During the week of 31 March to 3 April 2019 I traveled to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba to monitor U.S. Military Commission pre-sentencing proceedings against convicted war criminal Majid Khan.
This was my fourth trip to Guantanamo Bay representing the Program in International Human Rights Law of Indiana University McKinney School of Law. Indiana has a Military Commission Observation Project which sends law students, graduates, faculty and staff to Guantanamo to serve as independent, objective monitors of criminal proceedings. I have also monitored Guantanamo proceedings at Ft. Meade, Maryland, where cameras in the Guantanamo courtroom broadcast by secure CCTV.
In his guilty plea, Mr. Khan stated that after 9/11 he traveled from Maryland, where he had been living as a U.S. permanent resident, to Pakistan and agreed to participate in an al-Qaeda plot using suicide vests to assassinate the former President of Pakistan, Pervez Musharraf. He said that he later moved $50,000 USD to finance the 2003 J.W. Marriott bombing in Indonesia, an attack that killed 11 people. He pleaded guilty in 2012 to conspiracy, murder in violation of the law of war, attempted murder in violation of the law of war, providing material support for terrorism, and spying. The Military Commission Convening Authority agreed to allow him to withdraw his guilty plea to the charge of providing material support for terrorism after a D.C. circuit court ruled in another case that the charge could not be appropriately tried at a military commission.
A Different Dynamic for the Khan pre-sentencing hearings
During the three other proceedings I attended at Guantanamo, when the defendants entered the courtroom through a side door, they each had two soldiers, one on each side, and these soldiers sometimes held the arms of the defendants, as they walked into the courtroom. I was thrown off when Majid Khan entered the courtroom in Guantanamo Bay. Though guards were present, they followed from a greater distance than was the case with the other detainees I observed. Mr. Khan was also not dressed in the same way as the other detainees I have seen, he wore a black suit, that looked similar to the suits that his civilian defense counsel wore. He carried a blueish purple leak colored metallic looking water bottle.
It was hard to tell but when he came in it appeared that he opened the door himself to enter from the left side of the courtroom, of course United States serviceman provided security. He briefly turned to the back of the room and pointed towards the observation box, which sits behind triple pane sound resistant two-way glass. As he pointed, he spoke to his lawyer and it appeared he was asking who we were. We all sat calmly and did not make any motion, as communicating through the glass is forbidden.
Khan was represented by a team of attorneys who were seated to his right, on the left side of the courtroom. It surprised me how respectful Majid Khan appeared to be of the proceedings, to the judge, and of the process in general. When he spoke to Judge Watkins he addressed him as sir. This dynamic is quite different from the other hearings I have attended for those charged in connection with the events of 11 September 2001, and Hadi al Iraqi, an alleged al Qaeda Iraq member. On some occassions detainees have even worn military style fatigues into the courtroom.
Majid Khan—The Only High Value Cooperator in Guantanamo, Bay
Why is the dynamic different at the Khan hearings? I can guess that it may be because Khan is a cooperator. He is the only cooperator in Guantanamo Bay who is considered a high value detainee, and his lawyers brought this up at the beginning of the hearings and frequently throughout.
In his plea agreement of seven years ago, Khan agreed to serve no more than 25 years in exchange for his cooperation, 19 if the convening authority finds that Khan provides full and truthful cooperation amounting to substantial assistance. His time served began at the time of the plea agreement, which means he theoretically has 12-18 years left to serve, assuming that the agreement holds. There were concerns about this. The source of these concerns had to do with the government/prosecution being upset about the defense’s request for “Brady material”, material that the defense has argued might be used in the pre-sentencing hearing to mitigate the sentence he is awarded by the panel, as the military commission jury is called.
Exculpatory Evidence and Brady, Could it all Fall Apart?
There is a famous case in United States law referred to as Brady, or Brady v Maryland, which is a 1963 United States Supreme Court case that held, “ Suppression by the prosecution of evidence favorable to an accused who has requested it violates due process where the evidence is material either to guilt or to punishment, irrespective of the good faith or bad faith of the prosecution.” This issue of Brady material dominated the hearing. Specifically, Khan and his defense team requested Brady material that might be used as a mitigating factor during Khan’s upcoming sentencing hearing. The hearing will take place before a panel (jury), that will decide Mr. Khan’s sentence, 19-25 years – in accordance with the sentencing agreement.
The public does not know what the material is that the defense has requested, or how and why the defense may believe that this material might be used to mitigate his sentence. However, it likely has to do with the time Khan was in custody prior to arriving in Guantanamo Bay, and possibly the use of enhanced interrogation techniques. This could potentially be used to mitigate his sentence because if Khan was treated badly while in custody then under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, and possibly in the Military Commissions, this in and of itself could be used as a factor to mitigate sentencing. In other words, if someone is tortured, then a sentencing panel could decide, based on that fact, that the defendant should receive a lesser sentence. There is also an important balance between discovery and production of evidence on one hand and the protecting the national security interests of the United States on the other hand. Not to mention that a decision in this case could have further reaching implications, for instance in the 9/11 proceedings where mitigation specialists might seek to use Brady material to get the jury/panel to give a life sentence rather than the death penalty.
Meeting with Khan’s Lawyers
After the hearing I met with Khan’s lawyers and others on his defense team. We gathered at their living quarters and shared snacks and refreshments. At this meeting I noted they were in a unique position relative to the other defense teams I have seen in Guantanamo Bay, and I talked about the different dynamic discussed earlier in this article. A lawyer I traveled with brought up a good point that the government/prosecution appeared to threaten pulling out of the seven year old plea agreement if Khan’s team continues to request Brady material, and noted that this should not be sufficient grounds to pull out of the plea agreement because the only permissible reason for the government/prosecution to unilaterally withdraw should be for material breech.
Suggestion to Improve the Viewing Experience at the Expeditionary Legal Complex
I have a suggestion to improve the viewing experience for the victims’ family members, non-governmental observers, press, and others viewing the proceedings. These groups watch from a remote viewing facility at Ft. Meade Maryland, and in person at Guantanamo Bay. The problem is that we cannot see the detainee(s) faces. The feed shows only one camera angle from the courtroom at a given time, usually of the person who is speaking.
In person viewing in Guantanamo Bay is helpful because observers and victim family members watch the defendant(s) in person throughout the entire proceeding from the observation box at the rear of the courtroom, while observers at other locations only see the defendants when defendants are portrayed on the feed, so generally only when the defendants are the ones who are speaking in court. Keep in mind that this is all on a 40 second delay. My suggestion is that at least one screen at each remote viewing station in the United States, and at Guantanamo Bay, show a camera angle of the detainee(s) at all times, preferably an angle that shows the face. Keep in mind that, as it stands today, the visual feed only shows a small portion of the courtroom in Guantanamo Bay at any given time, alternating between camera views.
Juris Doctor 2018
Program in International Human Rights Law