Guantánamo: Al-Jazeera’s Sami al-Haj to be released?

4.2.08

A protestor holds up a poster featuring Sami al-HajIn a report that I long to have confirmed by other sources, Gulf Times declares that Robert Ménard, the secretary general of Reporters Sans Frontières (Reporters Without Borders), has stated that al-Jazeera cameraman Sami al-Haj “is expected to be freed soon,” even though Ménard, who visited Guantánamo a few weeks ago, also stated, “I had gone to Guantánamo with a fellow journalist to visit Sami but I couldn’t meet him because he was classified by the Americans as dangerous.” Noticeably, however, Ménard’s remark follows a similar claim by Sami’s wife, Asma Ismailov, who said three weeks ago, “I was promised by US and Sudanese officials that he will be released by the end of March.”

I recently posted an article detailing the story of the wrongly imprisoned journalist, which included the text of his latest letter from Guantánamo, and would also like to draw your attention to another article about Sami, written by Meg Laughlin, which was published yesterday in Florida’s St. Petersberg Times.

Laughlin’s article begins: “A few days ago, I clicked on a computer photo of an “enemy combatant” at the detention center at Guantánamo, and I was shocked. It was someone I knew, a journalist named Sami al-Haj. I’d met Sami at the Marriott in Islamabad in early December 2001. Like most of us there, he was a journalist going in and out of Afghanistan to cover the U.S. invasion after 9/11. A tall African man in a white shalwar kameez –- the traditional billowy knee-length shirt and pants of Afghanistan –- he stood out as he floated across the beige marble lobby of the hotel. His US pals would see him coming, and yell, “It’s the al-Qaeda reporter!” At the time, everyone, including him, laughed at the silliness of the comment. But it ceased to be funny when he fell off the planet.”

She continues: “When I read the letter and saw the photo, I had a dawning realization. I thought I knew him. To be sure, I immediately called my colleagues who were in Afghanistan with me. One in particular remembered Sami going in and out of Afghanistan when we were there. I then tried to find Sami’s colleagues from al-Jazeera –- the Arabic-language TV news network –- to nail down when we met. I found two of his al-Jazeera colleagues in Doha, Qatar, who were with him in Afghanistan and Pakistan. ‘We were in Islamabad at the Marriott when you were there,’ said al-Jazeera program editor Yousif al-Sholiy.”

Laughlin proceeded to investigate Sami’s story, and explains what she discovered: “Sami al-Haj was born in Khartoum, Sudan, in 1969. His father had a small neighborhood store. His mother took care of him and his four brothers and sisters. As the oldest son, Sami was charged with the welfare of the family. He was the one sent abroad to university. He was the one expected to get a good job and send money home. And he delivered.” Via a translator, she spoke to his brother in Khartoum, 24-year old Yasser al-Haj, who explained, “My oldest brother was our strength and our pride until Guantánamo.”

Piecing together more of the story, Laughlin reports, “After finishing college in the mid 1990s, Sami got a job as an office manager for Union Beverage Co. in Doha, Qatar. In early 1999, he married a woman from Azerbaijan. They had a son in 2001. While in Doha, he went to school to become a cameraman and got a job at al-Jazeera TV. The Afghan tour in October 2001 was his second assignment. “We used to kid him that he was too much in love with his wife and child to leave home and cover a war,” said al-Sholiy. “He wouldn’t shut up about them.”

The article continues: “Because al-Jazeera was the first TV network allowed in Afghanistan after 9/11, CNN hooked up with it for footage. Most of what al-Haj shot, which was US bombings on the road to Kandahar and Taliban ministers giving swan song speeches, was aired on both al-Jazeera and CNN.

“In December 2001, al-Haj and al-Jazeera reporter Abdelhaq Sadah were in Pakistan to extend their visas. Al-Sholiy, part of the team, had been sick in Islamabad and remembered staying a few days at the Marriott with Sami around that time. Sadah and al-Haj then returned to the Afghan border at Chaman, Pakistan, to cross into Afghanistan in their Toyota and continue coverage. Pakistani border guards told al-Haj he had a ‘passport problem’ and was not allowed to cross. ‘We were astonished,’ Sadah, now an assignment editor for al-Jazeera, told me. ‘Sami had a current visa. We had gone back and forth with no problem. We couldn’t understand why Sami was suddenly singled out.’

“The border guards said it was probably a mistake and would be cleared up, but al-Haj had to remain at the crossing overnight. Meanwhile, Sadah went into Chaman and returned with hot grilled chicken and oranges for the guards, Sami and himself. ‘It was very pleasant with the border patrol, and we weren’t worried,’ Sadah recalled. When Sadah returned the next day to cross the border with Sami al-Haj, a new intelligence officer showed up and said he had to take al-Haj with him as a formality and would return in an hour. ‘I waited and waited and never saw him again,’ said Sadah. It would be seven months before the Pentagon allowed the International Committee of the Red Cross to send a letter out from Sami to his al-Jazeera colleagues and his family. It began, ‘I am in Guantánamo. I don’t know why.’”

Laughlin proceeds to run though Sami’s horrendous experiences in the US prisons at Bagram and Kandahar, and the charges filed –- and then dropped –- against him in Guantánamo, as discussed in my previous article, and in my book The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison. She concludes the article with another comment from his brother, and some poignant descriptions of his family.

Speaking of his ongoing hunger strike, his brother declares, “It’s all he has. Everything else has been taken away from him but the right to protest his life,” and Laughlin also reports, “Al-Haj’s wife, Asma, and six-year old son, Mohammed, live in Doha [in Qatar], but have been visiting Sami’s family in Khartoum for some weeks. Yasser, Sami’s brother, told me Tuesday that being together helps –- it makes them ‘feel Sami’s presence more.’ Yasser said he had just taken Mohammed to visit a two-year old cousin named after Sami. When Sami’s son saw the toddler, he hugged him and called him ‘father.’ Surprised, Yasser asked his nephew why he thought this infant was his father. ‘Guantánamo makes people smaller and smaller,’ said Mohammed.”

At the end of the article, she writes, “Al-Haj is no longer charged with doing anything illegal. But neither is he being freed. Jeffrey Gordon, spokesman for the defense secretary, said that detention at Guantánamo is not about what’s legal or illegal. ‘It’s based on the law of war construct,’ he said. Translation: Authorities are keeping him in custody because they can. On Tuesday, when I was talking to Yasser al-Haj, he asked me to relay this message ‘to the American people’: ‘Even though there has been great injustice, we have faith in you. Please act quickly.’”

While Sami’s many supporters wait to hear if there is any truth to the rumors of his imminent release, it’s worth pointing out that two other Sudanese detainees, Adel Hamad and Salim Adem, were released from Guantánamo in December, and that their example may set a precedent. Both men had been cleared for release from Guantánamo in November 2005, but it took over two years to free them because of an inexplicable refusal on the part of the US authorities to deal with repeated requests for their release by the Sudanese government. As I wrote at the time, the deadlock has obviously now been broken, and it is to be hoped that Sami –- and at least some of the six other Sudanese detainees held at Guantánamo –- will soon be released.

Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK). To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed, and see here for my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, published in March 2009.

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