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Sami al-Haj Released from Guantánamo After More than Six Years

The Al Jazeera cameraman was never charged.
 
 
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After four and a half months of inexplicable inertia, the U.S. administration has finally seen fit to release another group of prisoners from Guantánamo, including the Sudanese al-Jazeera cameraman and journalist Sami al-Haj. Despite claims from within the administration that it was hoping to scale down the operation at Guantánamo, no prisoners have been released since December 2007, when two other Sudanese prisoners, 13 Afghans, ten Saudis and three British residents were released.

Instead, one prisoner died -- of cancer -- and another prisoner was actually transferred into Guantánamo from a secret prison run by the CIA. It seems likely that, having announced in February that six prisoners allegedly connected with the 9/11 attacks were to face a trial by Military Commission at Guantánamo, the administration was happy to drag its heels over the fate of the roughly 200 prisoners (out of the remaining 273) who are unlikely ever to face a trial, in the hope that the 9/11 trials will secure its legacy and divert attention from the seemingly endless limbo faced by these other men.

The most celebrated Guantánamo prisoner -- at least in the Middle East -- Sami, whose story was reported at AlterNet just a few weeks ago, was seized by Pakistani forces on December 15, 2001, apparently at the behest of the U.S. authorities, who suspected that he had conducted an interview with Osama bin Laden. As with much of their supposed intelligence, this turned out to be false, but as his lawyer, Clive Stafford Smith, the Director of the legal action charity Reprieve (which represents Sami and 34 other Guantánamo prisoners), explained last year, "name me a journalist who would turn down a bin Laden scoop."

As a trained journalist, Sami's insights into the horrors of Guantánamo have been unparalleled. Subjected to clearance by the Pentagon's censors, his letters and his conversations with his lawyers at Reprieve have shed light on the abuse of the Koran, suicide attempts, hunger strikes and the number of juveniles held at the prison.

For the last 16 months of his imprisonment, Sami was himself a hunger striker. Although the ethics of the medical profession stipulate that a mentally competent hunger striker cannot be force-fed, the US authorities disagreed. Twice a day, for the last 480 days, Sami was strapped into a restraint chair, secured with 16 separate straps, and force-fed against his will via a tube inserted into his stomach through his nose.

On Friday, al-Jazeera broadcast the first interview with Sami since his release. As was to be expected, he looked thinner and considerably older than his 39 years. His brother, Asim, was shocked by his appearance, and said that he looked like a man in his 80s.

Speaking to reporters from a hospital bed, Sami said, "I'm very happy to be in Sudan, but I'm very sad because of the situation of our brothers who remain in Guantánamo. Conditions in Guantánamo are very, very bad and they get worse by the day. Our human condition, our human dignity was violated, and the American administration went beyond all human values, all moral values, all religious values."

He added, "In Guantánamo, you have animals that are called iguanas, and rats that 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 to animals." "For more than seven years," he continued, the prisoners "did not get a chance to be brought before a civil court to defend their just case, and to get the freedom they were deprived of. They [the Americans] ignored every kind of law, every kind of religion, but thank God I was lucky because God allowed that I be released."

"Although I'm happy," he continued, "there is part of me that is not, because my brothers remain behind, and they are in the hands of people that claim to be champions of peace and protectors of rights and freedoms, but the true, just peace doesn't come from military force, or threats to use smart or stupid bombs, or to threaten with economic sanctions. Justice comes from lifting oppression, and guaranteeing rights and freedoms, and respecting the will of the people, and not to interfere in a country's internal politics."

Wadah Khanfar, the director general of al-Jazeera, who was in Khartoum to welcome Sami back, was "overwhelmed with joy" at Sami's safe return, but was critical of how the US military had treated him, persistently attempting to recruit him to spy on al-Jazeera, to "prove" a link between the network and Osama bin Laden that does not exist.

"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, adding, perhaps in response to rumors that, as a condition of his release, the Bush administration had stipulated that Sami must not leave Sudan, and must not work as a journalist, "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."

After being reunited with his eight-year old son Mohammed, who was just a baby when he last saw him, Sami summoned the strength to greet Sudan's President, Omar Hassan al-Bashir, accompanied by dozens of ministers, and then gave the world another message via Opheera McDoom of Reuters, explaining that the prisoners in Guantánamo had been subjected to "all kinds of torture," but that what affected them most deeply was when the guards insulted Islam or desecrated the Holy Qu'ran.

"Security and human rights are inseparable issues -- you cannot have one without the other," he explained, adding, "Human rights are not only for times of peace -- you need to hold onto them always even during difficult times and times of war." He concluded with some choice words for his former captors, which -- in light of the well-documented abuse he suffered in US custody, and the agonies of his 16-month hunger strike -- will no doubt reverberate around the world:

"My last message to the U.S. administration is that torture will not stop terrorism -- torture is terrorism."

Andy Worthington is a writer and historian, and author of The Guantánamo Files .