KARACHI: The story of Pakistani-American businessman Saifullah Paracha’s disappearance, arrest, transfer to the notorious Guantanamo Bay prison, possible release and continued detention remains a mystery.
Paracha, 64, who the US claims was involved in terrorist activities, disappeared in 2003 while travelling from Pakistan. He was arrested from Bangkok on July 8 that year through FBI efforts and was transferred to Guantanamo on September 19, 2004.
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. But for reasons that remain unexplained, he is still under detention there and has been declared “high risk”.
According to the cable, the director of operations of the National Crisis Management Cell of the interior ministry, Lt-Col Imran Yaqoob (Wrongly named Imran Farooq in the cable), met American officials at the US embassy in Islamabad to discuss his visit to Guantanamo.
Yaqoob is reported to have said that the Pakistani delegation left with the impression that most of the Pakistani detainees were individuals who were “in the wrong place at the wrong time”, not extremists who posed a serious threat. He added that the delegation discussed the repatriation of these detainees with intelligence agencies at Guantanamo and the force commander at the prison, leaving with the impression that there were no major obstacles to repatriating six of them.
This group included Paracha, provided that the government of Pakistan would keep him in detention. According to Yaqoob, Guantanamo officials told the delegation that if the Pakistani government submitted a formal request for repatriation it would be received favourably.
Upon his return to Islamabad, the official prepared a report for the foreign affairs ministry in support of such a request.
Yaqoob did tell American officials in Islamabad, however, that for the government to keep Paracha in custody, it would need information from the US to justify his continued detention, noting that Paracha’s family had a petition against his detention pending in the Supreme Court. The US official in a note said that “Post will pursue the question of the GOP’s ability to hold detainees in custody with the MFA and other interlocutors.”
Yaqoob concluded by requesting that the embassy find out from colleagues in Washington about the views of relevant agencies on the prompt repatriation of the Pakistani detainees. The American officer agreed to do so, but warned that it would be difficult to share these views frankly “when the government continues to leak stories proclaiming the detainees’ imminent release to the local press”.
In his comment the US official said he appreciated word that the US government was moving forward with the repatriation and that “Post requests guidance from Department on next steps, including interagency coordination and coordination with the GOP of any press statements preceding or following the repatriation.”
But nothing seems to have come of these discussions between US and Pakistani officials, as Paracha is still detained at Guantanamo. An official assessment of the detainees, which includes a December 2008 dossier on Paracha and was also released by WikiLeaks, shows that he was determined to be “high-risk, as he is likely to pose a threat to the US, its interests and allies”. He is also recommended for continued detention. A similar recommendation had also been made on Oct 24, 2007.
The assessment is based on what the US Department of Defence document calls the detainee’s own account and has been included without “consideration of veracity, accuracy or reliability”. It still apparently forms the basis of his continued detention.
“If released without rehabilitation, close supervision, and means to successfully reintegrate into his society as a law-abiding citizen (Paracha) would probably seek out prior associates and reengage in extremist activities at home and abroad,” the assessment says.
One of his sons, Uzair Paracha, had been arrested in the US and charged with providing material assistance to Al Qaeda. He was convicted by an American court in 2006.
The American document termed Saifullah Paracha a “significant member” of Al Qaeda. In what the file describes as “custodial interviews” rather than interrogations, Paracha is said to have confessed to meeting Osama bin Laden twice, the first time in December 1999 or January 2000 and then again in the autumn of 2000, offering the Al Qaeda leader use of his television station to promote his message to the world.
Paracha is also alleged to have had close links with Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who confessed to masterminding the 9/11 attacks, and his nephew Ammar al Baluchi, another senior Al Qaeda operative. But he told his captors that his interaction with Al Qaeda “was just business”.
One year after the Pakistani delegation’s visit to Guantanamo, when it became clear that Paracha was not going to be sent home, Amnesty International in October 2007 called for his release unless he was charged and given a fair trial in a non-military court.
According to media reports, an American lawyer representing Paracha said in June 2008 that his client did not deny meeting Al Qaeda figures but did not know their real identities or that they were connected to terrorism.
Hina Shamsi, director of the national security project at the American Civil Liberties Union, has told the media that the assessments “are rife with uncorroborated evidence, information obtained through torture, speculation, errors and allegations that have been proven false”.