Guantánamo’s 68-year-old captive gets parole board hearing

Saifullah Paracha poses for the International Red Cross at the U.S. Navy base at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. This photo is courtesy the Paracha family via attorney David Remes.
Saifullah Paracha poses for the International Red Cross at the U.S. Navy base at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. This photo is courtesy the Paracha family via attorney David Remes.

Guantánamo’s oldest war-on-terror captive, a U.S.-educated, 68-year-old Pakistani man, goes before the national security parole board Tuesday with no remorse for alleged ties to Osama bin Laden but a longstanding record of compliance at the prison camp President Barack Obama wants closed.

Saifullah Paracha “cannot show ‘remorse’ for things he maintains he never did,” attorney David Remes told the board in a prepared statement released by the Pentagon on the eve of his hearing. Reporters in Washington, D.C., are allowed to see a selected slice, including the captive sitting at conference table at the U.S. Navy base prison in Cuba, but not to hear him speak and seek release.

A recent intelligence assessment noted that his eldest son, Uzair, 36, is in the second decade of a 30-year prison sentence on a federal court conviction for trying to help an al-Qaida operative travel to the United States. It cast the father as “very compliant” with the prison guards and espousing “moderate views and acceptance of Western norms” in his more than 11 years at Guantánamo.

It also alleges that before his capture the elder Paracha — who has never been charged with a crime — did research on chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear materials and “offered operational suggestions to al-Qaida.” Example advice included how to smuggle explosives into the United States, something “that al-Qaida planners probably did not take seriously.”

Paracha continues to deny that he knew of any al-Qaida plotting.

U.S. intelligence assessment

“Paracha continues to deny that he knew of any al-Qaida plotting and claims he undertook his terrorist activities for profit rather than out of loyalty to the group,” according to the intelligence profile, dated Oct. 27, 2015 but just released this week.

Saifullah Paracha’s lawyers have long described their client as a once wealthy Karachi-to-New York import-export specialist who acted as a buying agent for American retailers. Federal agents captured him in July 2003 in an FBI orchestrated sting that lured him to a Bangkok meeting that Paracha believed to be with some Kmart buyers. He was flown to Afghanistan for 10 months and then to Guantánamo.

Paracha is among Guantánamo’s better known low-value war-on-terror detainees, in part because his capture demonstrated the far-flung nature of the Bush administration’s battlefield and the captives it called “enemy combatants.”

In addition, the Pakistani 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. 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.

The go-slow Periodic Review Board process has decided just 22 cases so far, approving all but four for release.

In 2009, an Obama administration task force recommended that Paracha be considered for prosecution. But he never was charged, and the Periodic Review Board now gets to decide whether to approve his release or classify him as a Law of War detainee, a “forever prisoner.”

He is the 28th captive to go before the parole board that Obama set up in March 2011 to give Guantánamo captives an annual review. The go-slow process has decided just 22 cases so far, approving all but four for release. As of this week, 36 of Guantánamo’s last 91 captives are approved for release to security arrangements that satisfy Secretary of Defense Ash Carter, half of them by the Periodic Review Board.

The board released its latest decision Tuesday, upholding the indefinite detention status of “forever prisoner” Yassin Qasim, 36. At his Jan. 26 hearing, his attorney told the board that after 14 years at Guantánamo, the Yemeni has “lost the wanderlust and thirst for adventure he had at age 22 ... He has no appetite for politics and simply wants to get on with his life.”

But in a three-paragraph statement the board didn’t agree. It noted “the frequency, specificity, and recent nature of the detainee’s expressions of support for extremist behavior” as well as a “lack of candor.”

The board met the same day it released a decision upholding the indefinite detention of Yemeni Yasin Qasim.

Qasim got to Guantánamo in May 2002 and has never been charged with a crime. But a November intelligence estimate provided to the board cast him as non-cooperative detainee during the “widespread detainee hunger strike from 2013 to 2014.” It predicted he would likely “reengage in terrorism” if he were released to Yemen, something forbidden by Obama administration policy. It noted he has a cousin there who recruits for al-Qaida of the Arabian Peninsula.

The man who went before the board Tuesday has a somewhat prominent role in the so-called Senate Torture Report. It which devotes a section to the “identification and arrests” of Saifullah Paracha and his son as well as a former U.S.-held enemy combatant Ali al Marri and former CIA captive Majid Khan, a Baltimore-educated man who is awaiting sentencing at Guantánamo on a plea agreement. Paracha in particular figures in a debate on whether the CIA really needed to use enhanced interrogation techniques to identify him as a suspect. The Senate report also shows the CIA in May 2003 eager to capture and interrogate Paracha “with alacrity,” something that did not happen.

He was lured from Pakistan to Thailand and captured by U.S. agents, who sent him to Afghanistan then Guantánamo.

The report, moreover, 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.”

His latest intelligence estimate said Paracha “has expressed interest in returning to the U.S., where he attended graduate school and lived through the 1970s and early ’80s.” If he were returned to Pakistan, it said, he would probably “resume running the family businesses,” seek out new ventures and could restore ties with “extremist business contacts,” including the Taliban.

In contrast, two U.S. military officers assigned to help him make his case for freedom said in an anonymous statement that he has “denounced terrorist acts and organizations,” functioned as a father figure at Guantánamo and “has the skill set and talent to be successful” in any country. The officers noted his “calm demeanor” and predicted “he will remain the same peaceful and stable person” after his time at the prison.

Carol Rosenberg: 305-376-3179, @carolrosenberg

Periodic Review Board scorecard

Cases heard: 28

Cases decided: 23

Detainees approved for release through the review board: 19

Detainees retained as “forever prisoners” through the review board: 4

Detainees released following review board approval: 7 (Five repatriated to Saudi and Kuwait, one each resettled in Bosnia and United Arab Emirates.)

Figures accurate as of March 8, 2016