The United States has freed and transferred to Pakistan one of the oldest of the remaining prisoners from the secretive U.S.-run Guantanamo Bay detention facility in Cuba.
A brief Pakistani foreign ministry announcement Saturday confirmed the repatriation of Saif Ullah Paracha, 74, to his home country. “We are glad that a Pakistani citizen detained abroad is finally reunited with his family,” it said.
The U.S. Defense Department also confirmed what it described as a “responsible transfer” of Paracha, saying his detention “was no longer necessary to protect against a continuing significant threat” to the security of America.
The Pakistani citizen was among roughly 40 men currently detained in the secretive U.S. prison. He reportedly had been among the sickest of the prisoners there.
The controversial Guantanamo prison once housed hundreds of suspected militants captured by U.S. forces in Afghanistan during Washington’s “war on terror” against the al-Qaida foreign terrorist network. The war was launched days after the September 11, 2001, attacks on the U.S., which officials said were plotted by al-Qaida leaders from their Afghan sanctuaries.
Paracha, a father of four, was picked up at the Bangkok airport in an FBI sting operation in mid-2003 and immediately flown to the U.S.-run Afghan military base at Bagram in Afghanistan before being moved to Guantanamo in 2004.
He was accused of being an al-Qaida financial facilitator who helped the alleged plotter of the 9/11 attacks, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed. But Paracha maintained his innocence, and he was neither charged with a crime nor given a trial like most Guantanamo inmates.
Human rights groups are demanding U.S. President Joe Biden clear uncharged Guantanamo inmates, put those with suspected al-Qaida links on trial, and close the detention center.
“The United States appreciates the willingness of Pakistan and other partners to support ongoing U.S. efforts focused on responsibly reducing the detainee population and ultimately closing the Guantanamo Bay facility,” the Pentagon said.
It went on to note that of the 35 detainees remaining at Guantanamo, 20 of them are eligible for transfer, three are eligible for a periodic review board, nine are involved in the military commission process and three have been convicted in military commissions.
Paracha’s lawyers from British charity Reprieve described him as a “forever prisoner.” He was born in Pakistan but moved to the United States when he was 24 to study at the New York Institute of Technology. He married a Pakistani woman there, started a family, started a business, and lived in New York for 15 years.
Paracha was once reported as describing life at Guantanamo as “being alive in your own grave.”
Last year, Biden had approved Paracha’s release, along with another Pakistani national, Abdul Rabbani, 54, and Uthman Abdul al-Rahim Uthman, 40, a Yemeni. The fate of the other two detainees was not immediately known, and none of them have been charged with a crime in the years that followed their arrests.
Pakistani foreign ministry officials last month told a Senate committee on human rights that three Pakistani nationals were awaiting their release from Guantanamo, including Paracha. They did not name the other two but said they would be released once officials complete the process of verifying their Pakistani citizenship.
The officials at the hearing also revealed the U.S. government had agreed to free Paracha on the condition that his travel and movement in Pakistan would be restricted.
Paracha’s eldest son, Uzair Paracha, a permanent resident with alien status in the United States, also was subsequently arrested and convicted. In 2005, he was sentenced to 30 years in prison on charges of facilitating al-Qaida acts of international terrorism. His conviction was later overturned, and he returned to Pakistan in 2020 under a deal with prosecutors to drop the case if he relinquished his status as a permanent U.S. resident.