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Uzair Paracha

Other Federal Exonerations for Supporting Terrorism
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On March 28, 2003, agents with the Joint Terrorism Task Force approached Uzair Paracha at his office in Manhattan to question him about his possible involvement with terrorist activities. The task force is a collaborative effort between the New York Police Department and the Federal Bureau of Investigation established after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.

Paracha was then 23, a Pakistani citizen with permanent resident status in the United States, where he had spent considerable time during his youth. Friends in Pakistan called him a “burger,” slang for a Pakistani with a taste for western lifestyle. Paracha had moved back to New York at the beginning of 2003 to help market luxury apartments in Karachi, Pakistan to Pakistani-Americans. The apartments were owned by his father, Saifullah Paracha, a wealthy Pakistani businessman who also had permanent resident status in the United States.

Paracha agreed to talk with the agents. The interview began at his office and then moved to the FBI offices, ending at 4 a.m. on March 29. At the FBI’s suggestion, Paracha spent the night in a hotel, accompanied by agents, and the interview continued on March 29. Now, Paracha was advised of his Miranda rights.

The government’s interview revolved around Paracha’s relationship with two men, Majid Khan and Ammar al-Baluchi. Paracha first denied knowing Khan, but then admitted he did. He also said that he possessed Khan’s driver’s license and that he had agreed to help Khan procure a travel document enabling him to re-enter the United States. Khan is a legal resident of the United States who grew up in Maryland, working at his father’s gas station. He was arrested in Pakistan in early March 2003, and the U.S. government alleges that he was working with Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, one of the architects of the 9/11 attacks, on a plot to blow up gas stations and disrupt the U.S. oil supply.

Paracha said he had met al-Baluchi in Pakistan, because al-Baluchi wanted to invest between $180,000 and $200,000 in Saifullah Paracha’s businesses. The U.S. government considers al-Baluchi to be a conspirator in the 9/11 attacks who played a key role in facilitating the movement of money to the plan’s operatives.

Khalid Sheik Mohammed (known in most government documents as KSM), al-Baluchi and Khan, are currently all detainees at the U.S. Naval Station, Guantanamo Bay.

Paracha initially told the agents that he “suspected his father of being al Qaeda but that he didn’t want to think about it.” He said his father had met Osama bin Laden and had admired his humbleness. Later, he would say at separate times that his father either did or didn’t discuss al Qaeda matters with him.

Paracha said that Khan had given him four tasks: checking on immigration paperwork; depositing money into Khan’s U.S. bank account; using Khan’s credit cards in the United States; and closing a U.S. Post Office box in Maryland. Paracha said he had made a half-hearted attempt on the immigration task and that was it.

Paracha gave varying accounts of what had occurred with the financial arrangement with al-Baluchi, including how much money had been deposited, how long it had remained in the bank account, and what the purpose of the transaction was.

On March 31, 2003, Paracha was served with a material witness warrant and arrested. During the next two months, Paracha continued to answer questions from task force agents. A judge later noted that during these sessions, Paracha elaborated on and contradicted his earlier statements, but never did he disavow his admissions of knowing that Khan and al-Baluchi were al Qaeda members, or that by assisting Khan he was helping al Qaeda, or that his father had business dealings with the terrorist group.

On October 8, 2003, he was indicted and charged with five counts: conspiracy and substantive charges of providing material support or resources to al Qaeda; conspiracy and substantive charges of making or receiving a contribution of funds, goods, or services on behalf of al Qaeda; and committing identification document fraud with the intent to provide material support to al Qaeda in order to facilitate a terrorist act.

At the time of Paracha’s arrest, there was little indication of what led authorities to him. But the release in 2014 of the report by the U.S. Senate’s Select Committee on Intelligence on the Central Intelligence Agency’s interrogation and detention program revealed several prongs of the investigation. First, the report said, authorities had found Saifullah Paracha’s name on documents seized in a raid on an al Qaeda compound. Second, Khan was also in custody of a foreign government at the time, and he said that Uzair Paracha was assisting him and al-Baluchi. That information was relayed to CIA agents, who were interviewing KSM after his capture on March 1, 2003. According to the declassified version of the Senate report, KSM was subjected to extensive “enhanced interrogation techniques,” including waterboarding, after his arrest, and he said that Uzair had been tasked with helping Khan and that Saifullah had agreed to use his textile business as a front for smuggling explosives into the United States. (Saifullah Paracha was taken into custody in Bangkok, Thailand on July 5, 2003. He was eventually transferred to Guantanamo, where he was declared an enemy combatant. He is still there.).

Because of the sensitive nature of the case, the U.S. government moved for a protective order on most documents, guided by the rules established in the Classified Information Procedures Act. The order was granted by Judge Sidney Stein of U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York on November 6, 2003.

According to reporting in The Guardian, the government offered Paracha a plea deal after his arrest, with an offer of between five to eight years in prison. He refused. While he awaited trial, he was placed in solitary confinement in New York’s Metropolitan Correctional Center.

Paracha’s attorneys tried to suppress his statements to the task force agents, arguing that his confession was obtained under coercion. They also said his apartment in Brooklyn had been searched without his consent. Stein ruled against the defense motion on August 31, 2004. (The order itself is still under seal.)

In preparation for trial, Paracha’s attorneys initially sought to depose four witnesses: Khan, al-Baluchi, KSM, and Saifullah Paracha. By then, all of the men were in U.S. custody, and the post-9/11 rules of how to balance a defendant’s right to present witnesses against compelling interests of national security were only recently sorted out. In a ruling on September 13, 2004, in the case of Zacarias Moussaoui, the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit laid out guidelines for the process involving witnesses in detention as enemy combatants. In Paracha’s case, it worked like this: The government submitted unclassified summaries of relevant statements from the four men along with the classified documents supporting those statements. The court reviewed these documents and suggested changes, and then the revised statements were given to Paracha’s attorneys.

The court denied Paracha further access to KSM. The only statement then available to the defense said that KSM didn’t recognize a picture of Saifullah Paracha, which was “simply too remote and isolated to support a claim that KSM would provide material or favorable testimony.” Stein allowed Paracha to depose his father, but Paracha chose not to do so.

For the other two men, Khan and al-Baluchi, the court ruled that Paracha could present their testimony by stipulation, through unclassified summaries of their statements. These would be accompanied by instructions from the judge. This, too, was derived from the Fourth Circuit ruling in Moussaoui.

Paracha’s trial began in November 2005. The stipulations were at the heart of the case. Part of Khan’s stipulated testimony said:

Majid Khan assessed Uzair Paracha as being willing to help a fellow Muslim at his father’s request. Majid Khan knew of no other motivation for Uzair Paracha’s assistance. Majid Khan did not assess Uzair Paracha as being suitable for any other assistance to al Qaeda besides helping with Majid Khan’s documents at the time. Uzair Paracha volunteered to Majid Khan that he (Paracha) wanted to spread Islam through media.

Majid Khan thought Uzair Paracha was a good person who was willing to help. Majid Khan might have been interested in recruiting Uzair Paracha once Majid Khan returned to the United States and had time to assess Uzair Paracha. Majid Khan would only give Uzair Paracha a 5–10% suitability assessment, citing the fact that Uzair Paracha had no extremist views and was not really a practicing Muslim.

The stipulation for al-Baluchi said in part:

Uzair Paracha was totally unwitting of al‐Baluchi’s al Qaeda affiliation, or of al‐Baluchi’s intention to use Saifullah Paracha for the broader operational plan involving Majid Khan. Uzair Paracha knows nothing about operations. Neither al‐Baluchi nor Majid Khan indicated to Uzair Paracha at any time that they were mujahidin or al Qaeda. Uzair Paracha did not complete the task involving Majid Khan.

In explaining the stipulations to jurors, Stein said, in part: “For the purposes of this trial only, you may assume that the United States government has custody of these two witnesses and control over the conditions of their confinement.”

He also said: “The witnesses’ statements were obtained under circumstances that were designed to elicit truthful and accurate information from the witnesses because the statements are relied upon by United States officials responsible for making national security decisions.”

Prior to the trial’s start, prosecutors and Paracha’s attorneys had also stipulated that Khan and al-Baluchi were members of al Qaeda. The government tried to show that the Parachas had met Khan and al-Baluchi in Pakistan, and that Uzair had agreed to help Khan re-enter the United States for the purpose of carrying out a terrorist attack in return for al-Baluchi investing between $180,000 and $200,000 in the elder Paracha’s business.

The federal agents who had interviewed Paracha acknowledged inconsistencies in his statements, such as his competing descriptions that al Qaeda wanted to keep its funds liquid but also invest in Saifullah Paracha’s business. “That doesn’t make any sense,” one agent testified.

The government also presented the testimony of Evan Kohlmann, a terrorism expert, who testified about the operations of al Qaeda. Paracha’s attorneys had tried to exclude Kohlmann’s testimony, arguing that he wasn’t the expert the government said he was. His research consisted largely of information collected from the Internet, and he neither read nor spoke Arabic. After a daylong evidentiary hearing before Stein, Kohlmann was allowed to testify. He told jurors that al Qaeda was amorphous and insular and that, beyond its leaders, members had very little idea what other members were doing. This enabled the prosecution to argue that it was entirely possible for neither Khan nor al-Baluchi to know the extent of Uzair Paracha’s involvement with al Qaeda.

Paracha testified in his own defense. While he acknowledged making the statements to the taskforce agents, he said much of what he said was the product of a combination of fear, intimidation and exhaustion. He said he had never knowingly aided a terrorist group and that “if I had known these people were al Qaeda, I would not have helped them out.” He said he helped Khan simply out of respect for his father, who had made the request to help “a fellow Pakistani Muslim.”

Paracha was convicted on all five counts on November 23, 2005 and was later sentenced to 30 years in federal prison.

Paracha appealed his conviction, arguing among other things that his statements should have been suppressed, that Kohlmann shouldn’t have been allowed to testify, and that his right to confront witnesses was harmed by the manner in which the government summarized the stipulated statements during closing arguments. A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, including future Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, upheld the conviction on June 19, 2008.

As this first round of appeals proceeded, Paracha’s attorneys discovered new evidence that bolstered their client’s claim of innocence. In September 2007, the government had provided the attorneys with statements made earlier that year by Khan, al-Baluchi, and KSM during their detention at Guantanamo Bay as part of hearings known as Combatant Status Review Tribunals, or CSRTs.

In his statements, KSM acknowledged his role in a wide range of terrorist activities, from the initial World Trade Center bombing in 1993 to the 9/11 attacks and the decapitation of journalist Daniel Pearl. He said that Khan was not involved with any operations and was “somewhat useless.” KSM also said in his tribunal statements that al-Baluchi was not involved with al Qaeda and had no “knowledge of any al Qaeda links.”

During al-Baluchi’s tribunal hearings, he said he wasn’t a member of al Qaeda, and that KSM had never introduced him to anyone who was clearly identified as being a member. He also said he knew nothing about smuggling or shipping explosives, and that Khan would not need his help in returning to the United States because he was already from there. Most important, al-Baluchi said KSM had a strict rule about keeping the Parachas away from al Qaeda, because KSM had invested money with the family and wanted to keep that separate from the operations.

Khan said during his tribunal hearings, according to the CSRT statements, that he was not a member of al Qaeda, that Paracha was innocent, and that if he had known KSM was in al Qaeda, he would have sold him out for reward money. The Senate report on torture also says that Khan claims he was subjected to harsh interrogation techniques, including immersion in an ice-cold water bath in 2003. He also claimed that prior to his 2007 CSRT hearings, he tried to harm himself and went on a hunger strike, which the government countered in part by feeding him through a rectal tube. Collectively, these CSRT statements formed the heart of a motion for a new trial that was filed under seal on November 21, 2008.

“Despite Mr. Paracha’s diligent efforts before trial, he was denied access to those three witnesses,” his attorneys wrote. “Rather than evidence that merely impeaches the credibility of a witness or demonstrates perjury, the newly discovered evidence both directly and indirectly contradicts the government’s theory of prosecution: that Mr. Paracha knew that Mr. al-Baluchi or Mr. Khan were members of al Qaeda, and that any assistance Mr. Paracha lent Mr. Khan was performed with the knowledge or intent to support al Qaeda.”

The motion for a new trial also asked Stein to hold a hearing on whether the government had sufficiently disclosed potentially exculpatory information to Paracha’s attorneys about the treatment of Khan, al-Baluchi and KSM.

“Given the statements that were obtained by FBI and NCIS/CITF personnel at their first meetings with each of the three detainees in early 2007 (following their transfer to Guantanamo Bay), it is inconceivable that some – if not all – of those statements exculpating Mr. Paracha were not made earlier, prior to trial, to the other agencies that were interrogating the detainees,” the motion said (NCIS is the Naval Criminal Investigative Services. The Criminal Investigation Task Force was created in early 2002 to conduct interrogations at Guantanamo Bay.).

It would be nearly 10 years before Stein issued a ruling. On July 3, 2018, he overturned Paracha’s conviction. He noted that the CSRT statements met the criteria established by the federal courts when considering whether newly discovered evidence was sufficient to support a motion for a new trial. First, Paracha’s attorneys had tried diligently to depose these witnesses before trial. The new evidence was material and not merely useful for impeaching a witness. Most important, there was a likelihood that the evidence, if available at the time of the 2005 trial, would have resulted in an acquittal.

Stein wrote in his order that KSM’s testimony – based on his sweeping role with al Qaeda – would have sharply undercut the government’s assertion that the stipulations from Khan and al-Baluchi were not evidence of Paracha’s innocence but rather consistent with al Qaeda’s decentralized and siloed operational structure, as Kohlmann had testified. Equally important, both Khan and al-Baluchi had each said in their new statements that they weren’t members of al Qaeda. This undercut the stipulation from the trial. While not accepting those 2007 statements as the truth, Stein said they nonetheless would allow Paracha to argue that not only did he never knowingly help al Qaeda, but that he also never helped al Qaeda at all.

“The critical question in this case is now and has always been whether Paracha acted with knowledge that he was helping al Qaeda,” Stein wrote. “The factfinder’s burden is to judge the truth between the jumble of incriminating stories Paracha offered government agents in 2003, and defendant’s theory of the case – that he knew Majid Khan but remained ignorant of Khan’s al Qaeda affiliations, and that his contrary pretrial statements to the government were lies told out of fear and a misguided hope of cooperation.” He said the newly discovered material would yield a fundamentally different trial and very likely a different outcome.

Prosecutors quickly filed a notice of appeal but withdrew it on December 27, 2018. On January 30, 2019, Stein set a date for a new trial of August 5, 2019. In May 2019, the government told Stein that it had become aware of “an extraordinarily large volume” of classified documents, many of which were likely to be the subject of discovery and litigation issues related to the Classified Information Procedures Act. Prosecutors asked for an adjournment of the retrial to August 2020 to “allow it to complete CIPA litigation and protect national-security equities belonging to members of the intelligence community and the United States military.”

In June, Stein adjourned the retrial to March 23, 2020 and then indicated that he would not accept any more postponements.

On March 13, 2020, federal prosecutors filed a motion to dismiss. The government wrote: “Because Uzair Paracha, the defendant, has served approximately sixteen years of his sentence, because the schedule in this matter precludes the Government from taking necessary steps to protect national-security equities without diverting substantial resources from other important national security and law-enforcement functions, and because Paracha has agreed to renounce his status as a lawful permanent resident in the United States and has consented to voluntary and immediate repatriation from the United States to Pakistan, 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.”

Paracha was released from prison on March 13, 2020 and flown to Pakistan. Stein approved the order on March 14, 2020.

“My prayers have been answered,” Paracha said in a statement. “Still, it’s hard for me to imagine life outside of prison, so I feel anxious but hopeful.”

– Ken Otterbourg

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Posting Date: 4/2/2020
State:Fed-NY
County:(Southern)
Most Serious Crime:Supporting Terrorism
Additional Convictions:Supporting Terrorism, Fraud, Conspiracy
Reported Crime Date:2003
Convicted:2005
Exonerated:2020
Sentence:30 years
Race/Ethnicity:Asian
Sex:Male
Age at the date of reported crime:23
Contributing Factors:False Confession, False or Misleading Forensic Evidence, Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No