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Ailing Guantanamo Prisoner May Die, Says Lawyer

Inter Press Service
by Zofeen Ebrahim
February 6, 2008

KARACHI, Feb 6 (IPS) - Saifullah Paracha, a Pakistani national incarcerated in the United States military prison in Guantanamo, Cuba since September 2004, suffers from a serious heart condition and may not live unless provided special care, says his lawyer.

"The government of Pakistan cannot sit by and allow this to continue," Zachary Katznelson, senior counsel with Reprieve, a British legal rights group, told IPS over e-mail.

"I am gravely concerned that unless Mr. Paracha is given heart treatment immediately, he will die in Guantanamo Bay. He is 60 years old and suffers severe heart pains and shortness of breath multiple times a week. Far too many of his close relatives have died of heart disease around the same age. The technology exists to keep him alive, but the U.S. government will not help him. The government of Pakistan must step in to save Mr. Paracha's life," Katznelson said.

One of six Pakistani prisoners currently in Guantanamo, Paracha, a Karachi-based businessman and philanthropist, went missing in July 2003 while on a business trip to Bangkok. The family learned later that he had been picked up from the Bangkok airport and whisked away to Bagram airbase in Afghanistan. After 15 months, he was shifted to Cuba.

So far, five prisoners have died in Guantanamo, the last death being that of Abdul Razzak, 68, from Afghanistan, in December. "The U.S. said he died of colon cancer, a treatable condition if caught early enough, and claimed to be investigating three of those deaths for a year and a half, but has never released results of the investigation. They have been investigating the fourth death since May 2007, also with no public result," said the Reprieve counsel.

According to Cageprisoners, a London-based human rights group, there are several Guantanamo inmates suffering from serious health problems.

Among those believed ailing are Abdul Hamid Al-Ghizzawi, a Libyan, who got infected with HIV during a blood transfusion in Guantanamo. Sami al-Haj, a Sudanese cameraman for the Al-Jazeera TV network complained of pain and blood in his urine and Abdulkhaliq al Baidhani, a Yemeni, who had earlier lost an eye and is fast losing sight in the other one.

Katznelson, who last met Paracha on Jan. 18, said he is being kept in a "steel box" in Camp 5. "He is kept in his cell (2 meters by 3 meters) 22 hours a day and allowed some reprieve for two hours either at 6 a.m. or sometimes at midnight. He can go for weeks without seeing the sun, but the cell is lit up by the monstrous neon lights 24 hours a day. He is given only one book a week to read and not allowed to speak on the telephone with his family, nor can he receive visitors, except his lawyers; mail often takes 6-9 months to get through and when it does, it is heavily censored."

Katznelson believes that Paracha needs a "heart procedure" to diagnose the problem and "quite likely needs open heart surgery" for which he needs a proper cardiac facility.

Last year, the U.S. government had offered Paracha treatment at the base, but he refused saying that the facilities were "inadequate and risky." He had then asked to be sent to a proper cardiac unit.

Katznelson had another explanation to why Paracha refused treatment. "When Paracha asked the doctor in Guantanamo who was supposed to treat him whether the doctor saw him as a patient or as an enemy, the doctor's response was 'enemy'."

But while these four years may have taken a toll on his health, his spirit remains far from broken, says his counsel. "He remains driven by two facts. One, he has always maintained his innocence of any affiliation with terrorism or extremism. Two, he longs to be reunited with his wife and children. All he is asking for is the chance to defend himself."

Back home, things are not well for Paracha's family. His wife, Farhat, is in deep depression and seems to have given up the "hope to live." Their daughter Muneeza, 25, is learning to cope with life while her father and an older brother remain imprisoned by U.S. authorities.

Muneeza's brother Uzair Paracha, a fresh graduate on his maiden business venture to the United States, was picked up by federal agents in February 2003 on suspicion of having links with al-Qaeda. He was sentenced to 30 years and has been in a U.S. prison now for exactly five years.

Uzair is being represented by Joshua Dratel, who also represented David Hicks, the young Australian who became the first Guantanamo prisoner to plead guilty under the U.S. Military Commissions Act passed last year and was sentenced to nine months in prison in Australia.

''We have often highlighted Paracha's case in our reports," says I.A. Rehman, chairman of the independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP).

"Asma Jehangir (also of the HRCP) tried to visit Guantanamo along with two other rapporteurs, but was disallowed," Rehman said.

Blaming Islamabad, he added: "Our government is quite callous about Pakistanis in distress abroad. It assumes every Pakistani who comes into conflict with law abroad deserves to be ignored and left to fend for himself. Islamabad does not want even to see that Pakistanis, facing trial or execution in foreign lands, have minimum necessary guarantees of justice."

Former senator and spokesman for the influential Pakistan People's Party, Farhatullah Babar, told IPS that his party has repeatedly raised the issue of those whisked away to Guantanamo with the government.

"We have reproached the government and asked it to divulge what it was doing in this regard. Not once have we been given any formal response," Babar said.

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