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Why Won’t US Military Free Guantanamo’s Oldest Prisoner?

Saifullah Paracha, the oldest prisoner at Guantánamo Bay, is a “model detainee,” a “mentor to younger detainees,” and a “counselor of tolerance, understanding, and cooperation,” who “opposes and denounces violent extremism,” according to his attorney, David Remes. Yet, recently, the United States military’s Periodic Review Board decided Paracha should remain indefinitely detained at Guantánamo.

The decision, which was first reported by the Miami Herald’s Carol Rosenberg on April 14, alleges Paracha, a 68 year-old Pakistani businessman, poses a “continuing significant threat to the security of the United States.” It claims he had contacts and participated in activities with Osama bin Laden, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and other senior al Qaida members.

The Periodic Review Board disapproved of Paracha’s alleged “refusal to take responsibility for his involvement with al Qaida, his inability and refusal to distinguish between legitimate and nefarious business contacts, his indifference toward the impact of his prior actions, and his lack of a plan to prevent exposure to avenues of reengagement.”

Incredibly, the Board suggested Paracha befriended former detainee Jarallah al-Marri (QA-334), who had ties to AQAP and possibly ISIL.” Al Marri was repatriated to Qatar in 2008, and he has gone on a speaking tour with another former prisoner, Moazzam Begg. He was detained by British authorities at Heathrow airport in February 2009. There are no known reports indicating Marri has joined any Islamic State groups.

According to Rosenberg, “Paracha’s lawyers have long described him as a once-wealthy Karachi-to-New York import-export specialist who was lured to a Bangkok meeting in July 2003, ostensibly to see some Kmart buyers. It was an FBI-orchestrated sting, and Paracha was flown to Afghanistan for 10 months and then to Guantánamo.” It is also known that much of the information the U.S. government obtained to support detaining Paracha came from Mohammed when he was waterboarded and tortured by CIA interrogators.

In a statement to the Periodic Review Board on March 8, 2015, Paracha described meeting bin Laden and how he gave him his card to interview him for his television studio.

I was chairman of an NGO Council of Welfare Organization (WCO). I was duped by the trustees to visit Afghanistan and extend our charity work to poor Afghans. I felt extremely pathetic towards Afghans, therefore; I prepared a small booklet on Afghanistan and requested Pakistan to make investment in basic cottage industries and in farming to create jobs rather than
donation. That report was published in the newspaper. Pakistan Rice Exporters Association requested me to lead a delegation of about 90 business men and others to Afghanistan. In
Kandahar, before the Taliban’s Governor and Ministers, I made a humble presentation to the delegations to teach Afghans ‘to catch fish rather than feed them fish.’

After the presentation, a gentleman approached me and praised my efforts. He asked me questions about my background and told me his name was Maulana Mahar. He invited me to meet Osama Bin Laden (OBL). OBL had a very controversial personality; he had close alliance with U.S. during U.S.S.R. invasion in 1978 into Afghanistan. OBL was very popular and respected among most Muslim community. He was known throughout the world while the western countries portrayed him as a devil. He was from a very rich and influential Saudi family.

His father was close friends of the Saudi King.

Paracha acknowledged he was in an audience of twelve to fifteen people, who heard bin Laden speak about the Quran and the Prophet Mohammed. He maintained bin Laden said “nothing hateful or negative about the west or any other nation” in this speech. At the time, Paracha was the chair of Universal Broadcasting in Karachi, so he gave bin Laden his card and asked him in English for an interview. Bin Laden said he would think about it.

A declassified hand-written letter from December 2015 contains more firsthand details from Paracha on his interrogation and detention. He indicated, “No television program was recorded with Osama and 9/11 incident changed the world.”

Paracha recounted how he met a man, who called himself “Meer,” some months later. He learned later this man, who asked him about recording television programs from Afghanistan, was Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. He also realized Mohammed introduced him to another Pakistani named Ammar al Baluchi. Both Baluchi and Mohammed, after being captured and detained by U.S. forces, told interrogators stories about Paracha’s involvement in terrorism, which Paracha insists were fabricated.

The letter describes how Paracha was captured in Bangkok by men, who were in between two parked mini buses. The men were dressed in all black, and they handcuffed him in the back, shackled his legs, and covered his head with a hood. He was kidnapped and driven to a place, where he was put on a stretcher and taken into a room that looked “like a locker.” He was kept in total shackles for several hours, and the CIA made video of his captivity, according to Paracha.

Paracha suffers from diabetes. He felt his sugar go down and requested a slice of bread. All the captors would bring was some water for him to sip through a straw. When he needed to urinate or have a bowel movement, they would bring a bucket. For Paracha, it was “very shameful” and “extremely humiliating.” He “felt very helpless.”

When he was flown to Guantánamo, he was put in an adult diaper, and during his transfer, he still had no idea who had captured him.

Paracha recalled one of his first interrogations. Finally, he knew the United States had captured him, but he had no idea whether it was day or night, what date it was, or where he was detained. In a large room, his eyes were covered, his hands were cuffed, and his legs were shackled. The interrogators removed the mask over his eyes. He said he had a green card and was a U.S. national. They shouted, “You are al Qaida. You are responsible for 9/11. You are a terrorist. You are the worst of the worst.”

“Since I used to live in the United States, communication was not a problem,” Paracha wrote. “I am familiar with American culture and [values], I had less difficulties. Similarly, I was born and lived in Pakistan. I understand detainees’ attitude and survive with them ok. Doctors knew my serious health issues.” He added, “When guards came to know I used to live in New York, their attitude was friendly.” They sought his advice about business in America.

However, that does not mean he was not mistreated. According to Paracha, while prisoners were walking in a communal place “two Afghans were walking and talking.” A guard noticed and punished everyone, forcing them to stand against the wall for twenty minutes. Paracha argued a commander said they could talk in a low voice. Paracha was ordered to shut up. He lost his appetite and would not eat his meal that evening. The prison guards took away Paracha’s mattress and blanket and the mattresses and blankets of other prisoners, who refused to eat. They accused him of “forming a union.”

The following day, when he managed to get his blanket and mattress back, he told prison guards the others should get their bedding returned to them, too. Paracha said he was put in solitary confinement for standing up for other prisoners.

During the time Paracha has been in custody, he has survived at least three heart attacks: one in Guantánamo, and two when he was detained at Bagram Airbase in Afghanistan. His attorneys have accused U.S. military personnel of failing to provide proper medical treatment. For example, a cardiologist objected to how the military insisted he must be shackled in order to receive care.

According to a 2006 diplomatic cable, Pakistani officials informed the U.S. government in 2006 if Paracha was repatriated to Pakistan there would need to be evidence from the government in order to justify his continued detention. His family sued the Pakistan Supreme Court to have Paracha freed. Without evidence, Paracha would be released after three months.

Paracha wrote letters to President George W. Bush and former President George H.W. Bush before the 9/11 attacks. They contained ideas for how to bridge division between the western and Arab countries.

“My family writes me and will always support me. My daughter has sent me letters because they need me at home as the support for the family. My son does well in his education. My wife needs
me and my support,” Paracha declared, as he begged for his freedom in March 2015.

The eldest prisoner will have another opportunity to challenge his detention before the Periodic Review Board in October.

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."