Guantánamo: al-Jazeera cameraman Sami al-Haj fears that he will die


In a report from Guantánamo in the Press Gazette, Clive Stafford Smith, the legal director of London-based legal charity Reprieve, files a report on a recent visit, based on the sections of his notes that have been declassified by the US military. Like every other lawyer with clients in Guantánamo, Stafford Smith cannot report a word from his meetings with his clients without military censors first checking every word, providing approval –- or withholding consent –- without any explanation whatsoever.

In this latest salvo from the frontline, Stafford Smith begins light-heartedly, reporting on a ludicrous allegation that he “might have smuggled some Speedo swimming trunks and ‘Under Armour briefs’” to one of his clients, British resident Shaker Aamer, whose painful story I reported here, here and here. “Shaker was apparently caught wearing both ‘contraband’ items in his prison cell,” Stafford Smith notes. The lawyer’s wry, combative nature has long annoyed the authorities at Guantánamo, to such an extent that last year, in a sure sign that they have long since abandoned common sense, they accused him of inciting the suicides of three detainees in June 2006, and this latest allegation therefore follows a well-worn path.

Stafford Smith continues: “These are serious allegations, yet the notion that I was going to slip a prisoner some Speedos was pretty silly. So I composed a reply that contained every euphemism for underwear that I could conjure up, and relished reminding the officer that I am more concerned with legal briefs than the Under Armour variety. Surely it would be clear even to the Guantánamo authorities that their own guards must have supplied the offending lingerie.” Backing up this statement, he adds that an internet search “disclosed that Under Armour does a line of ‘tactical’ underwear for the military.”

From here, the story becomes far darker, as Stafford Smith reports on the precarious mental health of another of his clients, Sami al-Haj. As he describes it, the Sudanese al-Jazeera cameraman, who “has been on a hunger strike for more than 230 days, more than three times as long as the IRA strikers in 1980,” was “seized when on assignment to Afghanistan, apparently because the US thought he had filmed al-Jazeera’s famous bin Laden interview. As has so often been the case of late, the US was wrong (though name me a journalist who would turn down a bin Laden scoop).”

Sami al-Haj

Although al-Haj has been a tireless source of information from within Guantánamo –- effortlessly demonstrating why it is counter-productive to wrongly imprison a journalist in the world’s most notorious illegal prison –- Stafford Smith reports worrying signs that he is losing both his memory and his will to live, perhaps as a result of the relentless pain of the force-feeding process at Guantánamo, which involves detainees having a 110 cm tube forced up their nose and into their stomach three times a day. Stafford Smith describes the process with empathic feeling, having tried it on himself, and also notes that it is “calculated to be painful –- or, to borrow General Craddock’s offensive euphemism, to make it ‘inconvenient’ for Sami and others to continue their peaceful protest.”

Stafford Smith writes that he is “very worried” about al-Haj. “His memory has been going, along with his grip on the English language. He has developed a paranoid fear that he will be the next prisoner to die at the island gulag. ‘My prison number is 3, 4, 5,’ he told me, his face serious. ‘First, in June 2006, there were three prisoners who died. Then, this May, there was a fourth to die. Three, four … five, I am afraid I am going to be the fifth.’”

Stafford Smith reports that he “administered a psychological screening test” on his client, but that, “for reasons that are beyond me,” his notes regarding his findings were nor cleared by the military censors. He adds, however, that he has since consulted a number of mental health experts about al-Haj’s mental state, and that one doctor “reminded me not to refer to Sami as paranoid,” succinctly explaining why the Guantánamo regime is not a breeding ground for delusions, but a very real environment for destroying the mind of its prisoners as effectively as US “enemy combatant” Jose Padilla’s years of isolation in a military brig on the US mainland. “His fears of mistreatment at the hands of the Americans are not, unfortunately, paranoid,” the doctor explained. “They are very worrying, but he has more than five years’ experience proving that they are very real.”

Stafford Smith concludes his report by stating, “When BBC correspondent Alan Johnston was being held hostage by the Palestinian Army of Islam, Sami issued a plea asking them to let his fellow journalist go without conditions. It was broadcast by Sami’s al-Jazeera employers, in the hope that the kidnappers would be watching the Arabic news channel. I wonder how to contact Alan Johnston now, to see if he can return the favour. The western media has been too slow to come to Sami’s aid. I am not sure why.”

The reasons why Sami al-Haj has been abandoned by the western media are many, but none show the purported guardians of truth in a good light. They concern, firstly, the obfuscating fog of secrecy and misinformation –- deliberately fostered by the US administration –- which hovers over Guantánamo, and which creates enormous obstacles for those who see clearly the appalling truth that, in response to 9/11, President Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, former defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld and a coterie of close aides embarked on a plot to turn the United States from a country founded on the rule of law, with in-built checks and balances on the abuse of executive power, into a lawless tyranny, featuring torture prisons, “disappearances,” false confessions, secret evidence and show trials that resemble, to cite just one example, the monstrously repressive Soviet regime of Josef Stalin.

Those who see this truth are also stymied by the difficulty of finding ways to focus the attention on the general public on the stories of individual detainees like Sami al-Haj, when there are so many innocent men imprisoned without charge or trial and denied all access to the outside world. And finally, of course, the media itself is complicit. In a world where anti-Muslim sentiment is either widely condoned or expressly encouraged, and, in any case, rolling 24-hour news and the ratings-chasing and politically motivated filters to truth erected in most of the print media encourage citizens to have the attention span of a hyper-active child, there is no time or will for the sustained investigations which, for example, enabled the journalist Stephen Grey, working as a freelancer, to write Ghost Plane, his masterly account of the CIA’s “extraordinary rendition” programme, and which, I hope, enabled a similar process to take place in the creation of The Guantánamo Files, my forthcoming book that attempts to give voices to the majority of the neglected prisoners of Guantánamo.

Note: For Prisoner 345, the campaign to free Sami al-Haj, click here.

Additional note: Sami is also referred to as Sami al-Hajj. This is his name as recorded by the Department of Defense.

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.

For a sequence of articles dealing with the hunger strikes at Guantánamo, see Shaker Aamer, A South London Man in Guantánamo: The Children Speak (July 2007), The long suffering of Mohammed al-Amin, a Mauritanian teenager sent home from Guantánamo (October 2007), Guantánamo suicides: so who’s telling the truth? (October 2007), Innocents and Foot Soldiers: The Stories of the 14 Saudis Just Released From Guantánamo (Yousef al-Shehri and Murtadha Makram) (November 2007), A letter from Guantánamo (by Al-Jazeera cameraman Sami al-Haj) (January 2008), A Chinese Muslim’s desperate plea from Guantánamo (March 2008), Sami al-Haj: the banned torture pictures of a journalist in Guantánamo (April 2008), The forgotten anniversary of a Guantánamo suicide (May 2008), Binyam Mohamed embarks on hunger strike to protest Guantánamo charges (June 2008), Second anniversary of triple suicide at Guantánamo (June 2008), Guantánamo Suicide Report: Truth or Travesty? (August 2008), Seven Years Of Guantánamo, And A Call For Justice At Bagram (January 2009), British torture victim Binyam Mohamed to be released from Guantánamo (January 2009), Don’t Forget Guantánamo (February 2009), Who’s Running Guantánamo? (February 2009), Obama’s “Humane” Guantánamo Is A Bitter Joke (February 2009), Forgotten in Guantánamo: British resident Shaker Aamer (March 2009), Guantánamo’s Long-Term Hunger Striker Should Be Sent Home (March 2009). Also see the following online chapters of The Guantánamo Files: Website Extras 2 (Ahmed Kuman, Mohammed Haidel), Website Extras 3 (Abdullah al-Yafi, Abdul Rahman Shalabi), Website Extras 4 (Bakri al-Samiri, Murtadha Makram), Website Extras 5 (Ali Mohsen Salih, Ali Yahya al-Raimi, Abu Bakr Alahdal, Tarek Baada, Abdul al-Razzaq Salih).

3 Responses

  1. Sara Pursley says...

    The American Committee to Free Sami Al-Haj has just launched an online petition to the U.S. Congress demanding Sami’s immediate release and an investigation of the Bush Administration’s campaign against Al Jazeera.

  2. Fatirah Aziz says...

    Free Sami Al Haj!

  3. Mike Ghouse says...

    Innocent until proven guilty is a good principle to follow

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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 and We Stand With Shaker. Also, photo-journalist (The State of London), and singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers).
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