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Guantanamo Bay jurist calls CIA torture 'a stain'

by CAROL ROSENBERG THE NEW YORK TIMES | November 7, 2021 at 3:51 a.m.

GUANTANAMO BAY, Cuba -- A Navy captain who as head of a jury in a war crimes court wrote a damning letter calling the CIA's torture of a terrorist "a stain on the moral fiber of America" said his views are typical of senior members of the U.S. military.

Capt. Scott B. Curtis, the jury foreperson, said it is just that he had the opportunity to express his thoughts in a letter proposing clemency for prisoner Majid Khan, an al-Qaida recruit who pleaded guilty to terrorism and murder charges for delivering $50,000 from his native Pakistan to finance a deadly bombing in Indonesia.

But before he started writing, the eight-officer jury sentenced Khan to 26 years in prison.

"There was no sympathy for him or what he had done," said Curtis, who agreed to reveal his identity in an hourlong interview last week. "The crime itself, everyone thought that was an evil act and he should be accountable for that. It was the torture that was a mitigating factor."

On the eve of his sentencing Oct. 29, Khan, 41, offered a graphic account of the physical, sexual and psychological abuse by CIA agents and operatives inflicted on him in dungeonlike conditions in black site prisons in Pakistan, Afghanistan and a third country. He described how he went from graduating in 1999 from a suburban Baltimore high school to becoming a courier and would-be suicide bomber for al-Qaida to, since 2012, a repentant cooperator with the U.S. government.

[DOCUMENT: Read the letter proposing clemency for Khan »]

The two-hour presentation was so vivid, it "kind of riveted us," Curtis said.

It took the panel just 90 minutes to reach a decision. Not everybody agreed to the lowest end of a possible 25- to 40-year sentence, so they settled on 26 years.

Then, Curtis said, while the other officers chatted among themselves, he spent about 20 minutes writing the two-page, handwritten letter on red-ruled notebook paper -- no crumpled-up false starts, no rough drafts.

The clemency letter provided a harsh critique of the legal framework and CIA detention system that the Bush administration established after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the legacy of which continues today in the form of the wartime prison at Guantanamo Bay now holding Khan and 38 other detainees. It also offered an unusually candid view of the thinking of some U.S. military officers on the use and value of torture.

Those who signed it included a Marine lieutenant colonel, two Army lieutenant colonels, two Navy commanders and a Marine major.

They were "all pretty much of the same mind," Curtis said. "I just articulated it on paper."

Curtis, 51, an engineer whose specialty is aircraft carrier nuclear power systems, said by telephone from his current duty assignment in Tampa, Fla., that he understood that the letter's sentiment might stir controversy but rejected the notion that this was a liberal position. In the military he has served for 30 years, he said, there is widespread agreement that "torture is wrong."

In the case of Khan, his 26-year sentence was largely symbolic.

When he pleaded guilty in 2012, he became a government cooperator. The parties agreed to delay sentencing so that Khan could demonstrate that cooperation as part of a deal that would, in exchange, reduce his eventual jury sentence.

But the jury was not told about the deal that could release him as soon as February 2022 or as late as February 2025.

Curtis said he had taught ROTC units in recent years and was keenly aware of "what 21-year-olds are capable of." Khan, while in his 20s, "did some terrible things," among them delivering $50,000 that was used to finance the 2003 bombing of a Marriott hotel in Jakarta, Indonesia, that killed 11 people.

The captain said that his letter intentionally "didn't accuse anybody of illegal acts" and that he was familiar with what was authorized under enhanced interrogation. "But slamming his head against the wall every time they moved him and beating him while he was hooded, I don't think those are legal acts. I think that falls into the category of torture."

The letter asking a senior Pentagon official to grant clemency to Khan was not read aloud in court. The foreperson gave it to the bailiff, who delivered it to Maj. Michael J. Lyness, Khan's military defense attorney.

Print Headline: Guantanamo Bay jurist calls CIA torture 'a stain'


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