Freed Guantánamo Prisoner Has Big Dreams for a New Life in Belize

BELIZE CITY — On his first day of freedom, the former Guantánamo Bay prisoner Majid Khan prayed without anyone watching him for the first time in two decades.

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

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

When he emerged last week from two decades of social isolation that began in years of solitary confinement, plans and ambitions and observations spilled from his mouth, at times in random bits of rapid-fire conversation.

“I want to go back to work. Don’t tell me to chill out, man,” Mr. Khan said, excitedly.

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

“Tell the prime minister,” he quoted himself as telling Eamon Courtenay, the foreign minister, moments after he and his tabby cat, Cheetah, landed in Belize on a flight from the U.S. military base in Cuba.

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

Later, he recited a fragment of a freestyle poem he said he left on his cell door at Guantánamo Bay. “On this day, Feb. 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, 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 has left the building.”

Hours later, Belize’s foreign minister summoned his nation’s leading news organizations and announced that, as “a humanitarian act,” Mr. Khan, his wife and their teenage daughter would be joining Belizean society.

Mr. Courtenay then told Mr. Khan’s life story, which he later 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 Sept. 11 attacks and became a courier for Al Qaeda. From 2003 to 2006, he was held incognito by the C.I.A., which subjected him to “the most horrific torture.”

At Guantánamo, he pleaded guilty to terrorism charges and began cooperating with the U.S. government. “I have full confidence that he will be a good Belizean in the years to come,” Mr. Courtenay said. “He never injured or killed anyone, nor was he ever involved in combat.”

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

One of Mr. Khan’s first calls on that new phone was to the two New York City lawyers who had represented him 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 Eastern Seaboard a day before his release and anxiously waited near their hotel’s swimming pool in the sultry heat for confirmation that he had been freed.

After nightfall, Mr. Khan strolled into the pool area in shorts and a button-down shirt in the company of three Belizeans who were serving as his guides — a government worker, a security officer and a social worker. There were hugs, handshakes and giddy conversation.

Somebody on the team ordered the coconut-flavored mocktail for Mr. Khan, who observes the strictures of Islam. Another handed him a box of Cohiba cigars, produced in the Cuban-controlled portion of the island. He asked for a few tips about his new iPhone 13, which he polished with a napkin like every first-time user. It was a considerable upgrade from the old-school analog phone with a pull-up antenna he had in Pakistan before his capture.

Then his brother called. Mr. Khan settled into a poolside lounge chair and one after the other, his father, other siblings, nieces and nephews popped up in different windows for a raucous, chatty video family reunion. A lawyer brought him shrimp tacos and soda for his dinner.

The call was impossible a day earlier at Guantánamo, even for someone such as himself who cooperated with the government. The intelligence agencies monitored all his calls with family from the prison, with each caller pausing after a sentence or so — time enough for censors to hear and bleep out anything that implicated national security.

The foreign minister called Mr. Khan “intelligent, intellectually curious and an excellent cook” who is “outgoing and will easily make friends in Belize.” From Day 1, he was “free to travel throughout the country, study, work, start a business and make the most of his life after almost 20 years in detention.”

So on Day 2, Mr. Khan and his lawyers had an outing. They ate lunch at a seafront restaurant, took team photos on a pier and then went shopping, an expedition that had the feel of a family taking a son to college.

The group wound its way through a Belizean equivalent of Walmart, sometimes stopping to explain something unfamiliar, like a shower caddy, or waiting for Mr. Khan to pick up an item he found particularly lovely, like a vase he filled with plastic flowers to greet his family. They loaded up a shopping cart with a teakettle and Tupperware, a swimsuit and shirts, storage bins, mirrors and a bathroom scale.

Mr. Khan had brought only a few keepsakes from his time at Guantánamo — 46 pages of poetry, a well-worn Quran and Cheetah, the year-old tabby cat who had appeared in his razor-wire-topped prison compound as a kitten. A U.S. Army veterinarian neutered and vaccinated the cat, who then traveled to Belize in a cage.

Also aboard the U.S. Navy twin turboprop plane was the prison’s senior medical officer, to hand Belizean authorities Mr. Khan’s health records and a six-month supply of statins to control his cholesterol and other prison-prescribed medication.

The next stop after the shopping trip was his new home. In an hour, the legal team helped him unpack and straighten out the place.

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

Col. Wayne Aaron of the Army, his last military lawyer, hung curtains. Tech. Sgt. Shafiyquca Gause, a paralegal with the Air Force, set up the kitchen. Matthew Hellman, the Washington, D.C., lawyer who handled his habeas corpus petition, assembled a fan inside the three-bedroom house.

Someone realized that they forgot to buy a cutlery set for Mr. Khan, who for years was issued a plastic spork at mealtime.

The house was mostly empty, for now a bachelor pad with the bed, a bureau and pizzas in the freezer. Yet to be purchased was furniture, perhaps a sofa and a dining table, before his wife and the daughter he had yet to meet in person arrived from Pakistan.

In a moment of reflection, Mr. Khan declared Belize “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 for prayer after his first meal in the country.

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

Mr. Khan, whose every movement had been watched and controlled by others for two decades, told her that he would leave the door open. No, she said, lock it behind you, so nobody interrupts.

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