Sami al-Haj is a Sudanese journalist who was captured on his first assignment for Al Jazeera and has been detained without charge in Guantanamo Bay since June 2002. But, remarkably, imprisonment hasn’t stopped him reporting on life behind the wire. Andrew Buncombe tells his story and talks to those he left behind
Published: 09 June 2007
Sami al-Haj spends his days alone, thinking of his wife and the son he barely knows.
He spends his time thinking of the world beyond the razor wire, of the world away from the walls and bars, the orange jumpsuit he is forced to wear and the military guards that oversee him. He thinks too of his fellow prisoners incarcerated along with him at Guantanamo Bay and the anguish they endure.
And when he gets an opportunity – which is rare – he tells someone what he has seen.
Haj – prisoner identification number 345 – is one of around 380 detainees still being held at the prison located at a US naval base located on the south-east coast of Cuba. Yet he is unique among the prisoners in that he is the only one who was seized and detained while working as a journalist. It was while working as a cameraman for the Al Jazeera network that Haj was seized by the Pakistani authorities as he was trying to enter Afghanistan in December 2001. He had a valid visa but that made no difference to either the Pakistanis who grabbed him or the Americans who held Haj without charge – first at Bagram Airbase and then at Guantanamo. The seventh of June marked the fifth anniversary of his imprisonment at that off-bounds, “Alice-in-Wonderland” jail in the Caribbean.
But if the Bush administration was able to incarcerate the cameraman, it has been unable to prevent him behaving as a journalist. Throughout the five years he has been held, 38-year-old Haj has continued to act like a reporter, detailing and documenting what he has seen and experienced inside Guantanamo and then passing this on to his lawyers. Indeed, with the US administration’s strenuous efforts to prevent all but the barest information ever emerging from Guantanamo, Haj is one of the very few eyes and ears able to provide a first-hand account of an aspect of the US government’s “war on terror” that it would rather the world did not see.
“This is where the United States leads the world in the so-called war on terror, a Holy war of errors,” says Haj, in one of the “dispatches” passed for clearance by US censors. “At one time or other more than 700 people have been held in the cages of Guantanamo Bay in the … years since January 2002. They belong to 45 different nationalities.”
He adds: “For more than four years many of us have been isolated in a small cell, less that 10ft by 6ft, with the intense neon lights on 24 hours a day. Many of us are not allowed to exercise outside these cells for more than one hour, just once a week. We are provided with food and drinks which are not suitable for the iguanas and rats that live beside us on Torture Island.”
Haj is a Sudanese citizen who had been working for the Qatar-based Al Jazeera network for only a matter of months when he was seized close to the Afghan border. The order for him to be detained apparently contained the number of his old passport, which had been lost two years previously and Haj thought the matter would quickly be cleared up. He was very wrong.
The US authorities have never formally charged Haj, though during the time of his incarceration at Guantanamo they have levelled various accusations at him – accusations that have changed from year to year. Among the allegations that have emerged during a series of Combatant Status Review Tribunals (CSRT) is that Haj ran a website supporting terrorism, that he sold Stinger missiles to Islamic militants in Chechnya and that he interviewed Osama bin Laden. He denies all the charges, though his lawyers point out that another Al Jazeera cameraman was present during an interview with Bin Laden. Could this be a case of guilt by association?
Remarkably, during 130 separate interviews, his interrogators have questioned him very little about his alleged links to the al-Qa’ida leader or other radicals.
Rather their questions have focused almost exclusively on the operation of Al Jazeera. One of his lawyers reported that Haj said he had been told by several people that he would be set free if he agreed to return to Al Jazeera and spy for them. Each time he turned them down.
“I don’t know how they would put pressure on Al Jazeera. Perhaps wait for him to confess to something he has not done and then take that against Al Jazeera,” says Ahmad Ibrahim, a colleague of Haj’s at the Arabic language network. “The fact that he had only been working for Al Jazeera for four months did not allow him to know too much. He was just a normal person. He was not very experienced.”
In one of his pieces of reportage, Haj talks of the interrogation sessions he and the other prisoners endure. He claims that he or other prisoners have witnessed a female US interrogator pull the testicles of one of the detainees, that two interrogators had sex in front of a prisoner, that a female interrogator smeared what she said was her menstrual blood on a prisoner and that a prisoner was forced to walk on all fours while a interrogator rode on his back.
“During our days, months and years of detention we are constantly hauled off for interrogation sessions which are a by-word for abuse,” Haj writes. “Here we encounter the ‘Enhanced Interrogation Techniques’. One such method is solitary confinement which, for a selected number of prisoners, has been known to last for years. Interrogation itself can last for 28 hours without interruption, the prisoner forced to crouch or stand in stress positions, deprived of sleep, sexually humiliated without any clothes, sometimes even having Israeli or US flags wrapped around their heads. If they want to frighten us, then when we are bound and hooded they bring in the dogs.”
More than five years of protesting his innocence, of thinking about his family, has taken its toll on Haj. Back in January he started a hunger strike in protest at his incarceration. Twice a day the prison authorities strap him to a chair using 16 separate restraints and force-feed him using a tube that has on occasion been forced, inadvertently, into his lungs rather than his stomach.
By way of punishment for his “difficult” behaviour he has been held in solitary confinement. Those who have been permitted to visit him say he has lost weight and is pale. And despite this the cameraman says he will not give up his effort to speak out.
In another note, he writes: “I sometimes ask myself, who are these people who are held in cages not even fit for wild animals? How do these humans live? The Prophet Jonah lived inside a whale and Moses lived inside a coffin, so the Guantanamo cells are only for those who are strong and those who have a will to adopt the path of the prophets. If I stay all my life in these cages, let those who inflict this on me do what they wish, but I feel I am living the life of a King.”
“His number one concern is the other guys in there,” says Zachary Katznelson, one of several lawyers who represent Haj and who last visited him at Guantanamo on 30 April. Katznelson, senior counsel with the London-based group Reprieve, adds: “As much as he misses his family he thinks it’s vitally important that he is there to report all this. He has said he is willing to be the last one if it means the story gets out – if the world gets to know about Guantanamo.”
The prison camp at Guantanamo Bay was established at the beginning of 2002 as a place to keep terror suspects rounded up in President Bush’s war on terror. Deliberately located outside the US proper to avoid both the arm of the civil justice system as well as prying eyes, around 800 prisoners have been taken to the prison over the past five years. Of those, some 340 have been released.
When the first handcuffed, shackled and hooded suspects were taken to the prison, the authorities did their best to portray them as a dangerous and pressing threat to the US. The men were so terrifying, claimed the then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Richard Myers, they “would chew through a hydraulics cable to bring a C-17 [transport plane] down”.
Five years on, only four of those prisoners have been charged and just one – Australian David Hicks – brought to trial. Meanwhile an analysis of the Pentagon’s own documents by New Jersey’s Seton Hall University found that 55 per cent of the prisoners brought to Guantanamo are not alleged to have have committed any hostile acts against the US. Just eight per cent are accused of fighting for a terrorist group while 86 per cent were captured by the Northern Alliance or Pakistani authorities and handed over “at a time when the US offered large bounties for the capture of suspected terrorists”.
The prison camp’s operation has been condemned by the United Nations, the American Bar Association and the Red Cross – the only organisation permitted free access to the prisoners and which broke with its normal protocol of not commenting publicly to warn in 2003 of the declining mental health of many of the inmates. It said the nature of their incarceration and interrogation was “a form of torture”. Three prisoners hanged themselves last year, and last week a Saudi man was found dead, apparently having taken his own life.
In another memo, Haj reflects on why the operation at Guantanamo – a stark affront to the rule of law and due process – has been allowed to proceed.
“What does the Guantanamo experiment mean to Bush?” he writes. “Why has he set up Torture Island, to wreak havoc on the reputation of the USA? Look at Guantanamo through a clear glass and it is undeniable that a catastrophe has befallen the entire world as a result of this cowboy reaction to the sad death of innocents in September 2001.”
Thousands of miles away, Haj’s wife, Asma, also reflects on the injustice she believes has befallen her husband. She is struggling to bring up the couple’s son, Mohammed, now nearly six, by herself while still trying to campaign for Haj’s release. Speaking by telephone from Doha, the capital of Qatar, where Al Jazeera is still paying Haj’s salary, she says her faith has given her some comfort.
“Everybody in life goes through a trial or a trauma at some point,” she says. “I live in the hope that I will be reunited and it is that hope that keeps me going. It’s hard to talk about.”
One of the most difficult things, she says, has been watching her son grow up without his father. To this point she has been able to get by telling Mohammed about his father’s plight only in the vaguest sense, yet she realises that such a situation cannot last. “I think the questions will be more sophisticated as the time goes on,” she says. “I don’t think even the Americans know why they have taken him or why they have not put him on trial.”
From all accounts, Haj became a cameraman not because he felt some draw to journalism, but because he thought it would provide a good income for his family. Given such a matter-of-fact background, his dedication to speaking out about what he sees inside America’s gulag is all the more remarkable. “I did not have a chance to learn about his journalism because he was seized on what was really his first assignment,” says his wife.
Those demanding that the US either release Haj or else bring him to trial come from all quarters. The Sudanese government has called for his release as has the media organisation Reporters without Borders, which has described Guantanamo as a “humanitarian outrage”.
Meanwhile in Guantanamo, aware that his friends and supporters are demanding his release, Sami al-Haj continues to do his best to bear testimony to what is taking place at the US prison camp. In one of his notes he imagines a scene at the Statue of Liberty, her right arm extended and lit up. Yet the light shines to the ground where a series of small, claustrophobic cells can be seen, packed with people wearing orange jump suits.
“The enormous statue cries out to the world ‘Liberty and Justice for All’,” he writes. “Yet despite the floodlights all around Lady Liberty her voice becomes weaker and the world begins to see that she is either deceiving or deceived. Else how could she allow those cells to be built in her very foundation?”
Independent News and Media Limited