Ten Years After His Release From Guantánamo, Sami al-Hajj Publishes His Compelling Memoir, ‘Prisoner 345,’ Free Via Al-Jazeera

21.5.18

'Prisoner 345': the front cover of Al-Jazeera journalist Sami al-Hajj's account of his six and a half years in US custody in the "war on terror," in Afghanistan and at Guantanamo. Please support my work as a reader-funded journalist! I’m currently trying to raise $2500 (£2000) to support my writing and campaigning on Guantánamo and related issues over the next three months of the Trump administration.

 

Just over ten years ago, on May 1, 2008, one of the better-known prisoners at Guantánamo, the Al-Jazeera cameraman Sami al-Hajj (aka al-Haj), was freed from the prison and repatriated to his home country of Sudan. I meant to mark the occasion with an article, but, at the time, I was caught up in issues involving my campaigning for social housing in the UK, and the local government elections that took place on May 3.

Now, however, belatedly, I’m getting round to it, as I want to promote ‘Prisoner 345: My Six Years in Guantánamo,’ Sami’s powerful and emotional account of his capture and imprisonment, which is available for free as a PDF via Al-Jazeera.

Sami’s story was of particular interest during his imprisonment because he was working for Al-Jazeera as a journalist and cameraman at the time of his capture, and his captors quite shamelessly tried to get him to work for them instead — as well as very publicly threatening the Qatar-based channel by imprisoning, without charge or trial, one of their journalists.

I had picked up on Sami’s story while researching my book The Guantánamo Files in 2006, and I described it as follows in a chapter examining the stories of prisoners seized in Pakistan:

One of the most distressing arrests in this period – and a clear example of American bullying – was the capture of Sami al-Hajj, a 32-year old Sudanese cameraman, married with a one-year old child, who was working for al-Jazeera. Despite reservations, al-Hajj had been covering the US-led invasion of Afghanistan since October 2001. His brother said that he was ‘reluctant and nervous about going to the conflict zone, but decided that it would not be his best career interests to turn down such a prestigious assignment.’ After the fall of Kabul, he left for Pakistan with the rest of the al-Jazeera crew, but when, having renewed their visas, they were returning to Afghanistan to cover the inauguration of the new government in December, al-Hajj was singled out and arrested by the Pakistani authorities, at the request of the US authorities. After a visit to al-Jazeera’s headquarters in Qatar, Clive Stafford Smith explained that the US military seized al-Hajj ‘because they thought he had filmed the interviews with bin Laden – like so much of the intelligence in the “war on terror,” this proved false.’

As I also explained, his “brutal treatment at the hands of the Americans – in Bagram, Kandahar and Guantánamo – and the authorities’ attempts to persuade him to work for them as an informer,” were described in other chapters of the book.

I then began following and writing about accounts of Sami’s imprisonment by Clive Stafford Smith, the founder of Reprieve (see here and here), when Sami was on a hunger strike, and focused on a letter he had written in January 2008. I then began working for Reprieve, for a relatively brief period in 2008 in which the biggest news was undoubtedly Sami’s release — although that did not come about easily. First of all, the cosmetics firm Lush, which, admirably, provides great support to worthy causes, caused controversy by selling bath bombs featuring photos of Sami and British resident Binyam Mohamed, and also putting photos of them on boards outside branches of their shops, and then, when Reprieve’s lawyers were unable to persuade the US authorities to unclassify some vivid drawings Sami did of force-feeding at Guantánamo, Clive Stafford Smith got the British artist Lewis Peake to draw versions of them based on descriptions that the lawyers gave him, producing a powerful set of images that were featured in an Observer article, and in an article on my website, entitled, Sami al-Haj: the banned torture pictures of a journalist in Guantánamo.

There was a flurry of media activity following Sami’s release (and see my articles here, here, here, here and here), and a rare interview a few months later, but then Sami’s presence in the western media largely went quiet, although he went back at Al-Jazeera, where he was made the director of a newly-created unit, the Public Liberties and Human Rights Center. I last came across him speaking in detail about his experiences in a feature for Al-Jazeera in January 2016, but now he has written a compelling memoir that I hope everyone interested in Guantánamo will read.

It was linked to via an Al-Jazeera article on May 5, but it wasn’t prominently promoted, and, rather shamefully, no other media outlet saw fit to pick up on it, even though Sami was the only journalist held at Guantánamo, and his reminiscences ought therefore to have been both newsworthy and of profound interest. As Clive Stafford Smith notes in a dedication, “To have a brilliant and courageous journalist for a client in Guantánamo Bay was all I could have wished for. Sami’s work from inside the belly of the beast, revealing dark truths the US military would rather have kept well hidden, contributed more to a true understanding of that dreadful place than anything else in the last 15 years. It is well past time that his story should be told at full length.”

So if you’re interested, please download Sami’s book here (for free), or in other free downloadable formats here, and revisit, with him, his capture, his brutal treatment in both Bagram and Kandahar prisons in Afghanistan, and his ordeal in Guantánamo.

The book begins with an overview of Guantánamo, in which these chilling lines leapt out at me (and are followed with some horrendous examples of the medical abuse of prisoners):

The principal architects of the physical and mental torture we lived through in Guantánamo though were the doctors, who excelled at devising new ways to inflict cruelty and pain. They actually told us: “We will torture you until death. But we won’t let you die. You will live in the space between life and death.”

Sami’s pre-capture work is covered in pp. 18-27, and then his capture is dealt with in pp. 28-39. Bagram and Kandahar are featured in pp. 40-72, including some shocking tales of abuse — and a death. As Sami stated, “I remember an Afghan prisoner tried to escape one night. They caught him and beat him with agonising blows in one of the rooms, as we sat awake listening to his cries of suffering. Suddenly, they came out, terrified, and a little later they brought out his dead body.” For more on the deaths in US custody in Afghanistan, see my June 2009 article, When Torture Kills: Ten Murders In US Prisons In Afghanistan.

Sami discussed Guantánamo from pp. 73-160, with one revelatory chapter (pp. 85-93) focusing on efforts to persuade him to become an informer, and another, heartbreaking chapter (pp. 94-99) focusing on two prisoners whose children died.

Sami also included many reminiscences about his fellow prisoners, delivered a powerful criticism of the Combatant Status Review Tribunals (CSRTs), introduced in 2004 and designed to rubber-stamp the prisoners’ prior designation as “enemy combatants,” who could be imprisoned indefinitely and without rights, and also wrote about the deaths of three prisoners in June 2006, which the authorities described as a triple suicide, although that claim has always been disputed.

He also wrote in detail about the hunger strikes, which he described as “[o]ur weapon in Guantánamo … a potent weapon, a weapon that everyone possessed, a weapon that didn’t need money or power.”

I do hope you have time to read Sami’s account, and will share it if you find it as moving and informative as I did.

Andy Worthington is a freelance investigative journalist, activist, author, photographer, film-maker and singer-songwriter (the lead singer and main songwriter for the London-based band The Four Fathers, whose music is available via Bandcamp). He is the co-founder of the Close Guantánamo campaign (and see the latest photo campaign here) and the successful We Stand With Shaker campaign of 2014-15, and the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (click on the following for Amazon in the US and the UK) and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. He is also the co-director (with Polly Nash) of the documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (available on DVD here — or here for the US), and for his photo project ‘The State of London’ he publishes a photo a day from six years of bike rides around the 120 postcodes of the capital.

In 2017, Andy became very involved in housing issues. He is the narrator of a new documentary film, ‘Concrete Soldiers UK’, about the destruction of council estates, and the inspiring resistance of residents, he wrote a song ‘Grenfell’, in the aftermath of the entirely preventable fire in June that killed over 70 people, and he also set up ‘No Social Cleansing in Lewisham’ as a focal point for resistance to estate destruction and the loss of community space in his home borough in south east London.

To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to Andy’s RSS feed — and he can also be found on Facebook (and here), Twitter, Flickr and YouTube. Also see the six-part definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, The Complete Guantánamo Files, the definitive Guantánamo habeas list, the full military commissions list, and the chronological list of all Andy’s articles.

Please also consider joining the Close Guantánamo campaign, and, if you appreciate Andy’s work, feel free to make a donation.

One Response

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    When I posted this on Facebook, I wrote:

    In my latest article, I write about ‘Prisoner 345,’ Al-Jazeera journalist Sami al-Hajj’s memoir of his six years in US custody, in Afghanistan and Guantanamo, prior to his release ten years ago. The book is available for free, as a PDF, via Al Jazeera English, and in it Sami provides a compelling account of the inhumanity of the US authorities in the “war on terror,” via often shocking, but clearly necessary reminiscences. From what I can tell, the book was made available via a link in an Al-Jazeera article about Sami about two weeks ago, but no other media picked up on it, so if you find it interesting, do spread the word, and I hope you have time to read Sami’s account yourself. As Clive Stafford Smith of Reprieve says, “To have a brilliant and courageous journalist for a client in Guantanamo Bay was all I could have wished for. Sami’s work from inside the belly of the beast, revealing dark truths the US military would rather have kept well hidden, contributed more to a true understanding of that dreadful place than anything else in the last 15 years.”

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Andy Worthington

Investigative journalist, author, campaigner, commentator and public speaker. Recognized as an authority on Guantánamo and the “war on terror.” Co-founder, Close Guantánamo, co-director, We Stand With Shaker. Also, singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers) and photographer.
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