base. He also has a wife in Pakistan and a daughter he has never seen.

Pakistani police arrested Khan in Pakistan in March 2003 and turned him over to the CIA. His family did not learn what had happened to him until President George W. Bush announced in 2006 that he had closed secret prisons and sent Khan and more than a dozen other CIA "ghost prisoners" to Guantanamo.

Khan claims he was tortured in CIA custody but the plea agreement prevents him from making any claim against the U.S. government. The judge halted him when he started to tell the court, "illegally I was kidnapped" and a court security officer later cut the audio feed when secret information was discussed.

Under the deal, the Pentagon will recommend that Khan not be returned to Guantanamo's top-security Camp 7, home to other "high-value" prisoners he might be asked to testify against.

Khan told the judge he understood the U.S. government's stance that it can continue to hold him as an alien unlawful enemy combatant even after he finishes his sentence.

"This agreement does not guarantee me that I will ever get free," he said. "I'm making a leap of faith here, sir."

Khan is the seventh captive convicted in the Guantanamo tribunals designed to prosecute non-U.S. citizens on terrorism charges outside the regular civilian and military courts. He is the fifth to plead guilty in exchange for leniency and the first of the former CIA prisoners to do so.

(Editing by Kevin Gray)