“Freedom of the Press”: Middle East Cameraman Kidnapped by US Forces Lingers in a Guantanamo Prison Cell

"Sami Al Haj: 'In the vale between life and death.'

‘Be not overcome of evil, but overcome evil with good.’ Romans, 12-21. 

It is seldom that good news comes out of the Middle East, but the release of BBC journalist Alan Johnston was just that. Hamas, designated a terrorist organization by the US, in spite of having been elected in elections declared free and fair by international observers, acted in the face of an injustice, unlike leaders in Britain and the US., who have studiously ignored the protests and demands of the world and their electorate over illegal invasions and illegal detentions. 

However, apart from the two hundred thousand people who also signed a petition for Alan Johnston’s release, there was one additional lone, poignant voice who called for his freedom. Sami Al Haj is a cameraman for Al Jazeera who was working in Afghanistan (on contract, with a valid visa) was kidnapped by the US forces, and has been held in Guantanamo for five years – charged with nothing, of course. Sami sent a letter calling for

Johnston’s freedom, via his attorney, Clive Stafford Smith. * Further, as new UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown, rightly, welcomed Alan Johnston’s return, he was silent about the remaining British residents, kidnapped, also in Guantanamo Bay, charged with nothing. These, the British government is refusing to allow home and prepared to have the US return them back to countries they have fled in fear of their lives. Brown was also silent, of course, on all the others incarcerated in what Amnesty International has called ‘the gulag of our times.’ 

Sami Al Haj was detained on December 15th 2001, at Pakistan’s Chaman crossing in to Afghanistan, although over the previous two months, he had crossed in and out a number of times, with an Al Jazeera crew. This time he was with journalist Abdelhaq Sadaar. The Taliban had just fallen and the Al Jazeera assignment was to report the aftermath. In October 2001, working often gruelingly long days, Sami Al Haj had documented ‘the civilian fallout from US bombs … his shots were some of the only images coming from Afghanistan at the time’, showing the true human carnage of Afghanistan’s ‘liberation’. Al Haj could be moved to tears by the bombing’s human cost, said his colleague who headed the crew at the time, Youssef al-Shouly. Al Jazeera has become renowned for its depiction of the reality of wars – and invasions – unlike its sanitized western counterparts. There appears to be some validity to the allegations that

George Bush suggested to Tony Blair, that its headquarters, in the downtown of US ally Qatar, should be bombed. Recently and parliamentary researcher and journalist were jailed in the UK for six months for handling documents and seemingly trying to draw attention to them, which allegedly throe some light on these allegations. In December 2001, Sami was detained at Chaman, on charges of passport irregularity – the border guard had the number of a passport Sami had lost two years earlier. The following day, he was driven off by a Pakistani intelligence officer, named Major Nadeem – who the previous day had told the two journalists there was nothing to worry about – spent twenty three days in custody in Pakistan, was transferred to the notorious US detention center at Bagram Airport in Afghanistan and finally – bound and gagged – flown to Guantanamo Bay. 

At Bagram, he told Stafford Smith – who did not have access to him until 2005 – he was severely beaten by US troops, who accused him of recording videos of Osama Bin Laden for Al Jazeera. Stafford Smith believes that the US military (who have an exceptional talent for muddling foreign names) had confused him with someone else with a similar name. Sami has since been in a cell eight by seven foot. Journalists, of course, are there to guard the guards. They interview the good, bad and indifferent. The Independent’s veteran foreign correspondent, Robert Fisk, has interviewed Bin Laden twice. So far, he is not in Guantanamo (thought Whitehall and Washington may wish for the disappearance of his scalpel analysis.) Maybe it is just for the darker skinned. The Bush family, of course were in business with the Bin Laden family in the giant Carlisle Group, which scoops no bid contracts across the globe, every where America attacks.. Sorry, an aside, reminder etc., less we forget. 

Ironically, as with British journalist Yvonne Ridley, they had been previously captured by the Taliban, for reporting without authorization and released. Ridley, held hostage and eventually released, saying: ‘Thank God I was held by the Taliban and not the Americans.’ Virtually all the over one hundred and thirty interrogations Sami Al Haj has undergone in Guantanamo, says Clive Staffford Smith, have been related to Al Jazeera and have ‘appeared intent on establishing a relationship between Al Jazeera and Al Qaeda.’ This in spite of numerous untried accusations against Al Haj. The Committee to Protect Journalists wrote to Donald Rumsfeld as early as September 2002, calling on the Pentagon for detailed reason Sami’s detention. They received no reply. Neither did they from Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman. Stafford Smith is adamant : ‘ .. the main focus of US interrogation (has been ) obtaining intelligence on Al Jazeera and its staff.’ Further : 

‘There is absolutely zero evidence that he has any history in terrorism at all.’ Sami, one of many of those lost in the wicked, illegal hole of Guantanamo, may be dying. The man Stafford Smith described as ‘one of the most cheerful and upbeat people – always smiling, that I have ever met’, write in a plea for Alan Johnson’s release, on 24th May 2007: “Salaam aleikum. May 27th is my 140th day on hunger strike. It is also the day my son Mohammed is seven years old. I have not seen him since he was a small baby, so I have not been able to guide him as a father should, to teach him the difference between right and wrong. I have been held illegally by the United States in Guantanamo Bay and now, as I refuse to eat and peacefully press my demand for a fair trial, I find myself in the vale between life and death. “As a journalist and a father, on the anniversary of my only child’s birth, I have a request of the group that holds BBC journalist Alan Johnston: No matter how I suffer here, there is nothing more important to me than that Mohammed grows up to live his Muslim faith. What the Americans are doing to me is very, very wrong. I can only imagine how my wife suffers, and how

Mohammed struggles to understand how cruel the world can be. Yet this can never mean that a Muslim should similarly hold a British journalist, and put him and his family through similar suffering. “Please, then, as brothers in one faith, consider this gift that I request of you: That you release Alan Johnson as soon as possible, without conditions. While the United States has kidnapped me and held me for years on end, this is not a lesson that Muslims should copy. While I am not there to guide my child, your actions will help to teach Mohammed the true path, or to lead him astray.” 

It is essential, incumbent upon us all and timely to bring pressure to bear for Sami and all those in the limbo of their solitary cells in Guantanamo and shameful secret prisons around the globe, at a time when one man, Alan Johnston, has expressed so eloquently what being held alone, hostage, means – and how precious freedom is. Their lives are no less precious, those who love them no less agonized. If we do not truly yell, write, march for justice, the rule of law, humanity, decency, has finally died and there is nothing left but shame for us all, unless we determine: ‘to overcome evil with good.’ If Sami and Guantanamo’s condemned die on our watch, we too are lost.


See: http://www.reprieve.org.uk 





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Articles by: Felicity Arbuthnot

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