Guantánamo detainee Majid Khan faces up to 19 more years in prison after pleading guilty to terror charges – yet any justice and accountability for the abuses he suffered at the hands of US authorities remain a remote prospect
In March 2003, Pakistani forces seized 23-year-old Majid Khan from his brother’s house in Karachi, Pakistan. He was turned over to the USA’s Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), which detained him in undisclosed locations.
In addition to enforced disappearance – a crime under international law – Majid Khan was subjected in secret detention to conditions or interrogation techniques that violated the ban on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.
After three and a half years, his detention by the USA was finally acknowledged when the then US President, George W. Bush, confirmed for the first time that the USA had been operating a secret detention program.
In a speech on 6 September 2006, President Bush announced that 14 detainees had just been moved from this CIA program to US military custody in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. Majid Khan was one of them.
Although no longer held in secret and incommunicado detention, at the Guantánamo detention facility Majid Khan remained held in harsh conditions of isolation, with little contact with the outside world.
Shortly before entering his 10th year in detention, on 29 February 2012, Majid Khan pleaded guilty to charges brought under a law first enacted several years after he was taken into custody. He has described his decision as a “leap of faith”, hoping that after serving whatever sentence he is given he will be released.
The crimes he has pled guilty to are murder and attempted murder “in violation of the law of war”, conspiracy, spying and providing material support for terrorism. They are defined as war crimes by the USA within the framework of its unilateral and fundamentally flawed concept of “global war” against al-Qa’ida and associated groups.
Majid Khan will be sentenced in February 2016, or possibly before. In the interim, he has agreed to cooperate with his captors and not to sue them for his past treatment. Under the plea agreement, if he cooperates fully, he faces a prison sentence of up to 19 years.
After he has served whatever sentence he is eventually given, he will not be guaranteed his freedom, however. The US government takes the position that it can hold such detainees even after they have served sentences, if it deems it necessary, in contravention of international law. Majid Khan has now been held at Guantánamo for nearly six years, following his 42 months of secret detention by the CIA acting under the authority of then President George W. Bush.
While Khan has decided to plead guilty and assume responsibility for the acts the USA accused him of, official accountability remains notable by its absence when it comes to the human rights violations committed against him and others in the CIA secret detention and rendition programmes. The violations include enforced disappearance and torture, both crimes under international law. Obliging Majid Khan in his plea bargain to keep secret and give up any right to a remedy for such abuses itself violates the USA’s explicit obligation under international human rights law to provide access to effective remedies to anyone who alleges he has been subjected to such human rights violations.
“The one-way nature of the accountability in this case is stark in its imbalance, contrary to international law and offends basic notions of fairness,” said Rob Freer, Amnesty International’s US researcher.
At a press conference at Guantánamo on 29 February 2012 after the guilty plea was accepted by a US Army Colonel in his role as a military commission judge, the defence lawyer reiterated that Majid Khan “was tortured and he was tortured very badly” in US custody prior to his arrival at Guantánamo.
That is the limit of the detail he could or can disclose publicly on this issue, because the specifics of where Majid Khan was held in secret custody and how he was treated remain classified at the highest level of secrecy.
The lawyer asserted that the US government “needs to – it must – acknowledge what happened to him and it must accept responsibility for what happened to him”. He suggested that “the principle of transparency can’t flow in only one direction…. There has to be disclosure of what happened to people like Majid Khan.”
Amnesty International agrees.
The US government has a duty to prevent acts of terrorism, protect those threatened by such attacks, and to bring those responsible to justice.
To this end, the USA or other countries are clearly entitled to prosecute the conduct admitted to by Majid Khan in relation to such attacks as serious crimes (though their prosecution in a military court as “war crimes” under the USA’s sweeping “global war” theory remains deeply flawed). However, Amnesty International is concerned that, in serious breach of its international legal obligations, the USA is blocking accountability and remedy for the human rights violations committed in the CIA program, which remain apparently as remote as ever.
“The US government is using secrecy to obscure victims’ and society’s collective and individual right under international law to the truth,” said Freer.
“It should disclose, investigate and ensure accountability for any human rights violations carried out against Majid Khan and others in the CIA secret detention program.
“It is long past time for disclosure and accountability on the government side.”