End 20 Years Of Injustice

Uzair Paracha, Victim of Tortured Terrorism Lies, is Freed from U.S. Jail; Why Is His Father Still at Guantánamo?

A composite image of Guantánamo, the prison's oldest prisoner Saifullah Paracha, and his son Uzair, who has just been released from a U.S. prison where he served 14 years of a 30-year sentence for connections to Al-Qaeda that didn't exist. His father's connections to Al-Qaeda are just as spectral, and yet there is no sign of when, if ever, he will be released.

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By Andy Worthington, March 23, 2020

For anyone who has been paying attention not only to the long and horribly unjust Guantánamo saga, but also to the stories of others held in other circumstances as part of the "tangled web" of the "war on terror," the recent announcement that Uzair Paracha, a Pakistani national, has been released from a U.S. jail and repatriated after 17 years in prison, with a judge throwing his conviction out of court, is extremely good news.

If there is any justice, Uzair Paracha’s release ought to secure the release from Guantánamo of his father, Saifullah, although, when it comes to Guantánamo, of course, it has rarely been the case that anything involving that prison has ever had any meaningful connection to justice.

I first came across Saifullah Paracha’s story in 2006, while researching my book The Guantánamo Files, and I came across his son’s story in 2007, which prompted me to write about a possible miscarriage of justice in my article, Guantánamo’s tangled web: Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, Majid Khan, dubious U.S. convictions, and a dying man.

Saifullah Paracha, as I explained in my introduction to a cross-post of "Forever prisoners: were a father and son wrongly ensnared by America’s war on terror?", a Guardian article by Saba Imtiaz in December 2018, was "a successful businessman in Pakistan, with business interests across the world, including in the U.S. where he lived in the 1980s," and is "alleged by the U.S. to have been involved in plotting with al-Qaeda, but although he accepts that he met Osama bin Laden on two occasions, he has always denied any involvement with terrorism."

Uzair Paracha, meanwhile, "moved to the United States in Feb. 2003, settled in Brooklyn and was arrested just a month later" for involvement with terrorism, as the New York Times reported last week, paraphrasing the judge’s ruling in his case. As I explained last year, he "was convicted of providing material aid and financial support to al-Qaida terrorists in November 2005, and received a 30-year sentence in July 2006."

That sentence was, surprisingly, thrown out in July 2018 by Judge Sidney H. Stein, who had been the judge in his original trial, and had handed down his 30-year sentence. Judge Stein ordered a new trial after concluding that allowing the existing conviction to stand would be a "manifest injustice."

Judge Stein correctly asserted that the critical question had "always been whether Paracha acted with knowledge that he was helping Al Qaeda." The government claimed, during his trial in 2005, that, as Benjamin Weiser described it for the New York Times, Uzair Paracha and his father "had met in Pakistan with two Qaeda operatives — Majid Khan and Ammar al-Baluchi — and that Uzair had agreed to help Mr. Khan fraudulently obtain immigration documents so he could carry out a plot to bomb gas stations in the United States."

Weiser added that Uzair Paracha "testified at trial that he had taken 'some small steps' to help Mr. Khan," but, as court papers showed, "he claimed he never knew the men were Qaeda members," and stated that, had he known, "I would not have helped them out."

Weiser added that, although Judge Stein had noted that Uzair Paracha "had given varying, and at times incriminating, statements to the authorities about his knowledge of the men’s Qaeda ties," at his trial, Paracha had a convincing explanation, testifying, as Judge Stein put it, that "key portions of his statements were false and stemmed from 'a combination of fear, intimidation and exhaustion.'"

Crucially, Judge Stein also asserted that, in the years since Uzair Paracha’s conviction, "new evidence had come to light: statements not only by Mr. Khan and Mr. al-Baluchi, but by the self-described architect of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks — Khalid Shaikh Mohammed."

All three men have been held in the prison at Guantánamo Bay since September 2006, after several years in CIA "black site" torture prisons, and, as Judge Stein also noted, their statements, which were "made before military tribunals or in interviews with federal agents," in the Times’ words, "directly contradict the government’s case" that Uzair Paracha "knowingly aided Al-Qaeda."

As Ben Weiser proceeded to explain, "Mr. Khan, for example, told the authorities that he had never disclosed his Qaeda ties to Mr. Paracha, whom he described as innocent; and Mr. Mohammed 'openly confessed his responsibility for dozens of heinous crimes and terrorist plots,'" but, as Judge Stein acknowledged, never mentioned Mr. Paracha or his father — who had been seized in August 2003 on a business trip to Thailand, and had been sent to Guantánamo, after a year in "black sites," in September 2004.

"Given this new evidence," Weiser added, Judge Stein noted that Uzair Paracha "could 'credibly ask the jury' to infer his innocence and 'lack of involvement in the operations discussed,'" and, as noted above, damningly concluded that allowing the existing conviction to stand would be a "manifest injustice."

Uzair Paracha is freed

Instead of having a retrial, the U.S. government released Uzair Paracha, who is now 40 years old, and he flew back to Pakistan on Friday March 13, and was reunited with his family, a free man after all charges against him were dropped, according to a government court filing submitted on Monday March 16, and a statement made by his lawyer, Ramzi Kassem, a law professor at the City University of New York (CUNY).

As Ben Weiser explained, "Mr. Paracha’s release followed months of secret negotiations between the government and his lawyers," and left the government flailing around for a plausible explanation as to why they did not proceed with a retrial. As Weiser put it, "The government had indicated in court papers that it did not believe the new evidence exonerated Mr. Paracha," and, "[a]s recently as late 2018, prosecutors described Mr. Paracha as 'an avowed Al-Qaeda supporter' whose release would pose a 'serious danger to the public.'"

This was idiotic, but typical. However, as Weiser also explained, by the time of the last filing, on March 16, prosecutors ended up claiming that "they decided not to retry Mr. Paracha because they could not complete a required review of 14,000 classified documents before Mr. Paracha’s trial date 'without diverting substantial resources from other important national-security and law-enforcement functions.'"

Weiser added that this document review "was necessary to determine whether any of the documents were relevant to the case and might have to be turned over to the defense in advance of March 23, the date of Mr. Paracha’s retrial, which the judge said he would not postpone." However, "[e]ven with prosecutors and FBI agents sifting for months through the materials, which were generated by American intelligence and military agencies in the years since the first trial, the government told the judge in November that only 6,300 documents had been reviewed," conveniently allowing them not to proceed with a retrial, which, we can only conclude, would have gone disastrously for them.

In order to secure his release, Uzair Paracha had to agree to "give up his status as a permanent U.S. resident," but, as Ramzi Kassem explained, "Uzair’s slate is clean and he returns home to Pakistan a free and innocent man."

In a statement, Uzair himself said, "My prayers have been answered," although he added that "it’s hard for me to imagine life outside of prison, so I feel anxious but hopeful."

Providing further explanation of their supposed motivation for freeing Paracha rather than giving him a retrial, the government also "made it clear that beyond the burden of the classified-document review, it also had considered Mr. Paracha’s long stay in prison and his agreement to renounce his residency status and leave the country," as Ben Weiser described it, noting that the prosecutors stated, "The government believes that dismissing the indictment under the circumstances presented is the best available option to protect the public and preserve national-security equities."

Ramzi Kassem further explained that, "early on in discussions prosecutors offered to let Mr. Paracha return to Pakistan immediately if he pleaded guilty to a terrorism-related charge," but he "refused to take the deal." In Kassem’s words, "Mr. Paracha was adamant that he wanted to go to trial to clear his name." Another of his lawyers, Joshua L. Dratel, told the Times that "he believed Mr. Paracha would have been acquitted in a retrial."

Kassem also explained that the government "made additional offers — that Mr. Paracha plead to a lesser count, for example — but he rejected them," and, instead, last fall the government "agreed to a defense proposal that became the framework for the final deal."

When will Saifullah Paracha be released from Guantánamo?

Unfortunately, while Uzair Paracha is now a free man, there is no guarantee that his father will also be released, because, although the profound doubts about the reliability of those who, under duress, accused him of being knowingly involved with Al-Qaeda are just as applicable to the case against Saifullah Paracha, the horrible truth about Guantánamo is that suspicions are regarded as far more compelling than evidence.

Perhaps those of us who care about quaint notions like the veracity of evidence as a basis for imprisonment can find a way to highlight the injustice of Saifullah Paracha’s ongoing imprisonment, as, unfortunately, the only body charged with reviewing his indefinite imprisonment without charge or trial, the parole-type Periodic Review Board, established under President Obama, has repeatedly refused to recommend his release, even though there is no evidence against him, and, in addition, he is Guantánamo’s oldest prisoner, and suffers from an array of complex and life-threatening medical issues.

If you’d like to find out more about the high esteem in which Saifullah Paracha is held, by both prison staff and his fellow prisoners, please read Saifullah Paracha: The Kind Father, Brother, and Friend for All at Guantánamo, an article by former prisoner Mansoor Adayfi that we published exclusively in 2018.