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Released Guantánamo prisoner has big dreams for a new life in Belize

BELIZE CITY — On his first day of freedom, former Guantánamo Bay prisoner Majid Khan prayed unattended for the first time in two decades.

He ate a lunch of fresh Caribbean fish with his new hosts, fumbled with his first smartphone, sipped a non-alcoholic piña colada with his avocados, and held a real-time video call with his family in Pakistan and the United States. United from his adopted home, Belize.

Mr Khan, 42, is the first prisoner to be released from Guantánamo Bay who had been held there as a “high-value detainee”, the intelligence community’s term for a former prisoner of Guantánamo’s secret torture program. the Bush administration of “enhanced interrogation.” ”

As he emerged last week from two decades of social isolation that began with years of solitary confinement, plans, ambitions and observations poured out of his mouth, sometimes in random snippets of quick conversations.

“I want to go back to work. Don’t tell me to relax, man,” Mr. Khan said enthusiastically.

He thought he might want to run a restaurant. He absolutely wants to run for public office.

‘Tell the Prime Minister,’ he quoted Eamon Courtenay, the Foreign Secretary, moments after he and his tabby cat, Cheetah, landed in Belize on a flight from the US military base in Cuba.

By the way, Mr Khan added, he already had the numbers of two Belizean imams in speed dial, but he had yet to visit their mosques in the country of 400,000 people, including about 600 Muslims.

Later, he recited a fragment of a freestyle poem he said he left on his cell door at Guantánamo Bay. “On this day, February 2, 2023…God set me free…My actions hurt others, like the sting of a bee. May they forgive me. I can say this or that, from A to Z. To prove my skeptics wrong, I hope to be.

He said he signed it with what he called a mic drop: “Majid Khan left the building.”

Hours later, Belize’s foreign minister summoned his country’s major news agencies and announced that, in a “humanitarian act”, Mr Khan, his wife and their teenage daughter would join the Belizean society.

Mr Courtenay then told the story of Mr Khan’s life, which he then said his nation deserved to know.

Mr Khan was exposed to radical Islam in Maryland, where he had attended high school in the 1990s. He left for Pakistan after the September 11 attacks and became a courier for al-Qaeda. From 2003 to 2006, he was held incognito by the CIA, which subjected him to “the most horrible torture”.

At Guantánamo, he pleaded guilty to terrorism charges and began cooperating with the US government. “I have full confidence that he will be a good Belizean for years to come,” Mr Courtenay said. “He never injured or killed anyone, and he never participated in combat.”

To give the Khan family a solid foundation for a fresh start, he said, Belize had demanded that the United States provide funds to buy him a house, phone, laptop and car.

One of Mr. Khan’s first calls on this new phone was to the two New York lawyers who had represented him the longest and helped him navigate his path to freedom – J. Wells Dixon of the Center for Constitutional Rights, from 2006, and Katya Jestin of Jenner & Block, from 2009.

They and three other members of his legal team had rushed to Belize from the east coast a day before his release and waited anxiously by their hotel pool in the sweltering heat for confirmation that he had been released.

After dark, Mr Khan strolled around the pool in shorts and a button-up shirt in the company of three Belizeans who acted as his guides – a government employee, a security guard and a social worker. There were hugs, handshakes and giddy talk.

Someone on the team ordered the coconut mocktail for Mr Khan, who observes the restrictions of Islam. Another handed him a box of Cohiba cigars, produced in the part of the island under Cuban control. He asked for some advice on his new iPhone 13, which he polished with a towel like any first-time user. It was a vast improvement over the old school analog telephone with a retractable antenna that he had in Pakistan before his capture.

Then his brother called. Mr Khan settled into a sun lounger by the pool and one after another his father, other siblings, nieces and nephews appeared in different windows for a noisy video family reunion and talkative. A lawyer brought him shrimp tacos and soda for his dinner.

The call was impossible the day before at Guantanamo, even for someone like him who was cooperating with the government. Intelligence agencies were monitoring all of his calls to his family from prison, with each caller stopping after about a sentence – enough time for censors to hear and beep anything involving national security.

The Foreign Secretary called Mr Khan “intelligent, intellectually curious and an excellent cook” who is “sociable and will make friends easily in Belize”. From day one, he was “free to travel around the country, study, work, start a business and enjoy his life to the fullest after nearly 20 years in detention.”

So on Day 2, Mr. Khan and his lawyers made an exit. They had lunch at a seaside restaurant, took team photos on a pier, then went shopping, an expedition that felt like a family taking a son to college.

The group weaved their way through a Belizean equivalent of Walmart, occasionally stopping to explain something unfamiliar, like a shower trolley, or waiting for Mr. Khan to pick up an item he thought was particularly nice, like a vase that he filled with plastic flowers to greet. his family. They loaded a shopping cart with a kettle and Tupperware, bathing suit and shirts, storage bins, mirrors and a bathroom scale.

Mr Khan had brought only a few souvenirs from his time at Guantánamo – 46 pages of poetry, a well-worn Koran and Cheetah, the year-old tabby cat who had appeared in his prison complex topped with barbed wire as a kitten. A US Army veterinarian neutered and vaccinated the cat, which then traveled to Belize in a cage.

The prison’s chief medical officer was also on board the US Navy’s twin-turboprop plane, handing Belizean authorities Mr Khan’s medical records and a six-month supply of statins to control his cholesterol and d other drugs prescribed by the prison.

The next stop after the shopping trip was her new home. Within an hour, the legal team helped him unpack and tidy up the place.

“Do you think you should keep your medicine on this shelf?” said Mrs. Jestin, who showed him where a shower trolley goes. She also showed him how to make his bed with a fitted sheet.

Army Colonel Wayne Aaron, his last military attorney, hung the curtains. Technology. sergeant. Shafiyquca Gause, an Air Force paralegal, set up the kitchen. Matthew Hellman, the Washington, DC attorney who handled his habeas corpus petition, assembled a fan inside the three-bedroom home.

Someone realized he had forgotten to buy a set of cutlery for Mr Khan, who for years was given a plastic spoon at mealtimes.

The house was practically empty, for the moment a bachelor with the bed, a desk and pizzas in the freezer. He still had to buy some furniture, maybe a sofa and a dining table, before his wife and the daughter he had not yet met in person arrived from Pakistan.

In a moment of reflection, Mr Khan said Belize was “the perfect place, honest to God”, for a man like him seeking to become “a productive member of society”.

Then he described what happened when he realized it was time to pray after his first meal in the countryside.

He was at a rooftop restaurant with his Belizean hosts and slipped away to use the bathroom and wash up. He saw a waitress and explained that he was a Muslim and needed a place to pray. She led him to a utility room under the dining room and handed him a clean red tablecloth.

Mr Khan, whose every move had been watched and controlled by others for two decades, told her he would leave the door open. No, she said, lock it behind you, so no one interrupts you.

“That’s what I did,” he said, surprised. “I closed and locked the door. I prayed for 10 minutes and left.

nytimes Gt

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