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The oldest inmate at the U.S. military prison in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba was released

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

The inmate population at the U.S. military prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, is now down to 35 men. That's after the oldest prisoner there, a 75-year-old man, was let go over the weekend and sent to Pakistan. His release is part of the Biden administration's ongoing push to close Guantanamo, which has held nearly 800 people since it was opened after the 9/11 attacks. NPR's Sacha Pfeiffer has made several trips to Gitmo and is with us now. Hi, Sacha.

SACHA PFEIFFER, BYLINE: Hi, Ailsa.

CHANG: So tell us about this 75-year-old man. Like, why was he being held in the first place?

PFEIFFER: His name is Saifullah Paracha. He's a Pakistani citizen who was accused of being an al-Qaida sympathizer. And he was first sent to a secret CIA prison in Afghanistan where he was tortured. Then he was sent to Guantanamo. But he was never charged with anything. He's one of the forever prisoners, the nickname or so-called name for the Guantanamo inmates being held indefinitely without charge or trial.

CHANG: Yeah.

PFEIFFER: Paracha was held for nearly 20 years at Gitmo before he was transferred to Pakistan on Saturday. And I should note, he was photographed at a McDonald's in a Karachi. So he is very quickly settling into post-prison life.

CHANG: Been a while since he's visited McDonald's. Why was he finally let go?

PFEIFFER: Guantanamo has the equivalent of a parole board that periodically reviews prisoner cases, and Paracha was reviewed in May 2021. And this parole board determined he was no longer a security threat to the U.S. and was free to go. But he was held another 18 months almost. And long delays are common between being cleared for release and actually being released, partly because the U.S. has to find countries to take these men. And you can imagine those are complicated negotiations.

CHANG: Right. OK. Well, let me ask you, former President Obama had vowed to close Guantanamo, and he failed to do that. Why does President Biden now think he could have more success than Obama?

PFEIFFER: Yeah. You know, I think he recognizes that Republican resistance to closing Gitmo is fading. That's partly because it's very costly. The tab is about 13 million taxpayer dollars per prisoner per year. And one Guantanamo defense lawyer I spoke with, Michel Paradis, points out that many Gitmo prisoners are getting up there in years and they have medical problems that the facilities there are not equipped to handle. Here's how Paradis puts it.

MICHEL PARADIS: No one wants a severely ill old man, which is what increasingly the detainee population is becoming, on their hands. It's a difficult, expensive and politically perhaps risky proposition to have individuals dying of old age in Guantanamo.

PFEIFFER: And Ailsa, by the way, of the 35 men left at Guantanamo, 20 have been cleared for release.

CHANG: Wow. What about the other 15 men? What's their status?

PFEIFFER: This is trickier. Some are facing charges and will probably never be released. That includes Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the alleged 9/11 mastermind, and his four co-defendants. That 9/11 case has been stuck for years in pre-trial hearings. But very few people in Guantanamo circles believe a 9/11 trial will ever actually happen. The military court or military commissions, as it's called, are widely viewed as a failure. Even Harvey Rishikof, who used to head Guantanamo's court, says that. I heard him speak recently at an event calling for Guantanamo's closure. And here's part of what Rishikof said.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HARVEY RISHIKOF: Across the board, the commissions have not performed their primary function, which is to quickly go to trial, come back with a verdict and move on. This is not what has happened.

PFEIFFER: So he says the 9/11 case should be resolved through a plea bargain, most likely life in prison without parole. This would be instead of the death penalty.

CHANG: Well, how do the families of 9/11 victims feel about that?

PFEIFFER: It would certainly disappoint them because they want some of these men executed. But, you know, they're worn out. They've been waiting for resolutions since 2001. Here's Colleen Kelly, who co-founded a victims' family group, speaking at the same event where Rishikof recently spoke.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

COLLEEN KELLY: Twenty-one years is too long. I look at terror attacks around the world - Bali, India, Madrid, the U.K., more recently in Belgium and in Paris. Those trials have happened. Those people have been held accountable. There has been no accountability for what happened on September 11.

PFEIFFER: So she says plea deals are a practical solution.

CHANG: That is NPR's Sacha Pfeiffer. Thank you, Sacha.

PFEIFFER: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sacha Pfeiffer is a correspondent for NPR's Investigations team and an occasional guest host for some of NPR's national shows.