By Jonathan Stempel
NEW YORK (Reuters) - A Manhattan federal judge on Tuesday voided the November 2005 conviction of a Pakistani man for conspiring to help an al Qaeda operative enter the United States, saying new evidence cast doubt on the defendant's guilt.
Uzair Paracha, 38, has been serving a 30-year prison term for allegedly helping Majid Khan obtain travel documents, after Khan plotted with al Qaeda leaders to bomb underground storage tanks at Maryland gas stations.
But U.S. District Judge Sidney Stein said newly discovered statements made by Khan, al Qaeda operative Ammar al Baluchi and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the accused mastermind of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, called into question whether Paracha knew he was helping al Qaeda.
Stein, who oversaw Paracha's trial and imposed his sentence, called it a "manifest injustice" to let the conviction stand and granted Paracha's request, made in November 2008, for a new trial.
The new evidence "would yield a fundamentally different trial and likely create a reasonable doubt favouring Paracha's theory of the case over the government's," Stein wrote.
Paracha had said he knew Khan but was ignorant of his al Qaeda ties, and that he made incriminating statements before trial out of fear and a misguided hope that cooperating would help.
James Margolin, a spokesman for U.S. Attorney Geoffrey Berman, declined to discuss the decision or a possible retrial. Paracha is housed at the federal prison in Terre Haute, Indiana.
"We're gratified by the decision," his lawyer Joshua Dratel said in an interview. "It shows that having access to witnesses can make all the difference at trial."
Prosecutors said Paracha had impersonated Khan in phone calls with U.S. immigration authorities and by using his credit card, to make it appear that Khan was in the United States.
They also said Paracha and his father discussed with Khan and al Baluchi receiving $200,000 in al Qaeda funds to support their businesses in exchange for aiding Khan's reentry efforts.
In Tuesday's decision, Stein pointed to statements made by Khan, al Baluchi and Mohammed to government agents at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where they were detained.
These included Khan's "new, repeated, and unambiguous assertions of defendant's innocence," and Mohammed's failure to mention Paracha or his father even as he "freely" implicated other al Qaeda members in dozens of crimes and plots.
Stein ruled after Paracha, in a handwritten letter dated Feb. 7, called his then 110-month wait for a ruling a "clear abuse" of the "orderly, efficient administration of justice."
The case is U.S. v. Paracha, U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York, No. 03-cr-01197.
(Reporting by Jonathan Stempel in New York; Editing by Marguerita Choy)