By Omar Shariff, Sub Editor
Published: May 02, 2008, 12:40
Dubai: Sami Al Haj, one of the best-known detainees at the infamous Guantanamo Bay prison, was released late on Thursday by US authorities.
An American military plane carrying Al Haj, a Sudanese national who worked as a cameraman for the Doha-based Al Jazeera network, landed in Khartoum early on Friday. The station beamed images of a frail but happy looking Al Haj being taken on a stretcher to a hospital.
Al Haj was arrested by Pakistani intelligence agents in December 2001 near the Afghan border, despite having a valid work visa. He was later handed over to the Americans and taken to Guantanamo, where he spent six and a half years without being charged with any crime.
The US alleged that he had transferred arms and money to Muslim fighters in Bosnia and Chechnya, allegations Al Haj denied.
Injustice continues in Guantanamo
Gulf News Editorial
The unjust imprisonment of an Al Jazeera cameraman detained by American forces in Afghanistan and held in Guantanamo for six years without charge has ended. But the injustice of Guantanamo continues.
On December 15, 2001, Sami Al Haj was arrested on the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan while carrying out his work, which was to cover the war against the Taliban. His credentials were watertight and his paperwork was in order. Despite the fact that he had a valid visa to work in Afghanistan, US intelligence alleged that he was an Al Qaida operative, and he was transferred to Guantanamo in June 2002.
His story is just one. Hundreds of prisoners are still held at Guantanamo and
they are not as high profile as Al Haj. But their plight is no less important nor the injustice they suffer any less. There are many who think that the imprisonment of Al Haj was never about the so-called war on terror. It was to teach, this theory goes, the uppity Al Jazeera television station a lesson.
Al Jazeera, with its graphic accounts of the situation in Iraq and Afghanistan, has been less than favoured night-time viewing for American officials. Al Haj was an innocent man doing a remarkably brave job. His imprisonment is just one of hundreds of reasons why that lawless place, Guantanamo, must be shut down.
Al Haj was on a hunger strike since January 2007 and had been force-fed. He was bitter about his experience. "Our [the prisoners'] human condition, our human dignity were violated, and the American administration went beyond all human values, all moral values, all religious values. In Guantanamo rats are treated with more humanity. We had people from 50 countries who were completely deprived of all rights and privileges."
Speaking to Gulf News, Jean-Francois Julliard, head of research at the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders, who handled Al Haj's case at the organisation, said: "Sami's release was a great relief for us. He should never have been held for so long without being charged. The US did not give any evidence against him. We think his [wrongful] detention is another reason why Guantanamo should be closed. It is a place of injustice."
Asked if the Western media gave enough coverage to Al Haj's case, Julliard observed: "The Western media speak about people they know ... about European journalists. I am sorry to say this, but it is true. As a European journalist, I think this is wrong. We should treat all journalists equally. The other reason could be that the case was unclear from the beginning and he was accused of terrorist activity."
Julliard noted that his organisation had been trying all along to secure Al Haj's release. "We hope our pressure worked. We made a lot of effort. Besides, there was involvement [pressure on the US government] from people in the European Union."
He also said America's real motive behind holding Al Haj for so long could have been to put pressure on Al Jazeera.
Al Jazeera had been running a campaign to free Al Haj. The station's Arabic service chief Wadah Khanfar said: "We are concerned about the way the Americans dealt with Sami, and we are concerned about the way they could deal with others as well."
Speaking to Gulf News, Mohammad Al Ali, a senior journalist with Al Jazeera's website, said all his colleagues were overjoyed with the news of his release. "We are relieved and happy. Sami is at the hospital now and will be spending time with his family."
Al Ali, a Palestinian who joined Al Jazeera in 2004, said he did not personally know Al Haj but "all journalists should be allowed to do their work". He said he believed this was the beginning of the end of Guantanamo.
In a website statement, the New York-based Committee for the Protection of Journalists (CPJ) expressed relief. "Al Haj is the latest journalist to be freed by the US military after spending years behind bars on the basis of secret evidence, without charge or trial," said CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon.
"We are delighted that Al Haj can finally be reunited with his family and friends. But his detention for six years, without the most basic due process, is a grave injustice and represents a threat to all journalists working in conflict areas."
In a statement, US Charge D'Affaires Alberto Fernandez of the US Embassy in Khartoum said Al Haj had been "transferred" and that the transfer "was a result of many factors and the work of many hands. An important one was the cooperation between the US Embassy in Khartoum and the Sudanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the National Intelligence and Security Service".