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Former U.S. resident convicted at Guantanamo of murder

By Jane Sutton

GUANTANAMO BAY U.S. NAVAL BASE, Cuba (Reuters) -

A former CIA "ghost prisoner" who grew up in the Baltimore area admitted to a U.S. war crimes court on Wednesday that he was an al Qaeda money courier and martyr-in-training now prepared to help prosecute other terrorism suspects.

After nearly nine years in U.S. custody, Pakistani native Majid Khan appeared in public for the first time at a top-security courtroom on the Guantanamo Bay U.S. naval base in Cuba. He pleaded guilty to all five charges against him, including murder and attempted murder, in a deal that spares him from a potential life sentence in exchange for helping prosecute other prisoners.

Khan, a square-faced 32-year-old with short black hair, goatee and glasses, wore a dark suit, white shirt and mauve tie. He was unshackled and seemed relaxed as he stood in court next to his military lawyer, Army Lieutenant Colonel Jon Jackson, who spoke on his behalf.

"Mr. Khan pleads as follows to all charges and specifications, guilty," Jackson told the court.

Asked later by the judge if he was sure that admitting guilt was in his best interest, Khan replied, "No doubt sir."

In addition to murder and attempted murder, Khan was convicted of conspiring with al Qaeda, providing material support for terrorism and spying on U.S. and Pakistani targets. Documents released earlier said he faced up to 25 years in prison but the plea agreement unsealed in court capped it at 19 years. Sentencing will be deferred to 2016.

Khan moved to Maryland with his family in 1996, graduated from a suburban Baltimore high school and became a database programmer. He met self-described September 11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed during a trip to Pakistan in 2002 and became his acolyte.

Under Mohammed's instruction, Khan passed a test designed to prove his willingness to become an al Qaeda suicide bomber. He donned a fake bomb vest and waited to set it off in a mosque in Karachi where he was told then-Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf would show up.

Khan also delivered $50,000 of al Qaeda cash to the group that drove a truck bomb into the JW Marriott Hotel in Jakarta in August 2003, killing 11 people and wounding dozens. The bombing took place five months after Khan was captured.

"Even though I delivered the money, the fact of the matter is I did not know where the money was going. But I voluntarily did that. I was not aware of any conspiracy that was going to happen," he told the court.

BEHIND A GLASS WALL

A California woman who survived the blast watched Wednesday's hearing from behind a glass wall in the courtroom spectators' gallery.

Khan's parents and other relatives were scheduled to watch via closed-circuit television at a Maryland military base. He also has a wife in Pakistan and a daughter he has never seen.

Pakistani police arrested Khan in Pakistan in March 2003 and turned him over to the CIA. His family did not learn what had happened to him until then-President George W. Bush announced in 2006 that he had closed secret prisons and sent Khan and more than a dozen other CIA "ghost prisoners" to Guantanamo.

Khan claims he was tortured in CIA custody but the plea agreement prevents him from making any claim against any U.S. government agency. The judge halted him when he started to tell the court, "illegally I was kidnapped" and a court security officer later cut the audio feed when secret information was discussed.

Under the plea deal, the Pentagon official overseeing the tribunals will recommend that Khan not be returned to Guantanamo's top-security Camp 7, which holds other "high-value" prisoners he might be asked to testify against.

Khan said he understood the U.S. government's stance that it can continue to hold him as an alien unlawful enemy combatant even after he finishes his sentence.

"This agreement does not guarantee me that I will ever get free," he acknowledged to the judge. "I'm making a leap of faith here, sir."

Khan is the seventh captive convicted in the still-evolving Guantanamo tribunals designed to prosecute non-U.S. citizens on terrorism charges outside the regular civilian and military courts. He is the fifth to plead guilty in exchange for leniency and the first of the former CIA prisoners to do so.

Four of the guilty pleas have occurred under the administration of President Barack Obama, whose attempts to close the Guantanamo detention camp and move the trials into civilian federal courts have been thwarted by Congress.

(Editing by Vicki Allen)

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