WASHINGTON — At the U.S. prison for suspected terrorists at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, everyone can get a Koran, but no one gets a Bible.
Saifullah Paracha, a 58-year-old former Pakistani businessman with alleged ties to Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, has been in U.S. custody since 2003. Like the other inmates at Guantanamo Bay, he has a copy of the Koran. But he also wants an English translation of the King James version of the Bible.
Paracha believes that because the Bible is one of the scriptures accepted in Islam, he is entitled to a copy to read in his small wire-mesh cell. But after his lawyer shipped him a Bible, along with two volumes of Shakespeare, prison officials confiscated the package.
Paracha's American lawyer filed suit in U.S. District Court in Washington, demanding that Paracha be given the Bible and copies of "Hamlet" and "Julius Caesar." The government responded that certain books were kept from prisoners because they could "incite" them.
Whether the Bible or the Koran, prayer might seem appropriate for Paracha. The allegations against him are serious.
The government contends that through his international packaging company, Paracha conspired to ship chemical components to the United States to help set off an attack by Al Qaeda terrorists. His son Uzair Paracha, 25, is on trial in New York on charges that he tried to help an Al Qaeda operative enter the country and plan the intended attack.
The son, if convicted, faces as much as 75 years in prison. The father could receive a life sentence. Both men insist they are innocent.
At his status review hearing last year, Saifullah Paracha conceded that he had met Bin Laden socially, and that the terrorist leader had given him a copy of the Koran.
"He was a prophet," Paracha said.
The practice of religion has been a sore point for the Guantanamo Bay detainees.
This year, tempers flared and hunger strikes were launched over allegations that copies of the Koran had been desecrated at the prison by U.S. guards. One account alleged that a Koran was flushed down a toilet. The U.S. government denied the report, but it set off riots in Muslim countries.
Paracha's Washington lawyer, Gaillard T. Hunt, said he met with Paracha in September and learned that his client had "been in solitary confinement with very little communication with anyone for most of the last year. I learned that he has been requesting a Bible. From my general knowledge, I knew that the Bible (the Old and New Testaments) is accepted in Islam as one of their holy texts, so I interpreted this as a religious request."
On Sept. 30, Hunt said, he purchased a Bible and mailed it, still in the publisher's shrink-wrap cover, to a chaplain at the naval base. He included a cover letter explaining it was for Prisoner No. 1094, at Paracha's request. Also in the package were the two plays and an English dictionary.
When Hunt visited in October, Paracha told him nothing had arrived. Hunt said one of the military lawyers "explained to me that Paracha would not be allowed to have a Bible, as that would violate prison policy."
Last week, a government lawsuit filed in response said none of the more than 500 prisoners was permitted special treatment.
Government lawyers said Paracha had not shown that the practice of his religion had been "substantially burdened" because he did not have a copy of the Bible.
They also argued that letting Paracha have a Bible would set off a "chain reaction" among the other 170 detainees who are suing the government in Washington courts, asking for relief from prison through some sort of court hearing.
Although a judge has not sorted out the dispute, the prison has recently "cleared for release" the Shakespeare plays. But still no Bible for Paracha.