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

24.3.20

Uzair Paracha, left, photographed at the time of his arrest in 2003, and his father Saifullah, still held at Guantánamo, in a photo taken a few years ago by representatives of the International Committee of the Red Cross.

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I wrote the following article for the “Close Guantánamo” website, which I established in January 2012, on the 10th anniversary of the opening of Guantánamo, with the US attorney Tom Wilner. Please join us — just an email address is required to be counted amongst those opposed to the ongoing existence of Guantánamo, and to receive updates of our activities by email.

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 US 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 US 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 US where he lived in the 1980s,” and is “alleged by the US 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 US 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 US 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 invoked 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 was written for Close Guantánamo, and cross-posted here, in 2018.

* * * * *

Andy Worthington is a freelance investigative journalist, activist, author, photographer, film-maker and singer-songwriter (the lead singer and main songwriter for the London-based band The Four Fathers, whose music is available via Bandcamp). He is the co-founder of the Close Guantánamo campaign (and see the latest photo campaign here) and the successful We Stand With Shaker campaign of 2014-15, and the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (click on the following for Amazon in the US and the UK) and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. He is also the co-director (with Polly Nash) of the documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (available on DVD here, or here for the US, or you can watch it online here, via the production company Spectacle, for £2.55), and for his photo project ‘The State of London’ he publishes a photo a day from seven years of bike rides around the 120 postcodes of the capital.

In 2017, Andy became very involved in housing issues. He is the narrator of the documentary film, ‘Concrete Soldiers UK’, about the destruction of council estates, and the inspiring resistance of residents, he wrote a song ‘Grenfell’, in the aftermath of the entirely preventable fire in June 2017 that killed over 70 people, and he also set up ‘No Social Cleansing in Lewisham’ as a focal point for resistance to estate destruction and the loss of community space in his home borough in south east London. For two months, from August to October 2018, he was part of the occupation of the Old Tidemill Wildlife Garden in Deptford, to prevent its destruction — and that of 16 structurally sound council flats next door — by Lewisham Council and Peabody. Although the garden was violently evicted by bailiffs on October 29, 2018, and the trees were cut down on February 27, 2019, the resistance continues.

To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to Andy’s RSS feed — and he can also be found on Facebook (and here), Twitter, Flickr and YouTube. Also see the six-part definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, The Complete Guantánamo Files, the definitive Guantánamo habeas list, the full military commissions list, and the chronological list of all Andy’s articles.

Please also consider joining the Close Guantánamo campaign, and, if you appreciate Andy’s work, feel free to make a donation.

15 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    When I posted this on Facebook, I wrote:

    Here’s some good news for a change, as Uzair Paracha, convicted of terrorism-related charges in the US in 2005, and given a 30-year sentence, has been freed and repatriated to Pakistan.

    In 2018, the judge who presided over his initial trial ordered a new trial after concluding that allowing the existing conviction to stand would be a “manifest injustice,” a decision based on serious doubts about the veracity of testimony against him that had been provided by prisoners at #Guantanamo, previously held in CIA “black sites,” including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.

    Sadly, however, although Uzair has been freed, his father, Saifullah, held on the basis of similar discredited testimony, is still held at Guantanamo, with no sign of when, if ever, he too will be freed.

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    Natalia R Scott wrote:

    Thank you, Andy

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    You’re welcome, Natalia. It took me a week to get out of total coronavirus immersion and to get back to Guantanamo. Can’t do full-time corona; it’s too much, although I will be writing something more about it soon.

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    Valerie Jeans wrote:

    Thank you for your continued vigilance, Andy!

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    You’re most welcome, Valerie. And thanks for continuing to care. This is a particularly troubling time for all prisoners, to be honest, as they run the risk of finding themselves trapped with the virus.

  6. Andy Worthington says...

    Lindis Percy wrote:

    This is indeed good news Andy…..but his poor father…..xx

  7. Andy Worthington says...

    Yes, exactly, Lindis. The Parachas’ treatment reveals, with shocking clarity, the disparity between the US court and prison system, where, belatedly, justice has been served in Uzair’s case, and Guantanamo, where no one even pretends to care about justice.

  8. Andy Worthington says...

    Susan McLucas wrote:

    I don’t know whether to like this or be mad. Both, I guess, but it shows that, at least sometimes, our courts get it right, even if it’s rare.

  9. Andy Worthington says...

    Yes, it’s definitely a tribute to the US courts, Susan – or, at least, to the judge in Uzair’s case, who recognised that a miscarriage of justice had occurred, in which he was involved, and was prepared to do something about it. Clearly, that doesn’t always happen!

  10. Andy Worthington says...

    Kate Beckwith wrote:

    Thank you, Andy. Your work on behalf of those held at Guantanamo has been nothing short of amazing. We are all very grateful!

  11. Andy Worthington says...

    Thank you very much for the supportive words, Kate. They are very much appreciated.

  12. Andy Worthington says...

    Jessy Mumpo wrote:

    Bitter sweet

  13. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Jessy. Yes, with Saifullah still held, it’s definitely bitter sweet, but perhaps Uzair can now speak out on behalf of his father, and that will make a difference.

  14. Andy Worthington says...

    Geraldine Grunow wrote:

    Thank you for this good news amidst so much else …

  15. Andy Worthington says...

    You’re most welcome, Geraldine. I had a week in which I couldn’t think of anything else except the coronavirus, but it’s important that we remember other issues worthy of our attention – and especially when they involve good new like this. Now we need to get Saifullah out of Guantanamo!

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Andy Worthington

Investigative journalist, author, campaigner, commentator and public speaker. Recognized as an authority on Guantánamo and the “war on terror.” Co-founder, Close Guantánamo, co-director, We Stand With Shaker. Also, singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers) and photographer (The State of London).
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