WASHINGTON—A wealthy Pakistani businessman who's being held at the Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, prison camp for suspected terrorist ties urged al-Qaida operatives to acquire nuclear weapons for use against U.S. troops and said he knew where to get them, according to American investigators.
The allegation, contained in documents filed recently in U.S. District Court in Washington, also identifies Saifullah Paracha, 57, who has an import business in New York, as a participant in a plot to smuggle explosives into the United States and to help al-Qaida hide "large amounts of money."
There are few details about the smuggling plot and little additional information about what the businessman, a permanent U.S. resident who's been held 19 months without charges, may have known about how to obtain nuclear weapons.
Paracha, during a review tribunal of his case in November at the U.S. naval base in Cuba, vigorously denied any ties to al-Qaida and scoffed at the nuclear allegation.
"Is a nuclear weapon something I could buy off the shelf? Can you buy it from Tony Blair?" he told a panel of military officers, referring to the British prime minister.
Top American officials have warned that al-Qaida has sought nuclear materials and that a network of Pakistani scientists sold nuclear technology and expertise to Libya, Iran and North Korea.
Paracha, who's fluent in English, has split his time between the United States and Pakistan for more than 30 years. Two brothers are American citizens, his lawyer said. Paracha operates a TV production company along with International Merchandise, which imports clothing in New York.
The saga of his arrest and detention for two years reveals that he was a high-interest target of U.S. investigators. His son Uzair, 25, was arrested in New York in 2003 and faces trial March 21 on charges of trying to help an al-Qaida agent get into the United States and deal with immigration officials.
At the time, Attorney General John Ashcroft said the case demonstrated al-Qaida's determination to penetrate U.S. borders two years after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Investigators charged that father and son met with top al-Qaida leaders in Pakistan, including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, a mastermind of those attacks who was later captured.
Three months after his son's arrest, Paracha took a commercial flight from Pakistan to Thailand in July 2003 to meet with Kmart buyers. He was turned over to U.S. forces, who took him to Bagram air base in Afghanistan, where he was interrogated for more than a year, then shipped to Guantanamo last September.
The International Committee of the Red Cross told his wife, Farhat, that he was being held in Guantanamo as an enemy combatant, but the Defense Department refused to acknowledge it until his lawyer, Gaillard Hunt, filed a petition on Paracha's behalf in U.S. court.
Paracha is one of the most recent of 74 Guantanamo detainees who've filed petitions challenging their captivity. Two judges have issued opposing rulings on their rights, and a federal appeals court will decide whether judges can examine the merits of each case.
Hunt said Thursday that Paracha was "a businessman getting ready to meet Kmart buyers, the farthest thing from an enemy combatant."
The lawyer noted the difference in the way father and son are being treated: "They have held Saifullah for 17 months. Why didn't they indict him if they have evidence?"
In court papers, Hunt said any discussion of nuclear weapons by Paracha was general, "something many people have done over the past 60 years in our more anxious moments."
A Justice Department spokesman wouldn't discuss the Parachas' cases or why father and son are being treated differently. A spokesman for the U.S. attorney's office in New York, Herbert Hadad, said prosecutors were ready to go to trial in the Uzair Paracha case.
The nuclear reference about Saifullah Paracha was one of 11 allegations from an unclassified summary of evidence that was used against him during a tribunal to review his status, a process that all 500-plus detainees in Guantanamo went through last year.
In a single passage, investigators told the tribunal that Paracha "recommended to an al Qaida operative that nuclear weapons should be used against U.S. troops and suggested where these weapons might be obtained."
Other allegations: Paracha met twice with Osama bin Laden and held "large amounts" of money for al-Qaida and discussed ways of getting chemicals and explosives into countries allied with the United States.
Paracha told the tribunal he met with bin Laden in 1999 to discuss a TV project on the Quran, and that the other meeting was with a business delegation that visited Afghanistan in 2000. He said his extensive business and charitable work might have brought him into contact with al-Qaida supporters.
"Sir, how could anybody know who al Qaida is?" he told the officers on the tribunal panel. "I believe in the Quran: that killing one innocent person is equal to killing all humanity."
Paracha's family has said he's pro-American. They released an e-mail from a business partner, Charles Anteby, who's Jewish: "We had friendly talks on religion ... he spoke very highly of America."
The Defense Department determined that Paracha, like the vast majority of detainees, was properly held as an enemy combatant who fought for or supported al-Qaida or the hard-line Taliban regime in Afghanistan, which harbored bin Laden. Its decision was based on classified information that officials didn't disclose to Paracha.
When Paracha, who has a heart condition, told the panel he wanted nothing to do with violence and couldn't be classified a combatant, one officer said the designation had a broader reach.
"You could be in Thailand, holding $20 million for the purchase of weapons, and this could be more damaging than if you were just one person holding a rifle," the tribunal member told him. The Defense Department withholds the names of tribunal members.
(Davies covers Washington for The Miami Herald.)
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
Need to map