Friday, December 15, 2006

ANTIWAR.COM: 'Gitmo Is Like Being Alive in Your Own Grave' by Zofeen Ebrahim

'Gitmo Is Like Being Alive in Your Own Grave'

by Zofeen Ebrahim

KARACHI - "Guantanamo brings images of a man in orange overalls, his face down and a soldier holding him by the neck, like a dog on a leash," says 14-year-old Zahra Paracha. "Animals are treated better," she tells IPS.

"What's the point of talking to you?" she then says, her eyes clouding up. "I'm tired of telling the media that my father is innocent. In the first press conference three years ago, I poured my heart out, but that did not bring my father back. I think no one can help us, neither the government nor President Pervez Musharraf."

"When we sold our soul and became a United States ally, we lost any bargaining power we [Pakistan] ever had," adds Farhat Paracha, wife of Guantanamo Bay prisoner Saifullah Paracha and mother of another, Uzair Paracha.

But Muneeza Paracha, 24, her older daughter, a business graduate who has kept the family business afloat, is calmer. "I think the situation is somewhat different from what it was in 2003. I believe the Bush administration is under immense pressure to shut down Guantanamo. The media have done a lot and are still alive to the plight of the prisoners, and this alone makes me very hopeful." She however, does not deny that life without her father has been tough.

Saifullah Paracha, 60, a successful businessman and a philanthropist based in this southern port city, has been held at the U.S. military prison in Cuba since September 2004. While on his way to a business meeting in July 2003, he was picked up at the Bangkok airport and whisked away to the Bagram airbase in Afghanistan, and, after 15 months, moved to Guantanamo.

Earlier that year, in February, 23-year old Uzair Paracha, on a business trip to the U.S., was arrested by intelligence agents and charged with terrorist conspiracy and alleged links to al-Qaeda, the terrorist group behind the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on New York and Washington. "My husband was such a strong person, but Uzair's abduction broke him. The first time I saw him cry was then. He felt so helpless to be unable to help his son," said Farhat

"I don't know if I will live to see my son in person, that's my greatest nightmare. He's been sentenced to 30 years in federal prison," says Farhat, 56, who survives on antidepressants and the 15-minute-a-month phone call from her son.

Her voice quivering with emotion, she said, "He was like any young twenty-something, with the world at his feet and a girlfriend on his arm. They were desperately in love and were just waiting for him to finish studies. She got married recently, and I don't blame her, for she couldn't wait endlessly."

According to Farhat, he's gained weight, 170 pounds, because he avoids going out for exercise, as on the way prisoners are strip-searched. "He spends time reading and has also become regular with prayers." The only communication Farhat has had with her husband, since July 2003, was through his lawyer or e-mails from some rights organizations. She gets letters from him that are "short, hurried scribblings at the back of International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) pages."

Not charged with any crime, the older Paracha was also suspected to have links with al-Qaeda, which he has denied. "He is alleged to have been part of a plan to smuggle explosives into the United States for al-Qaeda. He is also alleged to have spoken to Osama Bin Laden," says the Britain-based Reprieve's senior counsel, Zachary Katznelson, who has met Paracha twice, the last time in October 2006, and spoken to him once on the phone, in November.

"He has never hidden the fact that he met Bin Laden in 1999. In fact, he used to brag about his meeting and was quite taken in by the soft-spoken man he thought Laden was. He said he wanted to have him interviewed to give his version, for his production house," says Farhat.

Asked if there was any link between the father and son's abductions, Katznelson says, "The allegations for both relate to contacts they had with Majid Khan, another Pakistani prisoner in Guantanamo." Khan, accused of being a member of al-Qaeda, has denied any links the two may have with the al-Qaeda or terrorism. He met them as Pakistani businessmen.

Paracha senior is being held in Camp-5 Delta, which, he told his wife, is "like living in your own grave."

This is qualified by Katznelson. "Camp-5 is a maximum security prison. Each cell is approximately 6 feet by 8 feet. The lights are on 24 hours a day. The prisoners are allowed out of their cells only two hours per day. For a long time, the guards would vary temperatures to great extremes. One week, they would turn the air-conditioning on maximum making the prisoners freeze (they were given only a thin cotton sheet at night which was taken away early the following morning)." The next week, the guards would turn off the air-conditioning to bring up the temperatures to a stifling 35 degrees Celsius.

"Fortunately, since the start of Ramadan, the guards have stopped switching the temperatures between extremes, but rather keep it generally cool."

The two occasions Katznelson met Paracha, he was in fetters. "When I met him the first time, it was in the prison hospital. Both arms and both legs were shackled to the bed. The second time we met, it was in a meeting room in Camp-5. He was shackled to the floor. They removed the hand shackles when I requested but not those of the leg."

Apart from exposing prisoners to extreme temperatures, Katznelson said, for a long time, deviation from the rules was met with violence. "For instance, if a prisoner being led to a shower looked at another prisoner, or spoke to anyone, he was beaten. If the prisoner put his food tray down in the wrong place for collection, he was beaten. Any guard at any time could order a beating or that a prisoner be sent to isolation. In isolation, prisoners' beards and heads are forcibly shaved." But, says Katznelson, the beatings have since become fewer now that a new commander is in place.

The long years of incarceration have taken a toll on Paracha. According to Katznelson, he has "experienced severe chest pains and is at grave risk of a heart attack."

The Guantanamo inmate recently made news when his petition to be transferred to a civilian medical center for a cardiac procedure was rejected. His wife argues that "he finds the camp facilities to carry out cardiac catheterization inadequate and risky. It's not an emotional decision but a rational one."

"He is not getting proper medical care. His life is at risk. The Pakistani government must intervene as soon as possible to get Mr. Paracha home," said Katznelson.

(Inter Press Service)


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