Martin Hodgson / The Guardian & Al Jazeera – 2008-05-01 22:29:59
US Releases al-Jazeera Cameraman after Six Years in Guantanamo
Martin Hodgson / The Guardian
LONDON (May 2, 2008) — An al-Jazeera cameraman detained by American forces in Afghanistan was last night released after spending nearly six years imprisoned without charge at Guantánamo Bay.
Sami al-Haj, 39, was arrested on the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan on December 15 2001, while on assignment to cover the war against the Taliban. Although he had a valid visa to work in Afghanistan, US intelligence alleged that he was an al-Qaida operative, and he was transferred to Guantánamo in June 2002.
Last night, his lawyer, Clive Stafford Smith, said Haj was en route to his home in Sudan to be reunited with his wife and son. He said: “I’m very glad Sami has finally been released, but the question is why he wasn’t freed many years ago.”
The US military alleged that Haj had secretly interviewed Osama bin Laden, smuggled guns for al-Qaida and worked as a financial courier for Chechen rebels. But the evidence against him was never revealed, and he was never charged.
Prior to his release, Haj had been on hunger strike since January 2007, and was forced to undergo “assisted feeding” via a tube through his nose. According to Stafford Smith, he was suicidal and had throat cancer, but camp authorities withheld medical treatment. “We are very concerned about him, because he has been under a tremendous amount of stress and has been on hunger strike for 480 days. He has asked to be taken straight to a hospital in Khartoum,” Stafford Smith said.
In exchange for Haj’s release, the Sudanese government has agreed to ban him from working as a journalist or leaving Sudan, according to Reporters Without Borders.
Robert Ménard, secretary general of Reporters Without Borders, said: “Sami al-Haj should never have been held so long. US authorities never proved that he had been involved in any criminal activity.”
Haj’s case was one of number involving journalists captured by US forces while reporting from war zones. Two weeks ago US forces in Iraq released Bilal Hussein, a photographer from the Associated Press news agency, who was detained in Ramadi in April 2006.
Commentators in the Middle East viewed Haj’s imprisonment as a proxy punishment for al-Jazeera, whose broadcasts have angered US officials.
When the BBC reporter Alan Johnston was kidnapped in Gaza, Haj appealed for his release. Johnston in turn, called on the US authorities to free Haj. But Stafford Smith said much of the western media had been slow to take up Haj’s case.
A spokesman for the Pentagon refused to comment on the case.
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Sami al-Hajj Hits Out at US Captors
Al-Hajj said the US Would Not Give Inmates “the Rights that they Give Animals”
SUDAN (May 2, 2008) — Al Jazeera cameraman Sami al-Hajj has hit out at the US treatment of detainees at the Guantanamo Bay military prison where he was held for nearly six and a half years. Saying that “rats are treated with more humanity”, al-Hajj said inmates’ “human dignity was violated”.
Al-Hajj arrived in Sudan early on Friday, was carried off the US air force jet in a stretcher and immediately taken to hospital. His brother, Asim al-Hajj, said he did not recognise the cameraman because he looked like a man in his 80s.
Still, al-Hajj said: “I was lucky because God allowed that I be released.” But his attention soon turned to the 275 inmates he left behind in the US military prison.
“In Guantanamo … rats are treated with more humanity. But we have people from more than 50 countries that are completely deprived of all rights and privileges.”
“I’m very happy to be in Sudan, but I’m very sad because of the situation of our brothers who remain in Guantanamo. Conditions in Guantanamo are very, very bad and they get worse by the day,” he said from his hospital bed.
“Our human condition, our human dignity was violated, and the American administration went beyond all human values, all moral values, all religious values.
“In Guantanamo … rats are treated with more humanity. But we have people from more than 50 countries that are completely deprived of all rights and privileges. And they will not give them the rights that they give animals,” he said.
Al-Hajj complained that “for more than seven years, [inmates] did not get a chance to be brought before a civil court to defend their just case”.
The US embassy in Khartoum issued a brief statement confirming that a “detainee transfer” to Sudan had taken place and saying it appreciated Sudan’s co-operation.
A senior US defence official in Washington speaking on
condition of anonymity, told Reuters that al-Hajj was “not being released [but] being transferred to the Sudanese government”.
But Sudan’s justice minister told Al Jazeera that al-Hajj was a free man and would not be arrested or face any charges.
Two other Sudanese inmates at Guantanamo, Amir Yacoub al-Amir and Walid Ali, were freed along with al-Hajj.
The two said they were blindfolded, handcuffed and chained to their seats during the flight home.
The Reprieve organisation that represents some Guantanamo inmates said Moroccan detainee Said Boujaadia was also released and flown home on the same aircraft as the three Sudanese.
Al-Hajj was the only journalist from a major international news organisation held at Guantanamo and many of his supporters saw his detention as punishment for the network’s broadcasts.
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Despite holding a legitimate visa to work for Al Jazeera’s Arabic channel in Afghanistan, he was handed to the US military in January 2002 and sent to Guantanamo Bay.
Al-Hajj, who is originally from Sudan, was held as an “enemy combatant” without ever facing trial or charges.
Al-Hajj was never prosecuted at Guantanamo so the US did not make public its full allegations against him.
But in a hearing that determined that he was an enemy combatant, US officials alleged that in the 1990s, al-Hajj was an executive assistant at a Qatar-based beverage company that provided support to Muslim fighters in Bosnia and Chechnya.
The US claimed he also travelled to Azerbaijan at least eight times to carry money on behalf of his employer to the al-Haramain Islamic Foundation, a now defunct charity that US authorities say funded armed groups.
The US also clamed he met Mamdouh Mahmud Salim, allegedly a senior lieutenant to Osama bin Laden who was arrested in Germany in 1998 and extradited to the United States.
His lawyers have always denied the allegations.
‘Element of Racism’
David Remes, a lawyer for 17 detainees at Guantanamo Bay, told Al Jazeera that the treatment al-Hajj received “was more horrific than most” and that there was “an element of racism” in the way he was treated.
He said he had been in contact with the lawyer representing al-Hajj and it appeared the cameraman had been “psychologically damaged”.
“The Europeans would never receive this treatment,” Remes said.
About 275 detainees remain at Guantanamo and the lawyer said European detainees had all been returned to their country, leaving nationalities such as Yemenis – who now constitute one third of the inmate population.
Al Jazeera had been campaigning for al-Hajj’s
release since his capture in 2001 [EPA]
Remes said al-Hajj had been released because the Bush administration “wants to flush as many men out of Guantanamo as quickly as possible … as Guantanamo has become such an international badge of shame”.
“Once the Supreme Court said the men could have lawyers the pressure increased [on the US] and condemnation isolated the US administration. Guantanamo was a PR disaster,” he said.
“Unfortunately Americans appreciate violations of rights but they have no sympathy for men held at Guantanamo as the [Bush] administration has done such a good job in portraying them as the worst of the worst and as evil doers.
“I’ve met many prisoners, gotten to appreciate their suffering … we know them as humans not as worst of worst, we’ve met their families.
“I’ve been to Guantanamo and the human dimension of Guantanamo is a story yet to be told,” Remes said.
Al Jazeera Concerns
Al Jazeera had been campaigning for al-Hajj’s release since his capture nearly six and a half years ago.
Wadah Khanfar, the network’s director-general who was in Khartoum to welcome al-Hajj, said “we are overwhelmed with joy”. But he criticised the US military for urging al-Hajj to spy on his employers.
“We are concerned about the way the Americans dealt with Sami, and we are concerned about the way they could deal with others as well,” he said.
“Sami will continue with Al Jazeera, he will continue as a professional person who has done great jobs during his work with Al Jazeera.
“We congratulate his family and all those who knew Sami and loved Sami and worked for this moment.”
Source: Al Jazeera and agencies
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