Uzair Paracha served 17 years in prison. But his conviction was thrown out and his lawyer says he is innocent.
By Benjamin Weiser
When Uzair Paracha was convicted in 2005 in Manhattan of trying to help a terrorist enter the United States, federal prosecutors hailed the verdict as “another victory in the global fight against terrorism.” He was sentenced to 30 years in prison.
But now — nearly 17 years after he was first arrested — Mr. Paracha, 40, has been released and flown to Pakistan, the land of his birth, with all charges against him dropped, according to a government court filing on Monday and his lawyer.
The lawyer, Ramzi Kassem, confirmed Mr. Paracha left the United States on Friday night and was with his family in Pakistan.
Mr. Paracha’s release followed months of secret negotiations between the government and his lawyers and comes nearly two years after a judge ordered a new trial for him, saying newly discovered evidence called his guilt into question.
The government had indicated in court papers that it did not believe the new evidence exonerated Mr. Paracha. As recently as late 2018, prosecutors described Mr. Paracha as “an avowed Al Qaeda supporter” whose release would pose a “serious danger to the public.”
But the prosecutors said in the new filing that they decided not to retry Mr. Paracha because they could not complete a required review of 14,000 classified documents before Mr. Paracha’s trial date “without diverting substantial resources from other important national-security and law-enforcement functions.”
The review was necessary to determine whether any of the documents were relevant to the case and might have to be turned over to the defense in advance of March 23, the date of Mr. Paracha’s retrial, which the judge said he would not postpone.
Even with prosecutors and F.B.I. agents sifting for months through the materials, which were generated by American intelligence and military agencies in the years since the first trial, the government told the judge in November that only 6,300 documents had been reviewed.
For his part, Mr. Paracha agreed to give up his status as a permanent U.S. resident and “has consented to voluntary and immediate repatriation from the United States to Pakistan,” according to the filing.
“Uzair’s slate is clean and he returns home to Pakistan a free and innocent man,” said Mr. Kassem, a law professor at City University of New York who led Mr. Paracha’s negotiations with the government.
“My prayers have been answered,” Mr. Paracha said in a statement. “Still, it’s hard for me to imagine life outside of prison, so I feel anxious but hopeful.” James M. Margolin, a spokesman for the United States attorney’s office in Manhattan, declined to comment.
According to Judge Sidney H. Stein’s 2018 decision to throw out Mr. Paracha’s conviction and grant him a new trial, Mr. Paracha moved to the United States in Feb. 2003, settled in Brooklyn and was arrested just a month later. In October of that same year, he was indicted on charges of providing material support to Al Qaeda, conspiracy and other counts.
At his 2005 trial, the government presented evidence that Mr. Paracha and his father, Saifullah Paracha, had met in Pakistan with two Qaeda operatives — Majid Khan and Ammar al-Baluchi — and that Uzair had agreed to help Mr. Khan fraudulently obtain immigration documents so he could carry out a plot to bomb gas stations in the United States.
Mr. Paracha testified at trial that he had taken “some small steps” to help Mr. Khan, but he claimed he never knew the men were Qaeda members and had he known, “I would not have helped them out,” court papers show.
In his opinion, Judge Stein wrote that the critical question “has always been whether Paracha acted with knowledge that he was helping Al Qaeda.”
Mr. Paracha had given varying, and at times incriminating, statements to the authorities about his knowledge of the men’s Qaeda ties, the judge noted. At his trial, Mr. Paracha testified that key portions of his statements were false and stemmed from “a combination of fear, intimidation and exhaustion,” the judge said.
But in years since Mr. Paracha’s conviction, the judge said, new evidence had come to light: statements not only by Mr. Khan and Mr. al-Baluchi, but by the self-described architect of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks — Khalid Shaikh Mohammed.
All three men were detainees at the Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, military prison, and still are. Their statements, made before military tribunals or in interviews with federal agents, “directly contradict the government’s case” that Mr. Paracha knowingly aided Al Qaeda, the judge wrote.
Mr. Khan, for example, told the authorities that he had never disclosed his Qaeda ties to Mr. Paracha, whom he described as innocent; and Mr. Mohammed “openly confessed his responsibility for dozens of heinous crimes and terrorist plots” but never mentioned Mr. Paracha or his father (who had also been sent to Guantánamo), the judge said.
Given this new evidence, Judge Stein wrote, Mr. Paracha could “credibly ask the jury” to infer his innocence and “lack of involvement in the operations discussed.” Allowing his conviction to stand would be a “manifest injustice,” the judge said. In the new court filing, the government, in explaining the decision to drop charges, made it clear that beyond the burden of the classified-document review, it also had considered Mr. Paracha’s long stay in prison and his agreement to renounce his residency status and leave the country.
“The government believes that dismissing the indictment under the circumstances presented is the best available option to protect the public and preserve national-security equities,” prosecutors wrote.
Mr. Kassem said that early on in discussions prosecutors offered to let Mr. Paracha return to Pakistan immediately if he pleaded guilty to a terrorism-related charge. He refused to take the deal.
“Mr. Paracha was adamant that he wanted to go to trial to clear his name,” Mr. Kassem said. Another of Mr. Paracha’s lawyers, Joshua L. Dratel, said he believed Mr. Paracha would have been acquitted in a retrial.
The government made additional offers — that Mr. Paracha plead to a lesser count, for example — but he rejected them, Mr. Kassem said. Late last fall, Mr. Kassem said, the government agreed to a defense proposal that became the framework for the final deal.
The new court filing seeking dismissal of the charges was signed by the United States attorney, Geoffrey S. Berman, and other prosecutors, and was approved by Judge Stein.
(Alain Delaquérière contributed research. Benjamin Weiser is a reporter covering the Manhattan federal courts. He has long covered criminal justice, both as a beat and investigative reporter. Before joining The Times in 1997, he worked at The Washington Post. @BenWeiserNYT)
– Courtesy of The New York Times