December 5, 2022

GUANTÁNAMO BAY, Cuba — The United States has released the U.S. military’s oldest prisoner of the war on terror, a 75-year-old businessman who was held for nearly two decades as a suspected sympathizer of Al Qaeda but was never charged with a crime.

The man, Saifullah Paracha, a former legal resident of New York, was one of Guantánamo’s most unusual and better known “forever prisoners.” Military prosecutors never sought to put him on trial, but review panels considered him too dangerous to release until last year.

His transfer, in a secret military mission announced by the Pakistani government on Saturday, culminated months of negotiations to arrange his return. The Pentagon declined to comment. It was not known if Biden administration officials imposed any security restrictions on Mr. Paracha, but a lawyer swiftly released a photo of the former prisoner sitting in a McDonald’s in Karachi, Pakistan.

Pakistan’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement on Saturday that it had “completed an extensive interagency process to facilitate repatriation of Mr. Paracha” and that it was “glad that a Pakistani citizen detained abroad is finally reunited with his family.”

Mr. Paracha arrived at Guantánamo in the early days of detention operations, when hundreds of young men captured abroad filled cellblocks at the seafront compound.

Just before he left, the 21st commander of prison operations, a National Guard general from Michigan, had taken charge and the detainee population had dwindled to three dozen. Of them, 21 have been approved for transfer to the custody of another country with security arrangements that satisfy the secretary of defense; for example, participation in a rehabilitation program.

At Guantánamo, Mr. Paracha stood out among the predominantly younger Muslim men, most of whom were captured in their teens and 20s by Afghan or Pakistani militias and turned over to the United States as presumptive foot soldiers of Al Qaeda or the Taliban.

He was captured in July 2003 at age 56 in an F.B.I. sting operation in Thailand. Businessmen posing as Kmart representatives lured him from his home in Karachi, Pakistan, to Bangkok to discuss what turned out to be a bogus merchandising deal. Instead, intelligence agents seized, hooded and shackled him and flew him to Afghanistan.

Mr. Paracha was held first at a U.S. military prison in Bagram, Afghanistan, where he had a heart attack, his lawyers said. Rather than send him to the secret prison network run by the C.I.A., where prisoners were tortured, the Bush administration moved him to Guantánamo in his 14th month of U.S. detention. He became an early example of the challenge of holding aging and infirm prisoners at the remote U.S. Navy base, which flies in military medical specialists from the United States.

“Saifullah should never have been in Guantánamo,” said Clive Stafford Smith, a human rights lawyer who has been visiting him at the prison since 2005. “Because he was the oldest person there, I constantly feared he would have his fourth heart attack and die there. So I am so happy that he is finally going home.”

He had long suffered from diabetes, coronary artery disease and high blood pressure, but would not have heart surgery at Guantánamo, which sends residents to the United States for cardiac treatment.

In his early years of custody, the prison airlifted a mobile cardiac catheterization lab to the base for the procedure, but he said through lawyers that he wanted to have the operation in a hospital that specialized in heart care in either the United States or Pakistan.

In April 2019, a photograph of him reading inside a communal cell appeared with an article in The New York Times about a U.S. military effort to adapt detention facilities for wartime prisoners who were expected to die at Guantánamo.

In his file, U.S. intelligence agencies said he had helped Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the accused mastermind of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, “facilitate financial transactions and propaganda” after the attacks, and said he met with Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan before the attacks as part of a delegation of Pakistani dignitaries.

For his part, Mr. Paracha claimed in an unsuccessful federal court petition for his release that he did not know Mr. Mohammed’s true identity or his role in the Sept. 11 plot. He said he held some money for him and allowed Mr. Mohammed’s nephew to use an editing studio in Karachi out of a sense of Muslim kinship, not ideology, and he denounced violence and denied affiliation with Al Qaeda.

Months before he was captured, federal agents took Mr. Paracha’s eldest son, Uzair, into custody in New York, where he was living. He was tried, convicted and sentenced to 30 years in prison for providing material support to terrorism.

But Uzair Paracha’s conviction was overturned in 2018. Then in 2020, prosecutors dropped the case against him. He was returned to Pakistan after agreeing to relinquish his status as a permanent resident of the United States.

The elder Mr. Paracha, who is fluent in English, had lived in Queens in the 1970s, obtained a green card in 1980, and operated businesses in Pakistan and the New York metropolitan region, including travel agencies, a real estate business and a media production firm.

At Guantánamo, inmates and some guards called him “chacha,” a term of endearment that means uncle in Urdu. When the prison leadership allowed, he tutored younger prisoners in English and finance. At times he brought cellblock complaints to the guards.

Soon after his transfer to Guantánamo in 2004, Mr. Paracha went before a panel of American military officers that approved his status as an “enemy combatant,” a form of war prisoner. He denied having ties to Al Qaeda, described himself as a businessman with a Jewish partner and challenged the notion that the United States could declare the world a battlefield against the terrorist group.

“Is your executive order applicable around the earth?” he asked the U.S. military officer in charge, according to a Pentagon transcript.

“It is a global war on terrorism,” the officer explained.

Mr. Paracha replied, “I know, sir, but you are not the master of the earth, sir.”

His wife, whom he met and married in the United States, divorced him while he was in custody. He was expected to live with his youngest son, Mustafa, who said in an interview last year that the first order of business would be a family reunion, followed by comprehensive medical care.

Salman Masood contributed reporting from Islamabad, Pakistan.

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