Show Hide image

Pleasing Mr Obama

Seven Pakistani nationals are being held at Guantanamo Bay, but if it keeps the Americans happy, the

Zachary represents scores of America's most secretly guarded prisoners. When he meets his clients, they are often chained to the ground in shackles. He told me how some of the guards at the prison are 18-year-olds, suckered into the job with the lure of extra pay and the promise that they are a buttress against the aspirations of global terrorism. Visits from the Dallas Cowboys football cheerleaders and Victoria's Secret lingerie models, who have dropped by to rally the troops, make the difficult job and the long hours away from home occasionally worthwhile.

But last June, when I met Zachary, a lawyer with Reprieve - the British organisation set up by Clive Stafford Smith to defend the rights of prisoners across the world - we weren't there to talk about him. Reprieve, which has a tiny office in Islamabad, was trying to drum up interest in Pakistan for the seven of its nationals being held in Guantanamo. Reprieve staff made the rounds; they called up the foreign minister and other notables in the PPP-led government hoping to convince them to lobby for their prisoners. No one bit; government officials did not seem to be terribly concerned.

Pakistan is a premier ally in the war on terror and it is with a certain amount of pride that the government proclaims that the road to Guantanamo started here in Pakistan. According to Reprieve, several Pakistani prisoners at Guantanamo were handed over for huge rewards, resulting in dubious profiteering by the state.

While other allies in the war on terror, including Britain under the divinely inspired Tony Blair and (surprisingly) Saudi Arabia, demanded the return of their citizens, calling their detainment at Gitmo unacceptable by their country's legal standards, Pakistan seems not to have put up much of a fight. There are no Pakistani lawyers working directly on the cases of Pakistani nationals held at the prison, no local NGOs involved in the case of defending Pakistanis incarcerated abroad.

Katznelson was in Pakistan to speak about one citizen in particular - Saifullah Paracha, a businessman from Karachi who disappeared during a 2003 business trip to Bangkok. Paracha, who exported textiles to the United States, never left Bangkok airport or cleared immigration, and it was weeks before his family learned that he was being held at a US airbase in Bagram, Afghanistan. Paracha, whose eldest son was also taken into custody, was eventually moved to Guantanamo where, for the first two years, he had no legal representation.

He suffers heart problems, and has yet to see the complete evidence used to keep him as a guest of the US prison system.

The charges against Paracha are tenuous and vague. It is alleged that he helped al-Qaeda and that he ran a terror network. He did not. He had met, through his business dealings, several dubious sorts, including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the "principal architect" of the 11 September 2001 attacks, and even Osama Bin Laden, but these meetings occurred before the men became infamous, no money has changed hands, and no contact or links were maintained.

Paracha's 16-year-old daughter, Zahra, has not seen her father for six years. "It's mind-boggling to me to even think about my father and brother because they are, in essence, political prisoners of a cold war between America and imaginary terrorists," she wrote in an email to me. Now, she despairs at getting justice under the new US administration because already, in 2009, the issue of Guantanamo is beginning to seem stale: a talking point a new president discusses at press conferences, a faraway jail we've never been bothered enough about to deal with.

Barack Obama's administration has pledged to close down Guantanamo; the closure of the prison is a priority, it has been said. But the president's conservative opponents won't give up Gitmo without a battle, warning that an exodus of prisoners is unlikely to make America a safer place.

In an article in the Washington Post on 5 February, Jim Riches, a retired firefighter who lost his son Jimmy in the 11 September 2001 attacks, is reported as saying this of President Obama's decision on Guantanamo: "I want to let them [the government] know that these men are dangerous."

Zahra, who created a website to publicise her father's case when she was 13 years old, thinks the "average American doesn't give a damn" about the illegality of her father's and brother's arrest and detention. She might be right. Unfortunately, it seems that the average Pakistani doesn't care much, either.

In Pakistan, the government is hard at work ensuring that Afghanistan doesn't turn out to be Obama's Vietnam, as ominously declared by Newsweek this month. Since the new administration took office, Pakistan's northern areas have been subject to three unmanned drone attacks. President Asif Ali Zardari made the bizarre choice, in the run-up to these attacks, of presenting the US assistant secretary of state Richard Boucher (they call him Richard Butcher here in Karachi) and Joe Biden with the national Hilal-e-Imtiaz award for their "services to Pakistan".

So, nothing has changed since Obama's election, for Pakistan at least. Nor, with talks of an Afghan surge and troop increase, are they likely to change for the imprisoned Pakistanis any time soon.