By Andy Worthington, March 16, 2016
Last week Saifullah Paracha, a Pakistani businessman, and, at 68 years of age, Guantánamo's oldest current prisoner, became the 28th Guantánamo prisoner to have his potential release considered by a Periodic Review Board (see our full list here). This review process was set up in 2013 to review the cases of all the prisoners not facing trials (just ten men) or already approved for release by President Obama's high-level, inter-agency Guantánamo Review Task Force in 2010, when almost two-thirds of the remaining prisoners -- 156 out of 240 -- were recommended for release, or, to use the task force's careful wording, were "approved for transfer subject to appropriate security measures."
Of the 28, five decisions have yet to be made, but of the 23 others the success rate for these men securing approval for their release is extremely high -- 83% -- with 19 men having their release recommended. What makes these decisions particularly important is that they puncture the rhetoric that has surrounded these men -- both under George W. Bush, with the glib dismissal of everyone at Guantánamo as "the worst of the worst," and under Barack Obama, with his task force's conclusion (more worrying because of its veneer of authority) that 48 of those eligible for PRBs were "too dangerous to release," even though it was also acknowledged that insufficient evidence existed to put them on trial; in other words, that it was not reliable evidence at all.
In attempting to justify its decisions, the task force noted that its members had relied on "the totality of available information -- including credible information that might not be admissible in a criminal prosecution -- [which] indicated that the detainee poses a high level of threat that cannot be mitigated sufficiently except through continued detention."
The task force, however, also noted that one reason some of the 48 were recommended for ongoing detention was not because of anything they were alleged or thought to have done, but because they had "[e]xpressed recidivist intent," meaning that, "while at Guantánamo," they had "expressly stated or otherwise exhibited an intent to reengage in extremist activity upon release," even though they might just have been responding with anger and threats to their long years of imprisonment without any acceptable form of due process, and their inhumane treatment in defiance of all accepted international norms.
When the PRBs finally began in November 2013, almost four years after the task force delivered its recommendations, and almost three years after President Obama explicitly authorized the ongoing imprisonment of the 48, via an executive order, while guaranteeing them reviews that, he promised, would take place within a year, two of the men had died, and 25 others had been added to those eligible for reviews.
These 25 men were originally recommended for prosecution by the task force, but their ability to be prosecuted had collapsed when, in a number of crucial rulings, the appeals court in Washington, D.C., a generally quite Conservative establishment, had struck down some of the few convictions achieved in the military commission trial system, on the basis that the war crimes in question had actually been invented by Congress.
Of the 28 men whose cases have so far been considered by the PRBs, all but three were assigned to the "too dangerous to release" category by the task force in 2010. Only one man previously recommended for prosecution, Tariq al-Sawah, an Egyptian, has had a decision taken on his case, and this was a recommendation for release, last February, that led to his transfer to a new life in Bosnia in January.
The other two are Suhayl al-Sharabi (ISN 569), reviewed on March 1, and Saifullah Paracha (ISN 1094), reviewed on March 8 -- and a 29th man, Sharqawi Abdu Ali Al-Hajj (ISN 1457), another Yemeni, whose case I will be writing about very soon, was reviewed on March 15. Observers are watching these cases closely, as President Obama's intention to close Guantánamo before he leaves office depends, in part, on the number of prisoners still imprisoned after all those approved for release have been transferred, and as yet it is too early to tell how many of those still facing PRBs will succeed in convincing the review boards -- made up of representatives of the Departments of State, Defense, Justice and Homeland Security, as well as the office of the Director of National Intelligence and the Office of the Joint Chiefs of Staff -- that it is safe and appropriate to recommend their release.
35 men are still awaiting reviews, and 19 of them are men initially recommended for prosecution. Forthcoming, in this latter category, are reviews for Obaidullah (ISN 762), an Afghan, in April, Abdul Zahir (ISN 753), another Afghan, and Sanad al-Kazimi (ISN 1453), a Yemeni, in May, Mohamedou Ould Slahi (ISN 760), a Mauritanian and a best-selling author, in June, and Mohammed al-Qahtani (ISN 063), allegedly intended to be the 20th hijacker for the 9/11 attacks, in July (both Slahi and al-Qahtani were subjected to specific torture programs at Guantánamo). Just two of the "too dangerous to release" category currently have reviews scheduled -- Uthman Abd al-Rahim Muhammad Uthman (ISN 027), a Yemeni, in April, and Shawqi Awad Balzuhair (ISN 838), another Yemeni, in May.
A successful businessman, with extensive business dealings in the U.S., where he lived for 16 years, Paracha has always been an unlikely terrorist sympathiser, as I first explained nearly ten years ago in my book The Guantánamo Files, where I wrote:
"Saifullah Paracha, a 55-year old businessman and philanthropist from Karachi, was arrested after flying into Bangkok for a business trip on 5 July 2003 [in a U.S.-led sting operation]. Rendered to Afghanistan, he spent 14 months in Bagram and was then flown to Guantánamo on 20 September 2004. A graduate in computer science from the New York Institute of Technology, he acknowledged that he had met Osama bin Laden twice, at meetings of businessmen and religious leaders in 1999 and 2000, but denied the allegations against him, which included making investments for al-Qaeda members, translating statements for bin Laden, joining in a plot to smuggle explosives into the U.S. and recommending that nuclear weapons be used against U.S. soldiers. These were indeed wild accusations for anyone familiar with his story. Deeply impressed by all things American, he had lived in the U.S. in the 1980s, running several small businesses, and after returning to Pakistan had made a fortune running a clothes exporting business in partnership with a New York-based Jewish entrepreneur (an unthinkable association for someone who was actually involved with al-Qaeda).
"His case is inextricably tied to that of his 23-year old son Uzair, the eldest of his four children, who was detained in New York, where he was marketing apartments to the Pakistani community, four months earlier. Arrested by FBI agents, Uzair was accused of working with [the "high-value detainees"] Ammar al-Baluchi and Majid Khan … to provide false documents to help Khan enter the U.S. to carry out attacks on petrol stations, and was convicted in a U.S. court in November 2005 – even though he said that he was coerced into making a false confession, and both Khan and al-Baluchi made statements that neither Uzair nor his father had ever knowingly aided al-Qaeda – and was sentenced to 30 years' imprisonment in July 2006. His father remains in Guantánamo, where, although he has heart problems, he has refused to undertake an operation because he does not trust the prison's surgeons."
I also wrote more about Saifullah and Uzair Paracha in an article in July 2007, entitled Guantánamo’s tangled web: Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, Majid Khan, dubious U.S. convictions, and a dying man.
Nevertheless, the U.S. authorities maintain that, as described in the unclassified summary of evidence for Saifullah Paracha's PRB, he was a "facilitator on behalf of al-Qa'ida senior leaders and operational planners," who, as well as meeting Osama bin Laden, "later worked with external operations chief Khalid Shaykh Muhammad (KU-10024) to facilitate financial transactions and to develop media."
Writing of the supposed U.S. plot that led to his son's conviction, the authorities claimed that father and son "tried to help an al-Qa'ida operative travel to the U.S.," and also claimed that Saifullah Paracha "offered operational suggestions to al-Qa'ida, including advice on how to smuggle explosives into the U.S. that al-Qa'ida planners probably did not take seriously."
The authorities also noted how Paracha has been a model prisoner in Guantánamo. "Since his arrival at Guantánamo," they stated unambiguously, "Paracha has shown no indication of extremist sympathies in his interrogations, interactions with other detainees and guard staff." They added that "he also has shown no remorse for having worked with al-Qa'ida before his detention," although, as his civilian lawyer, David Remes, explained to the review board, he “cannot show ‘remorse’ for things he maintains he never did.”
The authorities also noted that he "regularly participated in interrogations until early 2015 and has offered some information about al-Qa'ida operatives but generally has avoided incriminating himself or Uzair, his son." It was acknowledged that he "continues to deny that he knew of any al-Qa'ida plotting," but the authorities added that he "claims he undertook his terrorist activities for profit rather than out of loyalty to the group," a claim I have not previously heard.
Turning to his behavior in U.S. custody, the authorities noted that, "While in Guantánamo, Paracha has been very compliant with the detention staff and espouses moderate views and acceptance of Western norms. He has focused on improving cell block conditions and helping some detainees improve their English-language and business skills."
Finally, the authorities noted that, if he were to be recommended for release, he "has expressed interest in returning to the U.S." or Pakistan, where he "probably would resume running the family businesses and would seek out opportunities to begin new ventures." It was also claimed that he had "extensive extremist business contacts established before his detention, including members of the Taliban and Lashkar-e-Tayyiba, "could provide him opportunities to reengage in extremist activity should he choose to do so."
Writing about his experience before the review board, the Associated Press noted that Paracha "wore the white prison uniform reserved for the prisoners considered the most compliant, as he testified from a trailer on the base before the board, whose members gather in the Washington DC area."
The AP also noted that, before the hearing, David Remes said that Paracha "was hopeful because the board is supposed to focus on whether the prisoner would pose a threat to the U.S. in the future, and not any alleged past conduct."
Remes said, “He’s a 68-year-old man. He has a serious heart problem. He has severe diabetes. This is not the man who was seized 14 years ago. The board has to make a fresh assessment.” Remes added that his client “has been a tremendously positive influence on his fellow detainees.”
In the Miami Herald, Carol Rosenberg made mention of Paracha's long-standing health problems, noting that he "has a long-standing heart condition, and in 2007 used his habeas corpus petition to seek treatment in the United States rather than in remote Cuba. He lost the bid and at one point the Defense Department airlifted a mobile catheterization lab and 21-member team to the outpost to offer a procedure that Paracha ultimately refused."
Rosenberg also noted that he "also helped five Yemeni detainees design a so-called Milk & Honey farm, a prospectus for an imaginary, utopian self-sufficient collective drawn up in 2014 at Guantánamo’s communal prison to demonstrate a vision of life after detention," which several of the Yemenis have used in their PRBs.
Rosenberg also noted that Paracha has "a somewhat prominent role" in the Senate Intelligence Committee's highly critical report into the CIA's torture program, of which the executive summary was published in December 2014. Rosenberg stated that the report "devotes a section to the 'identification and arrests' of Saifullah Paracha and his son" as well as Ali al-Marri, a US resident held as an "enemy combatant" on U.S. soil under George W. Bush, and Majid Khan.
Rosenberg noted that Saifullah Paracha in particular "figures in a debate on whether the CIA really needed to use enhanced interrogation techniques to identify him as a suspect," and reveals that the Senate report "also shows the CIA in May 2003 eager to capture and interrogate Paracha 'with alacrity,' something that did not happen." She also noted that it "casts doubt on CIA suspicions that the Parachas were trying to smuggle explosives into the United States, noting 'the relative ease of acquiring explosive material in the United States.'"
Below are the opening statements made by Paracha's personal representatives (military personnel appointed to represent him) and by David Remes. The representatives made note of his "calm demeanor," his lack of "ill will or anger" towards the U.S., and his desire only to be reunited with his family, while Remes spoke extensively about his role as a "model detainee" and positive influence on many younger prisoners, explaining how he encouraged them to accept lawyers after they were granted habeas corpus rights in 2004 and to take part in the PRBs, and how he "discourages conflict and calms detainees when they are agitated," and "promotes harmony among religions."
Periodic Review Board Initial Hearing, 08 Mar 2016
Saifullah Abdullah Paracha, ISN 1094
Personal Representative Opening Statement
Good morning, we are the Personal Representatives for Saifullah Abdullah Paracha, a 68 year-old man who has always been an exemplary detainee, evident in both his behavior for fellow detainees and towards the administration.
As the Personal Representatives for Saifullah, we can account that he has attended every meeting, been prepared and readily willing to participate throughout this process. In addition, he has persuaded other detainees to participate in the PRB process in order to sagaciously participate in their own PRB allowing a better process. He has a calm demeanor. His consistent character demonstrates he will remain the same peaceful and stable person outside of GTMO.
Saifullah would be the first to tell you that he has no problem with the United States. His ability to speak both English and Urdu has enabled him to teach other detainees as well as be a mediator between fellow Urdu speaking detainees allowing communications in a closed off community. As one of the oldest detainees in Guantánamo, many of his peers look to him for guidance and even consider Saifullah a father figure. He hopes that his transfer from Guantánamo will make up for the lost years of his life. Saifullah wants nothing more than to return to his loving wife and children. He is willing to be transferred to any country in order to move on with his life.
Saifullah was an extremely successful businessman and once he is transferred, he wants to continue his business. He has the skill set and talent to be successful in whatever country he is repatriated. Additionally, his family is ready to supply support wherever this may be, although they would like him to return to Pakistan to be the head-of-household for both his wife and kids, who will rely on him.
Saifullah has not expressed any ill will or anger about his detention at Guantánamo. He has denounced terrorist acts and organizations. Saifullah hopes today that you will find he is not a threat to the U.S. by answering your questions so he can return home.
Periodic Review Board Initial Hearing, 08 Mar 2016
Saifullah Abdullah Paracha, ISN 1094
Opening Statement of Private Counsel David H. Remes
Good morning. I am David Remes, private counsel for Saifullah Abdullah Paracha. Mr. Paracha is a citizen of Pakistan. At 68, he is the oldest remaining Guantánamo detainee. I have represented him since 2005 and speak frequently with his family in Pakistan and America.
Mr. Paracha respectfully asks that the Board recommend him for transfer. He wishes to be brought either to Pakistan or America. In Pakistan, he will reunite with his wife of 36 years, and their two daughters and large extended family, rebuild his businesses and build new ones, and live a normal peaceful life. In America, he and his wife will live normal lives among their large contingent of relatives here, who include one of his brothers, one of his sisters, his two sons, and 22 nieces and nephews.
Wherever he goes, Mr. Paracha, who suffers from chronic medical conditions, will require medical observation and care.
Mr. Paracha is certainly well prepared for life in America or any other English-speaking country. He lived in the U.S. from 1970 to 1986 and married here. Born into extreme poverty in a remote Punjab village in 1947, he came to America when he was 24 and became a successful businessman. He owned travel agencies which facilitated travel between the U.S. and Pakistan, and he produced a weekly television program for the Pakistani population in New Jersey.
When Mr. Paracha returned to Pakistan in 1986, he and an American partner established an export-import business, which acted as a buying agent in Pakistan for American retail giants, such as Wal-Mart and K-Mart, placing orders for garments and other merchandise made in Pakistan. Mr. Paracha also set up a television production company, which produced plays and programs designed to promote religious harmony.
Mr. Paracha is fluent in English and avidly follows the news in the English-language news media. Mr. Paracha does not speak Arabic. He often beats me to the punch when we discuss political or economic developments here and abroad. Mr. Paracha also has faith that the United States can play a constructive role in world affairs. Among the items we submitted to the Board are pre-9/11 letters that he wrote to President George W. Bush and former President George H.W. Bush proposing ways to bridge the divide between the Western and Arab worlds.
Mr. Paracha is and has always been a model detainee. He has always been held in quarters reserved for the most compliant detainees. Remarkably, he has stayed cheerful and upbeat despite his unfortunate circumstances. Guards and camp officials enjoy his company, and he always talked freely and openly with his interrogators. Of course, Mr. Paracha cannot show "remorse" for things he maintains he never did.
Mr. Paracha has been an enormously positive influence on other detainees. Other detainees call him "Uncle," a term of great respect for male elders, and seek out his advice. Wise and understanding, he discourages conflict and calms detainees when they are agitated. He promotes harmony among religions. He taught classes in business administration and English. Once, when other facilities were unavailable, he set up class in a cell.
Mr. Paracha also counseled cooperation with the government in the judicial and administrative review process. When the Supreme Court in 2004 gave detainees the green light to pursue habeas corpus cases, Mr. Paracha urged his fellows to accept help from the American lawyers. When the Periodic Review Board opened for business in July 2013, he urged them to participate in the process.
Saifullah Paracha harbors no animosity to the U.S. On the contrary, he has many family members here and is willing to be resettled here. Once, when asked if he is half-Pakistani and half-American, he replied that he is entirely Pakistani and entirely American. Nor does Mr. Paracha have any sympathy for terrorism or radical Islam. On the contrary, he has publicly denounced terrorism as un-Islamic and will continue to speak against it, wherever he is sent.
Model detainee. Mentor to younger detainees. Counselor of tolerance, understanding, and cooperation. Paterfamilias of a great extended family, with members in Pakistan and America. A man at home in the U.S. and at ease with Western culture and ways. A man who opposes and denounces violent extremism. This man, Saifullah Paracha, is no threat to the United States, and the Board should recommend him for transfer.