MIAMI: The oldest inmate at the prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, made his case Tuesday for freedom after more than a dozen years in custody.
Saifullah Paracha, a 68-year-old former businessman from Pakistan who also lived in the United States for more than a decade, appeared by video-teleconference link from the base before the Periodic Review Board, a panel of government officials in Washington that conducts parole-like hearings to determine if Guantanamo prisoners should be eligible for release.
Paracha, 68, would seem at first glance to be an unlikely candidate for freedom.
The US had at one time planned to try him by military commission and a profile released by the Pentagon before his review board hearing said he had provided financial and other assistance to Al Qaeda, working with some of the group's most senior figures.
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But his lawyer, David Remes, said before the proceeding that Paracha was hopeful about his prospects because the board is supposed to focus on whether the prisoner would pose a threat to the US in the future, and not any alleged past conduct.
“He's a 68-year-old man. He has a serious heart problem. He has severe diabetes,” Remes said in a phone interview.
"This is not the man who was seized 14 years ago. The board has to make a fresh assessment."
A detainee profile released by the Pentagon before his review board hearing said he met Osama bin Laden in the early 2000s and later worked with Khalid Shaikh Mohammad to facilitate financial transactions and to develop Al Qaeda propaganda.
It said Paracha and his eldest son, Uzair, tried to help an Al Qaeda operative travel to the US.
Uzair Paracha is serving a 30-year sentence in the US for aiding terrorism.
Saifullah Paracha also allegedly conducted research on chemical, biological and nuclear weapons and offered suggestions to Al Qaeda about how to smuggle explosives into the US, according to the profile released by the Pentagon.
He denies that he knew of any Al Qaeda plots and says his involvement with the group was for profit, not out of loyalty, the profile said.
Paracha operated trading and real estate businesses in Pakistan as well as a broadcaster, according to the profile.
He was captured in a US-orchestrated sting in Bangkok in 2003 and sent the following year to Guantanamo, where his lawyer says he has been a “model prisoner”, and taught English and business skills to other prisoners to help them upon release.
“He has been a tremendously positive influence on his fellow detainees,” Remes said.
He 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.
Paracha was to be released in 2006 following a visit to Guantanamo by a Pakistan government official, according to a confidential American diplomatic cable obtained by Dawn through WikiLeaks in 2011. But for reasons unexplained he was declared “high risk” at the time, the cable said.
The hearing on Tuesday was closed to the media except for a short portion at the beginning in which the prisoner's representative reads a prepared statement.
The lawyer told the board that Paracha would prefer to be sent to an English-speaking nation but could also return to Pakistan, to rejoin his family and resume his business, or to the US, where he lived as a legal resident from 1970-86 working as a travel agent and has extended family, mostly in the New York area.
Congress has forbidden transferring any prisoners to the US.
The board was not expected to make an immediate decision. So far, it has approved the release of 19 prisoners.
The US holds 91 men at the base in Cuba, including 36 cleared for release.