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US releases Guantanamo’s oldest detainee after nearly 18 years

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PESHAWAR, Pakistan – The oldest detainee at the Guantanamo Bay detention center has been released and “reunited with his family” in Pakistan, the country’s foreign ministry said in a statement on Saturday.

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

“We are pleased that a Pakistani citizen detained abroad has finally been reunited with his family,” the statement said. It said the State Department had “completed an extensive cross-agency process” to facilitate his repatriation.

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

It also praised Pakistan’s and other partners’ willingness to “support ongoing U.S. efforts to responsibly reduce the prisoner population and ultimately close the Guantanamo Bay facility.”

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

It was his eighth appearance, according to the review board’s website. The review committee was set up under former President Barack Obama to try to prevent the release of detainees who authorities believe may have been involved in anti-US hostilities after their release from Guantanamo.

As usual, the notification did not contain a detailed rationale for the decision, concluding only that Paracha is “not an ongoing threat” to the United States, Sullivan-Bennis told the AP.

Once a wealthy businessman living in the US and owning real estate in New York City, Paracha was imprisoned in Thailand’s capital, Bangkok, in 2003.

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 September 11, 2001, when terrorists from the Islamist militant group crashed into the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in New York. and the Pentagon. Heroic passengers aboard another plane fought off terrorists and prevented it from reaching Washington.

Paracha was then transferred to the US-operated Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan before being taken to Guantanamo in 2004, Reprieve said.

Washington has long claimed that it can hold prisoners indefinitely without charge under international law of war.

Saifullah returns to his family as a frail old man who was taken from them in the prime of his life. That injustice can never be righted,” Maya Foa, executive director of Reprieve, told NBC News on Twitter on Saturday.

“The Biden administration deserves some credit for expediting the release of Guantanamo detainees who have never been charged with any crime, but the US’s embrace of indefinite detention without trial has done lasting damage,” she said.

Paracha’s son, Uzair Paracha, was convicted by federal court in New York in 2005 of supporting terrorism, based in part on testimonies of the same witnesses detained in Guantanamo, whom the US relied on to justify detaining the father. .

In March 2020, after a judge threw out witness statements and the US government decided not to re-trial, the younger Paracha was released and sent back to Pakistan.

According to the American Civil Liberties Union, nearly 800 men and boys have been illegally detained in Guantanamo since its opening by the Bush White House in 2002. This has not been confirmed by government officials.

The ACLU also claims that many inmates have been subjected to torture and other cruel treatment. NBC News cannot verify these claims.

After Paracha’s release, 35 detainees remain in Guantanamo Bay and 18 have been released for release, Amnesty International said. NBC News has not confirmed this information.

The most high-profile inmate at Guantanamo Bay prison is Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the alleged mastermind behind the 9/11 attacks.

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

Associated Press and Courtney Kubea contributed.

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