Rene — Al-Jazeera Journalist Freed From Guantanamo After 6 Years

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Al-Jazeera Journalist Freed From Guantanamo After 6 Years
Published on Friday, May 2, 2008 by Associated Press
by Mohamed Osman
An Al-Jazeera cameraman was released from U.S. custody at Guantanamo
Bay and returned home to Sudan early Friday after six years of
imprisonment that drew worldwide protests.
Sami al-Haj, who had been on a hunger strike for 16 months, grimaced as
he was carried off a U.S. military plane by American personnel in
Sudan’s capital, Khartoum. He was put on a stretcher and taken straight
to a hospital.
Al-Jazeera showed footage of al-Haj being carried into the hospital,
looking feeble and with his eyes closed, but smiling. Some of the men
surrounding his stretcher were kissing him on the cheek.
`Thank God ¦ for being free again,’ he told Al-Jazeera from his
hospital bed. `Our eyes have the right to shed tears after we have
spent all those years in prison. ¦ But our joy is not going to be
complete until our brothers in Guantanamo Bay are freed,’ he added.
`The situation is very bad and getting worse day after day,’ he said of
conditions in Guantanamo. He claimed guards prevent Muslims from
practicing their religion and reading the Quran.
`Some of our brothers live without clothing,’ he said.
The U.S. military says it goes to great lengths to respect the religion
of detainees, issuing them Qurans, enforcing quiet among guard staff
during prayer calls throughout the day. All cells in Guantanamo have an
arrow that points toward the holy city of Mecca.
Al-Haj was released along with two other Sudanese from Guantanamo
Thursday. He was the only journalist from a major international news
organization held at Guantanamo and many of his supporters saw his
detention as punishment for a network whose broadcasts angered U.S.
The military alleged he was a courier for a militant Muslim
organization, an allegation his lawyers denied.
Al-Haj said he believed he was arrested because of U.S. hostility
toward Al-Jazeera and because the media was reporting on U.S. rights
violations in Afghanistan.
Al-Haj was detained in December 2001 by Pakistani authorities as he
tried to enter Afghanistan to cover the U.S.-led invasion. He was
turned over to the U.S. military and taken in January 2002 to
Guantanamo Bay, where the United States holds some 275 men suspected of
links to al-Qaida and the Taliban, most of them without charges.
Reprieve, the British human rights group that represents 35 Guantanamo
prisoners including al-Haj, said Pakistani forces apparently seized
al-Haj at the behest of the U.S. authorities who suspected he had
interviewed Osama bin Laden.
But that `supposed intelligence’ turned out to be false, Reprieve said
in a news release.
`This is wonderful news, and long overdue,’ said Clive Stafford Smith,
Reprieve’s director, who has represented al-Haj since 2005. `The U.S.
administration has never had any reason for holding Mr. Al Haj, and
has, instead, spent six years shamelessly attempting to turn him
against his employers at Al-Jazeera.’
Sudanese officials said al-Haj would not face any charges.
The U.S. Embassy in Khartoum issued a brief statement confirming the
detainee transfer with Sudan and saying it appreciated Sudan’s
Al-Haj’s lawyers said the 38-year-old has been on hunger strike since
January 2007 to protest conditions and indefinite confinement at the
Attorney Zachary Katznelson of Reprieve, who met al-Haj at Guantanamo
on April 11, said he was `emaciated’ because of his hunger strike. and
had recently been having problems with his liver and kidneys and had
blood in his urine.
`Sami is a poster child for everything that is wrong about Guantanamo
Bay: No charges, no trial, constantly shifting allegations, brutal
treatment, no visits with family, not even a phone call home,’
Katznelson said Thursday.
`Sami was never alleged to have hurt a soul, and was never proven to
have committed any crimes. Yet, he had fewer rights than convicted mass
murderers or rapists. What has happened to American justice?’
Al-Jazeera is based in Qatar and is funded by the royal family of the
Persian Gulf nation. Its Arabic channel has been excoriated by the Bush
administration as a mouthpiece for terrorists including Osama bin Laden.
Wadah Khanfar, managing director of Al-Jazeera Arabic, said of al-Haj’s
release: `We are overwhelmed with joy.’
Al-Haj was never prosecuted at Guantanamo so the U.S did not make
public its full allegations against him. But in a hearing that
determined that he was an enemy combatant, U.S. officials alleged that
in the 1990s, al-Haj was an executive assistant at a Qatar-based
beverage company that provided support to Muslim fighters in Bosnia and
The U.S. claimed he also traveled to Azerbaijan at least eight times to
carry money on behalf of his employer to the Al-Haramain Islamic
Foundation, a now defunct charity that U.S. authorities say funded
militant groups.
The officials said during this period that he met Mamdouh Mahmud Salim,
a senior lieutenant to Osama bin Laden who was arrested in Germany in
1998 and extradited to the United States. Officials did not provide
Reprieve identified the two other Sudanese Guantanamo detainees who
were released as Amir Yacoub Al Amir and Walid Ali.
Reprieve also said Moroccan detainee Said Boujaadia, 39, was also
released. He was flown home on the same plane as al-Haj, which made a
stop in Morocco. The group said he was taken into custody in Morocco.