I find it infuriating when a scarred life is reduced to a quirky curiosity.
That is what has happened to Saifullah Paracha, a 75-year-old Pakistani entrepreneur who was finally released in late October from the United States-run dungeons in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
In reporting on Paracha’s belated liberation, several news organisations noted that he was the oldest captive there without, of course, admitting that, like so many others, he should not have spent a moment in jail given his US captors never came even remotely close to finding him guilty of a crime.
Paracha was locked up for 19 years at what one New York Times correspondent called a “seafront compound“. Sounds almost like a sun-kissed tourist resort rather than a brutish, remote prison featuring barbed wire fencing, guard dogs and armed US soldiers manning lookout posts.
In any event, that Paracha was an anomaly at Guantanamo Bay – where most of the other captives were much younger men – is what made him newsworthy.
Not the fact that Paracha wasted nearly two decades of his life in a dungeon as part of a covert, worldwide abduction racket. Nor the fact that Paracha was never charged by his American abductors and jailers during his long imprisonment. But journalists, ultimately, aren’t the villains here.
The responsibility for this horror is shared by a succession of unrepentant US presidents who will likely never experience even a minute measure of regret or discomfort for what they did to an ageing, frail man and his family.
Paracha was “accused” of being an al-Qaeda sympathiser and “suspected” of bankrolling the group. That sentence, which quotes the BBC, contains two of the three most popular weasel words governments use to “link” – that’s the third – anyone to terrorism without proof.
In July 2003, a suspicious FBI lured Paracha to Thailand where they abducted him and flew him – bound, shackled and hooded – to Afghanistan, in an obscene affront to international law.
While being held incommunicado at a US military prison at Bagram, Paracha suffered the first of a series of heart attacks. Fourteen months later, he was taken – bound, shackled and hooded again – to Guantanamo Bay where, without a scintilla of evidence that he helped finance or promote al-Qaeda’s interests, he remained until a few days ago.
In 2005, Paracha’s son, Uzair, who was living in New York, was convicted and sentenced to 30 years in prison for allegedly “providing material support to terrorism”. Thirteen years later, in 2018, a US federal court judge ordered his release after exculpatory information was discovered that raised doubts about his conviction.
Justice Sydney Stein said he was granting Uzair a new trial because permitting the original judgement to stand would be “a manifest injustice”. Two years later, prosecutors dropped the case against Uzair. The Paracha family has indeed been the victim of a “manifest injustice”, perpetrated by powerful men who, today, are being rehabilitated and feted as “elder statesmen”.
American presidents are not only immune to accountability; they are also immune to shame. I doubt that George W Bush, Barack Obama and Donald Trump remember who Paracha is or care a whit about his fate since one of the principal qualifications to become commander-in-chief is to be prepared to deploy American force to harm and kill people in defence of the “national interest”.
And this, at least, Paracha has over those who have presidential libraries built as monuments to their importance: There is no basis to claim that he has ever harmed or killed another soul.
In particular, the conduct of that smug liberal darling, Obama, in connection with Paracha’s ordeal is shameful. A “task force” established on inauguration day by the then-new president reported to him in 2010 that there was “no evidence” to justify laying charges against some of the Guantanamo “detainees” but added that they were “too dangerous” to be set free. In April 2013 it emerged that Paracha was one of 71 captives who were innocent.
Still, politics trumped integrity. And Obama allowed a sick, honest man to remain captive rather than release him into the care of his loving family in Pakistan. What makes Paracha’s lengthy incarceration in America’s gulag all the more egregious is that the businessman had lived and worked in the US since the 1970s and throughout his inhumane odyssey professed not only his innocence but love and gratitude for his adopted country.
None of that history mattered.
The US – spurred on by revenge-thirsty columnists who told Iraqis to “suck on this” – was hunting “terrorists” in Kabul, Baghdad and beyond.
Paracha was merely disposable, forgettable fodder to be used to show how ruthless both Republicans and Democrats could be in shielding their “homeland” from future attacks.
The rule of law didn’t matter. International law didn’t matter. The US Constitution’s rights and guarantees didn’t matter. Fairness didn’t matter. Due process didn’t matter.
And of course, Saifullah Paracha didn’t matter.
The prime years of his life didn’t matter. He was a nobody. Not a husband. Not a father. Not a brother. Not a son. Just another Muslim that a sham, illegal apparatus run by soldiers at the behest of presidents got what he deserved. But what Paracha and his family deserve, at the very least, is an apology. That won’t happen. It should, but it won’t. Presidents don’t apologise to men like Saifullah Paracha. It would be beneath them and the office of the presidency to apologise. They’re important. He’s not.
But a recent photo of Paracha reveals that, through it all, he held tight to his humanity and perhaps his sense of humour. Arms crossed, wearing a white t-shirt and a wry smile, he sits at a table in a McDonald’s restaurant in Karachi.
I suppose that after this burst of attention, Paracha will slip back into anonymity and try, as best he can, to recover and enjoy the sunset of his life. He will do that in the quiet knowledge that he is a better man than the preening presidents who will always carry the blot of the indecency they visited on a decent human being.