GUANTANAMO BAY U.S. NAVAL BASE, Cuba (Reuters) - A U.S.-raised prisoner is set to plead guilty at the Guantanamo war crimes tribunal on Wednesday, admitting he was an al Qaeda operative and agreeing to help prosecute other terrorism suspects in exchange for leniency.
Lawyers for Pakistani defendant Majid Khan, who turned 32 on Tuesday, are asking for a 25- to 40-year sentence, but he is likely to serve far less under a plea deal that remains sealed.
Appearing in a top-security courtroom at the Guantanamo Bay U.S. Naval Base in Cuba, Khan would become the first of the “high-value” captives once held in secret CIA custody to agree to help prosecute other terrorism suspects.
Khan, who emigrated to the United States with his family as a boy, grew up in a Baltimore suburb and allegedly became an al Qaeda operative when he returned to Pakistan in 2002 to look for a wife.
He faces five war crimes charges that carry a potential penalty of life in prison - conspiring with al Qaeda, murder, attempted murder, providing material support for terrorism, and spying on U.S. and Pakistani targets.
He is accused of strapping on a fake bomb vest in what was ostensibly an attempt to assassinate former Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf at a mosque in Karachi in 2002. Military documents indicate that was a test of Khan’s willingness to become a martyr and that Musharraf was never expected at the mosque.
Khan is also accused of delivering $50,000 of al Qaeda money to the group that drove a truck bomb into the JW Marriott Hotel in Jakarta in 2003, killing eight people and wounding scores.
Court documents unsealed on Tuesday confirm that Khan signed a plea agreement two weeks ago. They shed no light on what sentence he might actually serve, and a Pentagon spokesman declined to comment beyond what was in the documents.
Prosecutors and defense lawyers jointly asked the judge to set Khan’s sentencing hearing for 2016, giving him four years to prove his worth as a prosecution witness. They asked that jurors recommend a sentence ranging from 25 to 40 years but noted that the official overseeing the Guantanamo tribunals, retired Vice Admiral Bruce MacDonald, will not approve anything more than 25 years.
The documents also note that MacDonald could later suspend as much of the sentence as he wishes, so the jury’s recommendation will be largely ceremonial as long as Khan lives up to his plea agreement.
That agreement is sealed and defense lawyers will ask that it remain sealed. Citing unnamed sources, the al Arabiya television network said it capped Khan’s sentence at about 15 more years.
The judge overseeing the case, Army Colonel James Pohl, has also sealed declarations given by the CIA director and a CIA agent, citing national security concerns.
Khan spent 3-1/2 years in secret CIA custody after his capture in Pakistan in March 2003. He was brought to the Guantanamo detention center with other “high value” CIA captives in 2006, when President George W. Bush said he had closed the CIA prisons.
Khan has said he was tortured in CIA custody. He said in court documents that he was beaten, subjected to sleep deprivation, stripped naked and chained to a wall with his hands raised over his head. At Guantanamo, he has said, he was subjected to isolation so severe that he became despondent and twice tried to commit suicide by chewing through the veins in his arms.
Under tribunal rules, the nine years he has already been in U.S. custody will not count toward his sentence, but the length and nature of his confinement can be considered in determining his sentence.
Editing by Tom Brown and Mohammad Zargham