Liberated Guantanamo prisoner has big dreams of new life in Belize
BELIZE CITY — On his first day free, former Guantánamo Bay prisoner Majid Khan prayed without anyone watching for the first time in two decades.
He ate a lunch of fresh Caribbean fish with his new hosts, fiddled with his first smartphone, sipped on a non-alcoholic piña colada with his lawyers, and made a real-time video call to family in Pakistan and the United States from his adopted homeland. Belize.
Mr. Khan, 42, is the first detainee freed from Guantánamo Bay to be held there as a “high-quality detainee,” the intelligence community’s term for a former prisoner of the Bush administration’s secret torture program of “enhanced interrogation.” ”
Emerging last week from two decades of social isolation that began in years of solitary confinement, plans, ambitions and observations gushed from his mouth, sometimes in random bits of rapid-fire conversation.
“I want to go back to work. Don’t tell me to relax, man,’ Mr Khan said excitedly.
He thought he might want to run a restaurant. He definitely wants to run for public office.
“Tell the Prime Minister,” he quoted himself as telling Eamon Courtenay, the Secretary of State, shortly after he and his tabby cat, Cheetah, landed in Belize on a flight from the US military base in Cuba.
Incidentally, Mr Khan added, he already has the numbers of two Belizean imams on his speed dial, but he has yet to visit their mosques in this country of 400,000 people, including about 600 Muslims.
He later recited a fragment of a freestyle poem he allegedly left on his Guantánamo Bay cell door. “On that day, February 2, 2023…God set me free…My actions hurt others like a bee sting. may they forgive me. I can say this or that, from A to Z. To refute my skeptics, I hope I can.”
He said he signed it with what he called a microphone drop: “Majid Khan has left the building.”
Hours later, Belize’s foreign minister summoned his country’s leading news organizations and announced that Mr. Khan, his wife and their teenage daughter would join Belizean society as a “humanitarian act.”
Mr Courtenay then related the life story of Mr Khan, which he later said his nation deserved to know.
Mr. Khan was exposed to radical Islam in Maryland, where he attended high school in the 1990s. After the September 11 attacks, he went to Pakistan and became a courier for Al Qaeda. From 2003 to 2006 he was held incognito by the CIA, who subjected him to “the most terrible torture”.
At Guantánamo, he pleaded guilty to terrorism charges and began collaborating with the US government. “I have every confidence that he will be a good Belize for years to come,” said Mr. Courtenay. “He never hurt or killed anyone, nor was he ever in a fight.”
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To give the Khan family a solid foundation for a fresh start, Belize has demanded that the United States provide funds to buy him a house, a phone, a laptop and a car.
One of Mr. Khan’s first calls on this new phone was to the two New York City attorneys who had represented him the longest and helped him on his way to freedom — J. Wells Dixon of the Center for Constitutional Rights, since 2006, and Katya Jestin from Jenner & Block, from 2009.
She and three other members of his legal team had rushed to Belize from the east coast the day before his release and had waited anxiously in the sweltering heat near their hotel swimming pool for confirmation of his release.
After dark, Mr. Khan strolled into the pool area in shorts and a button-down shirt, accompanied by three Belizeans who served as his guides – a government official, a security guard and a social worker. There were hugs, handshakes and dizzying conversations.
Someone from the team ordered the coconut flavored mocktail for Mr. Khan, who adheres to the strict rules of Islam. Another presented him with a box of Cohiba cigars made in the Cuban-controlled part of the island. He asked for a few tips on his new iPhone 13, which he polished with a napkin like any first-time user. It was a vast improvement over the old-school analog phone with a pull-up antenna he had before his capture in Pakistan.
Then his brother called. Mr. Khan settled into a lounge chair by the pool and one by one his father, other siblings, nieces and nephews emerged from different windows for a noisy, chatty video family reunion. A lawyer brought him shrimp tacos and soda for his dinner.
The call a day earlier at Guantánamo was impossible, even for someone like him who was cooperating with the government. Intelligence agencies monitored all of his calls to family from prison, with each caller pausing after about a sentence — time enough for censors to hear and tune out anything that implied national security.
The Foreign Secretary called Mr Khan “intelligent, intellectually inquisitive and an excellent cook” who is “open minded and will easily make friends in Belize”. From day one, he was “free to travel across the country, study, work, start a business and make the most of his life after nearly 20 years in prison.”
So on the second day Mr. Khan and his lawyers went on a trip. They ate lunch at a seaside restaurant, took team photos on a pier, and then went shopping, an expedition that felt like a family taking a son to college.
The group meandered through a Belizean equivalent of Walmart, sometimes pausing to explain something unfamiliar, like a shower trolley, or waiting for Mr. Khan to pick up an item he found particularly beautiful, like a vase he was carrying Greetings with plastic flowers filled his family. They loaded a shopping trolley with a kettle and Tupperware, a bathing suit and shirts, storage containers, mirrors and a bathroom scale.
Mr. Khan had brought back few mementos from his Guantánamo days – 46 pages of poetry, a well-worn Koran and Cheetah, the year-old tabby who had appeared as a kitten on his barbed-wire prison compound. A US Army veterinarian neutered and vaccinated the cat, who then traveled to Belize in a cage.
Also aboard the US Navy’s twin-turboprop plane was the prison’s chief medical officer to turn over to Belizean authorities Mr. Khan’s medical records and a six-month supply of statins to control his cholesterol levels and other medications prescribed by the prison.
The next stop after the shopping spree was his new home. Within an hour, the legal team was helping him unpack and clean up.
“Do you think you should keep your meds on this shelf?” said Ms. Jestin, showing him where a shower caddy goes. She also showed him how to make his bed with a fitted sheet.
Army Colonel Wayne Aaron, his last military attorney, hung curtains. Technology. Air Force paralegal Sergeant Shafiyquca Gause set up the kitchen. Matthew Hellman, the Washington, DC attorney handling his habeas corpus petition, installed a fan in the three-bedroom home.
Someone remarked that they forgot to buy a cutlery set for Mr. Khan, who was given a plastic spoon with meals for years.
The house was mostly empty, at first a bachelor pad with the bed, a dresser and pizzas in the freezer. Furniture still had to be bought, perhaps a sofa and a dining table, before his wife and daughter, whom he had not met personally, arrived from Pakistan.
In a moment of reflection, Mr. Khan declared Belize to be the “perfect place, honest with God” for a man like him who wants to become “a productive member of society.”
He then described what happened when, after his first meal in the country, he realized it was time for prayer.
He was at a rooftop restaurant with his Belizean hosts and slipped off to go to the bathroom and wash up. He saw a waitress and explained that he was a Muslim and needed a place to pray. She led him into a laundry room below the dining room and handed him a clean red tablecloth.
Mr Khan, whose every move had been watched and controlled by others for two decades, told her he would leave the door open. No, she said, lock it behind you so nobody bothers you.
“I did,” he said, amazed. “I closed and locked the door. I prayed for 10 minutes and then left.”