Sunday, June 01, 2008

Freed Sami al-Hajj Returns to Doha

Freed Sami al-Hajj returns to Doha

Al-Hajj returns to Doha after more than six years in the US-run Guantanamo prison

Sami al-Hajj, the Al Jazeera cameraman held at the US prison camp in Guantanamo Bay in Cuba for more than six years, has returned to Doha.

Al-Hajj arrived in the Qatari capital, headquarters of Al Jazeera, on Saturday by a private jet from Khartoum, the Sudanese capital.

US authorities released him into Sudanese custody earlier in May.

Al-Hajj, who was greeted by senior Al Jazeera staff, expressed gratitude to Qatar and Al Jazeera for the warm hospitality he received upon his arrival, Al Jazeera journalist Omar Chatriwala said.

Wadah Khanfar, director-general of Al Jazeera, heralded al-Hajj's return as "a triumph of freedom".

"This is a great day in the history of Al Jazeera and free media. The effort of all who believed in Sami's cause and his innocence made this a great moment of joy and happiness."

Support hailed

Chatriwala quoted al-Hajj as saying on his arrival at the airport that the support he got was "a support for freedom of speech and free journalism".

"By honouring me, Al Jazeera meant to honour all journalists," al-Hajj said.

Al-Hajj later addressed around 200 people gathered at the airport grounds to celebrate his return with balloons and white doves.

"Six years and seven months were stolen from my life in Guantanamo camp under torture and inhuman treatment by those who call themselves a democratic people," al-Hajj said.

"This captivity has made me more steadfast in defending the values of truth and righteousness because people deserve to live with dignity.

"We are all attached to the principles of freedom and peace. These are human principle and values that are dictated by international law by religious values and by principle all over the world."

Asserting that "being a journalist is not a crime", al-Hajj said he would return to work at Al Jazeera, though Khanfar said in what role that would be is still being discussed.

Al-Hajj said he has no problems with Americans and several of the guards at Guantanamo Bay became his friends.

"It has been more than 2,500 days that I had been dreaming of this moment," al-Hajj said.

Al-Hajj was later driven to the Al Jazeera network's compound for a company reception, Chatriwala said.

US imprisonment

Al-Hajj was the only known journalist held at the US's Guantanamo Bay detention facility in Cuba, where he was never formally charged.

He was arrested on the Pakistani border with Afghanistan in December of 2001 while trying to cover the US-led invasion, and was sent to Guantanamo in early 2002.

After years of international outcry, al-Hajj was released to Khartoum, the capital of Sudan, his native country, from Guantanamo Bay on May 2.

Al Jazeera and the Organisation of Sudanese Civil Aid held a ceremony at that time for him and two other freed Sudanese nationals entitled "Freedom Wedding".

The ceremony was attended among others by Mustafa Osman Ismail, adviser to Omar Hassan Bashir, the Sudanese president, and Khanfar.

Al-Hajj has said that during his long captivity, he was subjected to various kinds of psychological and physical torture.

This included US troops tearing and desecrating the Quran.

He said that soldiers forced detainees in the camp to break Islamic fasts and often assaulted them.

Interrogation sessions

Al-Hajj said he was subjected to 130 interrogation sessions, 95 of them to probe the professional work he did for Al Jazeera.

He accused the US administration of pressuring him to "betray" his profession and work as a spy.

During his imprisonment, al-Hajj went on hunger strike for nearly 16 months to protest against his detention without trial and the treatment of the camp's detainees.

The US administration denies any torture charges and has said that it doubts al-Hajj's credibility.

Guantanamo Bay has been run by the US as a detention centre for "enemy combatants" and those considered a security threat since 2002.

Although more than 500 prisoners have been released from the camp, about 250 people still remain at the detention facility.

Source: Al Jazeera and agencies

Profile: Sami al-Hajj

Sami al-Hajj had been working as a cameraman for Al Jazeera when he was arrested on the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan in 2001.

Since then he has spent six years in the US military prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Al-Hajj had been sent to the area to cover the US war against the Taliban and held a legitimate work visa.

He was arrested after suspicions that he had links with al-Qaeda when his name and passport number came up on a list from Pakistan intelligence.

The passport number that the Pakistanis had was for an old document that al-Hajj had previously reported as having been lost in Sudan two years earlier.

He was kept prisoner in Afghanistan and Pakistan for five months before being handed over to US forces and taken to Guantanamo Bay as an "enemy combatant".

For the past seven years he has been prisoner 345.

He is the only journalist to be detained at Guantanamo Bay without being charged.

Accusations but no charge

Last October the US accused him of working for Al Jazeera to facilitate "terrorist acts".

Clive Stafford Smith, a British human rights lawyer who took on al-Hajj's case in 2005, said that in a 2007 review of his case the US alleged that al-Hajj had received terrorist training.

Yet the review merely stated that "the detainee was trained by Al Jazeera in the use of cameras".

Al-Hajj had previously been accused of filming Osama bin Laden and others with links to al-Qaeda.

His captors also allege that he funded Chechen rebels and that he bought Stinger missiles and shipped them to Chechnya.

Stafford Smith has called the accusations baseless and reported that US interrogators focused almost exclusively on obtaining intelligence on Al Jazeera.

Violent interrogations

According to Stafford Smith, Hajj says he has been beaten and interrogated about 130 times.

Like every other prisoner in Guantanamo, al-Hajj faced regular interrogations. He continued to face a wide range of accusations - all unproven.

Al-Hajj was one of about 20 prisoners who carried out hunger strikes in protest at their imprisonment and treatment.

Up to his release al-Hajj was on hunger strike, started on January 7, 2007.

Ould Sidi Mohammed, a Mauritanian released last year, said al-Hajj was losing weight, had a kidney infection and was receiving inadequate medical treatment.

His lawyer also said he was suffering from throat cancer.

Twice a day he was force fed liquid through a tube inserted into one nostril.

Last September, Hugh Richards and DL Crisson, two psychiatrists, said that al-Hajj was suffering from a form of depression known as "passive suicide" where an individual loses the will to live.

The pair said in a letter that al-Hajj was in a constant state of fear and anxiety and felt that he was being pursued and could be killed. They called for his immediate treatment from specialists.

This year the US banned the publication of cartoons drawn by al-Hajj which illustrated his time at Guantanamo.

Drawings entitled Sketches of My Nightmare and Scream for Freedom depicted faceless skeletons in shackles and al-Hajj being force fed in a "Torture Chair'.

Detailed descriptions of the sketches were allowed through the censorship process and Lewis Peake, a British political cartoonist, was able to recreate them.

Calls for release

Al Jazeera's bureaux have held several protests in an attempt to get al-Hajj released.

Alan Johnston, a BBC reporter held for months in Gaza, appealed for the right of al-Hajj to a fair trial.

Several organisations such as The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), Reporters Without Borders and Amnesty International urged for al-Hajj's release.

Farouq Abu Issa, a Sudanese member of parliament, also took up the case. Last year he asked the Sudanese foreign ministry to say what measures were being taken to release al-Hajj.

Abu Issa, a representative of the National Democratic Alliance bloc, asked Sudan's foreign ministry to outline what arrangements his office had made for the "immediate release of Guantanamo prisoners in general, and Sudanese prisoners in particular".

Al-Hajj was born in Khartoum, Sudan, in 1969. He grew up in central Sudan, the second eldest of six children.

With the help of his uncle, al-Hajj studied English at a university in India before leaving in the early 1990s to take a job at a beverage company in the United Arab Emirates.

He had long been interested in journalism and took up photography in his youth, said his brother Asim Al-Hajj.

Sami al-Hajj is married to Asma Ismailov and is the father of a seven-year-old boy who he has not seen since he was a toddler.

Source: Al Jazeera and agencies

No comments: