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U.S. releases Guantánamo's oldest prisoner after almost 18 years

Saifullah Paracha “is returning to his family as a frail old man,” the executive director of the legal charity that represented him told NBC News.
Saifullah Paracha.
Saifullah Paracha.Counsel to Saifullah Paracha via AP file

PESHAWAR, Pakistan — The oldest prisoner at the Guantánamo Bay detention center was released and “reunited with his family” in Pakistan, the country's foreign ministry said in a statement Saturday.

Saifullah Paracha, 75, had been held on suspicion of ties to Al Qaeda since 2003, but he was never charged with a crime during the more than 17 years he was detained at the U.S. base in Cuba, according to Reprieve, a legal charity that represents him and has campaigned for his release.

“We are glad that a Pakistani citizen detained abroad is finally reunited with his family,” the statement said. It said the Foreign Ministry had “completed an extensive interagency process” to facilitate his repatriation.

The Pentagon said in a statement Saturday that Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin had “notified Congress of his intent to repatriate Saifullah Paracha to Pakistan” last month.

It also praised 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.”

Paracha was notified in May 2021 that he had been approved for release by the prisoner review board, Shelby Sullivan-Bennis, who represented him at his November 2020 hearing, told The Associated Press at the time.

It was his eighth appearance, according to the review board's website. The review board was established under former President Barack Obama to try to prevent the release of prisoners who authorities believed might engage in anti-U.S. hostilities upon their release from Guantánamo.

As is customary, the notification did not provide detailed reasoning for the decision and concluded only that Paracha is “not a continuing threat” to the United States, Sullivan-Bennis told the AP.

Once a wealthy businessman who lived in the U.S. and owned property in New York City, Paracha was captured in 2003 in Thailand's capital, Bangkok.

He was accused of being an Al Qaeda “facilitator” who helped two of the conspirators in the 9/11 plot with a financial transaction.

Paracha said he did not know the men were Al Qaeda and has always denied any involvement in terrorism and the events of Sept. 11, 2001, when terrorists from the Islamic militant group crashed planes into the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon. Heroic passengers aboard another plane fought terrorists and prevented it from reaching Washington.

Paracha was then transferred to the U.S.-run Bagram airbase in Afghanistan before he was taken to Guantánamo in 2004, according to Reprieve.

Washington has long asserted that it can hold detainees indefinitely without charge under the international laws of war.

“Saifullah is returning to his family as a frail old man, having been taken from them in the prime of his life. That injustice can never be rectified,” Maya Foa, the executive director of Reprieve, told NBC News via Twitter on Saturday.

“The Biden administration deserves some credit for expediting the release of Guantánamo detainees who were never charged with a crime, but the U.S.’ embrace of indefinite detention without trial has done lasting damage,” she said.

Paracha's son, Uzair Paracha, was convicted in 2005 in federal court in New York of providing support to terrorism, based in part on testimony from the same witnesses held at Guantánamo whom the U.S. relied on to justify holding the father.

In March 2020, after a judge threw out those witness accounts and the U.S. government decided not to seek a new trial, the younger Paracha was released and sent back to Pakistan.

Almost 800 men and boys have been unlawfully detained at Guantánamo since it was opened by the Bush White House in 2002, according to the American Civil Liberties Union. This has not been confirmed by government officials.

The ACLU also alleges that many detainees were subjected to torture and other brutal treatment. NBC News cannot verify these claims.

Following Paracha’s release, 35 detainees remain in Guantánamo Bay and 18 have been cleared for release, according to Amnesty International. NBC News has not confirmed this information.

The most high-profile prisoner held at Guantánamo Bay prison is Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the alleged mastermind of the 9/11 attacks.

Mushtaq Yusufzai reported from Peshawar, Pakistan, and Hyder Abbasi from London.