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Pakistani man who was tortured by the CIA is released from Guantanamo Bay

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

An inmate at the U.S. military prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, has been released to Belize.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The former prisoner is 42 years old. He's a native of Pakistan, and his name is Majid Khan. He sued the Biden administration for unlawful imprisonment last year.

FADEL: NPR's Sacha Pfeiffer has been covering Khan's release. Sacha, good morning.

SACHA PFEIFFER, BYLINE: Good morning.

FADEL: So tell us about Majid Khan. Who is he?

PFEIFFER: He was an unusual Guantanamo prisoner in several ways. He's a Pakistani citizen, but he grew up in Maryland, near Baltimore. And more than a decade ago, he pleaded guilty in Guantanamo's military court to being an al-Qaida courier. And there was some drama during his sentencing because a military jury urged that he get leniency. This was after jurors heard how he had been tortured at a secret CIA prison after being captured. Now, Khan completed his sentence almost a year ago, and he was free to leave Guantanamo, but the United States kept holding him.

FADEL: OK, so Khan pleads guilty after being tortured, completes his sentence. Why was he still being held?

PFEIFFER: Well, there were no legal grounds. It's just that the U.S. could not find another country to take him. He could not be safely transferred to Pakistan because he had cooperated with U.S. authorities. And then last summer, U.S. officials said they'd been in touch with 11 countries but apparently could not find any takers. And, Leila, this is a big issue at Guantanamo. It's a common problem because the majority of Gitmo prisoners have been approved for release but are still being held. Some of them have been in that limbo state for more than a decade.

FADEL: Wow.

PFEIFFER: And that's even though they've never been charged with a crime. But these transfer deals are delicate. They're complicated negotiations. So a lot of the men are cleared to go, but they remain behind bars.

FADEL: So Belize agrees to take Khan. Does he have any connection to Belize?

PFEIFFER: No, he doesn't. And the U.S. has not explained why Belize agreed to take him. We're talking, of course, about a small, English-speaking country in Central America. It has a population of only about 400,000 people. But countries that accept former Guantanamo prisoners have to agree to treat them humanely and provide security assurances. And Belize has emphasized that Khan is there as a free man on humanitarian grounds, just as if he were a migrant or a refugee looking for a second chance. I spoke with one of Khan's lawyers, and she's elated he's been released. But she did have harsh words for the U.S. government's operation at Guantanamo. Her name is Katya Jestin. And here's part of what she told me.

KATYA JESTIN: In what system do you finish your sentence when you are sentenced by a court of law and remain in jail? Where does that happen? Certainly not in a democracy that is governed by a system of laws.

FADEL: What is the U.S. government saying about Khan's release?

PFEIFFER: Let me read to you from the Defense Department's announcement about his transfer. It says in part, quote, "The United States appreciates the willingness of the government of Belize and other partners to support ongoing U.S. efforts focused on responsibly reducing the detainee population and ultimately closing the Guantanamo Bay facility." That's the end of the quote.

FADEL: So how many prisoners are still at Guantanamo? And how many are now and still in Khan's position, where they were cleared for release?

PFEIFFER: So 34 men remain. Twenty of them fall in the category we talked about of never having been charged with anything and being approved for release, yet sitting in prison while the U.S. tries to find countries to take them. Now, their cases are arguably more egregious than Khan's because at least he was charged with a crime and went through a court process. These others are considered forever prisoners, meaning held indefinitely without charge or trial.

FADEL: Forever prisoners. NPR's Sacha Pfeiffer, thank you.

PFEIFFER: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.
Sacha Pfeiffer is a correspondent for NPR's Investigations team and an occasional guest host for some of NPR's national shows.