GUANTANAMO BAY NAVAL BASE, Cuba — A former Maryland resident pleaded guilty Wednesday to helping al-Qaida plot attacks from his native Pakistan, reaching a plea deal with the U.S. government that spares him from a potential life sentence in exchange for helping to convict fellow prisoners at Guantanamo Bay.
Majid Khan, making his first appearance in public since he was swept into secret government confinement in 2003, appeared calm and confident as he was questioned by the judge to make sure he understood the plea deal. His lawyers said that he teared up at times as the case against him was reviewed and that he regrets his actions.
"He is remorseful," said Army Lt. Col. Jon Jackson, his Pentagon-appointed defense lawyer. "He wishes he had never been involved with al-Qaida, ever."
Khan, 32, is the first of what the military calls its "high-value" detainees to plead guilty and his cooperation could provide significant help to the U.S. as it seeks to prosecute Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the self-proclaimed mastermind of the Sept. 11 attack, and other accused terrorists held at the U.S. base in Cuba. Khan's lawyers have alleged he was tortured while in CIA custody before he was transferred to Guantanamo in September 2006.
He faced up to life in prison if convicted at trial on charges of conspiracy, murder, attempted murder, spying and providing material support for terrorism. Prosecutors said Khan plotted with Mohammed to blow up fuel tanks in the U.S., to assassinate former Pakistani President Gen. Pervez Musharraf and to provide other assistance to al-Qaida.
Under his plea agreement, the Convening Authority, the Pentagon legal official who oversees the Guantanamo tribunals, has agreed not to approve a sentence that exceeds 19 years as long as Khan fully cooperates with authorities. If prosecutors determine he has not fully cooperated, the sentence is capped at 25 years.
His sentencing has been postponed for four years, to give him time to cooperate, and he would get credit for time served until his sentencing but not for the nine years he already spent in custody.
The judge, Army Col. James Pohl, told him there was nothing in the agreement that specifically prevents the U.S. from continuing to detain him after he completes his sentence, though there are no indications that would happen.
"I am making a leap of faith here, sir," Khan said. "That's all I can do."
Army Brig. Gen. Mark Martins, the chief prosecutor, said the sentence is appropriate since Khan was not a terrorist mastermind or leader and has shown remorse.
"When you put this into context, I think you see a very credible result that fits, that is justice, and that is an appropriate holding of accountability," Martins said.
Khan is the seventh Guantanamo prisoner to be convicted of war crimes, the fifth by plea deal. The U.S. now holds 171 men at the base and officials have said about 35 could be prosecuted for war crimes.
Andrea Prasow, a Human Rights Watch lawyer who was at Wednesday's hearing as an observer, said Khan's plea bargain is a victory for the government, which gets a conviction without having to address allegations that he was tortured. She expects similar deals to come.
"There is a stronger incentive to plea bargain in Guantanamo if you have no idea how long you will be held or if you will ever be released or if you will ever get a fair trial," Prasow said.
Khan moved to the U.S. with his family in 1996 and was granted political asylum. He graduated from Owings Mills High School in suburban Baltimore and worked at several office jobs as well as at his family's gas station.
Military prosecutors say he traveled in 2002 to Pakistan, where he was introduced to Mohammed as someone who could help al-Qaida because of his fluent English and familiarity with the U.S. Prosecutors say that at one point, Khan discussed a plot to blow up underground fuel storage tanks in the United States.
Prosecutors say Khan later traveled with his wife, Rabia, to Bangkok, Thailand, where he delivered $50,000 to the Southeast Asian terror group Jemaah Islamiyah, an al-Qaida affiliate, to help fund the Aug. 5, 2003, suicide bombing of the J.W. Marriott hotel in Jakarta, Indonesia. The attack killed 11 people and wounded at least 81.
An American woman who was injured in the attack, Pat Pond, was an observer at the hearing and said she was satisfied with the outcome.
Pond, a resident of Park City, Utah, who was on a business trip for GE at the time of the Jakarta attack, said she was burned and damaged her hand in the blast and contracted HIV from a contaminated needle while being treated for her wounds at a hospital in Singapore.
"I don't feel any anger or any need for vengeance," she said.