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A prisoner is still in GITMO after he served his time. Now, he's suing for release


Although the U.S. war in Afghanistan ended last year, the U.S. military prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, is still open. It was created to hold people captured in Afghanistan and the broader war on terror. And it now has 37 prisoners. The majority of them have never been charged and are being held indefinitely, some for more than 20 years. Now, one of those prisoners has sued the Biden administration. He says he has been unlawfully imprisoned and should be released immediately.

One of his lawyers, Wells Dixon of the Center for Constitutional Rights, is with us to explain the details of that lawsuit. Hi, Wells.


PFEIFFER: Your client, Majid Khan, is not the first Guantanamo prisoner to have sued over alleged unlawful imprisonment, and his case is unlike the others. Would you explain what makes him unique?

DIXON: His case is unique because Majid pled guilty more than a decade ago to various offenses and has been cooperating with U.S. authorities since that time. And he's now completed his sentence, but he's still detained at Guantanamo. And, really, everybody is waiting to see what happens to Majid Khan because in a certain respect, he is the key to resolving the military commission cases at Guantanamo. And that in turn is a key to closing the prison at Guantanamo.

PFEIFFER: How is he key?

DIXON: Well, resolving the military commissions at Guantanamo is, frankly, one of the more significant challenges when it comes to closing the prison. There are right now 12 men who are involved in the military commissions, and three of them...

PFEIFFER: And what you mean by that, to clarify, is 12 have actually been criminally charged. The remainder have not been charged.

DIXON: Exactly. And Majid's case is important because the other men who remain in the military commission system, including in particular the 9/11 defendants, you know, those cases have dragged on for more than a decade without justice, without accountability for anyone. There is right now an opportunity. But whether the government succeeds in resolving the remaining cases through plea deals and thus whether they succeed in closing Guantanamo depends in large part on what happens to Majid Khan.

So think about this - if you have completed your military commission sentence after cooperating with the U.S. authorities for more than a decade, and you look around you and it doesn't look any different to you than it did 10 years ago, that's not a tolerable situation. Why do we put anyone through a military commission trial or sentencing if at the end of the day it doesn't mean anything?

PFEIFFER: I have asked the State Department why Khan is still being held, and I'm still waiting for a response. But what have you been told, if anything, about the reason for his continued detention?

DIXON: It's hard to know and understand why Khan is being detained beyond the end of his sentence. And that's why we filed a legal challenge to his continuing detention because we weren't getting answers to those questions. But as best we can tell, there's no federal interest in continuing to hold him.

PFEIFFER: Your client grew up in suburban Maryland, but I believe he's a Pakistani citizen. And he said that Pakistan is the only country he does not want to be transferred to. Why? Why does he not want to go there?

DIXON: Majid Khan cannot be transferred safely to Pakistan because he has been cooperating with U.S. authorities for more than a decade, and that puts him at substantial risk of harm.

PFEIFFER: Finding countries to take these men is challenging. It has to be a place that won't torture them, that will have reasonable security assurances. Do you think the difficulty of that task is enough of an excuse for why so many prisoners continue to sit at Gitmo, even though they've been cleared for release?

DIXON: I don't think that the reason these men remain at Guantanamo is for lack of countries willing to accept them. I think it's really been a function of the fact that no one in the administration until recently has taken ownership or responsibility for transferring these men.

PFEIFFER: We should also note that there used to be a State Department office that helped negotiate prisoner transfers. The Trump administration shut that down. But the Biden administration has recently reappointed someone, so it looks like that process may begin again. Do you feel like that's underway in earnest?

DIXON: I do. I think it's very important and very significant and, frankly, encouraging that the Biden administration has appointed a senior official in the counterterrorism bureau to take charge of Guantanamo transfers. And, you know, I'm confident that if this work continues, there will be progress on transferring detainees and closing Guantanamo.

PFEIFFER: You have been working on Guantanamo legal cases for a long time. How hopeful are you that you'll see the remaining Gitmo cases resolved and the U.S. military court and prison there closed before Biden leaves office, whenever that is?

DIXON: Whether Guantanamo closes or not is a function of political will more than anything else. Guantanamo is fundamentally a legacy problem for the administration. You know, for the men who remain there, it is a human rights tragedy. And Guantanamo has existed for more than 20 years. It never should have been opened, but it certainly should have been closed a long, long time ago.

PFEIFFER: Wells Dixon of the Center for Constitutional Rights is a defense lawyer for Guantanamo prisoner Majid Khan. Thank you.

DIXON: Thank you.

PFEIFFER: And we did hear back from the State Department after this interview was recorded. A spokesperson said the department does not comment on pending litigation. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Sacha Pfeiffer is a correspondent for NPR's Investigations team and an occasional guest host for some of NPR's national shows.
Michael Levitt
Michael Levitt is a news assistant for All Things Considered who is based in Atlanta, Georgia. He graduated from UCLA with a B.A. in Political Science. Before coming to NPR, Levitt worked in the solar energy industry and for the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington, D.C. He has also travelled extensively in the Middle East and speaks Arabic.
Ashley Brown is a senior editor for All Things Considered.