Moral Low Ground

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Journalist Sami al-Hajj Imprisoned in Guantanamo Bay for 6 Years in U.S. Effort to Spy on Al-Jazeera

One of the most disturbing cases to emerge from the latest Wikileaks release concerning innocent men and boys imprisoned in the American concentration camp at Guantanamo Bay is that of Sami al-Hajj, a Sudanese cameraman for the popular (in the Middle East) yet vilified (in the United States) cable news network al-Jazeera.

(Photo: Mohamed Nanabhay)

For years, al-Hajj has maintained that he was an innocent journalist wrongfully swept up in the early days of America’s “War on Terror” and that he was imprisoned for years at Guantanamo so that his captors could turn him into an intelligence asset they could use to glean information about his employer. Now official US documents, classified but leaked thanks to free speech hero Bradley Manning and the intrepid folks at Wikileaks, back up al-Hajj’s claims.

Al-Hajj, who possessed a valid work visa for al-Jazeera, was detained by Pakistani intelligence agents while en route to cover events in Afghanistan as the US-led war against the Taliban and al-Qaeda began. He was handed over to US forces in January 2002, and ended up at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan via the dubious practice of extraordinary rendition. He described his welcome there to Robert Fisk of Britain’s Independent:

“We arrived in the early hours of the morning and they took the shackles off our feet and pushed us out of the plane. They hit me and pushed me down on the asphalt. We heard screams and dogs barking. I collapsed with my right leg under me, and I felt the ligaments tearing. When I fell, the soldiers started treading on me. First, they walked on my back, then– when they saw me looking at my leg– they started kicking my leg. One soldier shouted at me ‘Why did you come to fight Americans?’ I had a number– I was number 35 and this is how they addressed me, as a number– and the first American shouted at me ‘You filmed bin Laden.’ I said I did not film bin Laden but that I was a journalist. I again gave my name, my age, my nationality.”

To this day, Sami al-Hajj cannot walk without pain or without a crutch due to the severe beating by his American jailers.

After a little more than two weeks at Bagram, al-Hajj was transferred to another US base at Kandahar, Afghanistan. Again he was abused. “We were cursed. They said ‘fuck your mother.’ And again the Americans walked on our backs,” he recalled. “Why? Why did they do this? I was taken to a tent and stripped and they pulled hairs out of my beard… A doctor found blood on my back and asked me why it was there. I asked him how he thought it was there?”

Then, on September 2, 2002, Sami al-Hajj was drugged and had a black bag thrown over his face. He was gagged and shoved onto an airplane. He was now called by a new number– 345– and headed, unbeknownst to him at the time, for six hellish years as an innocent prisoner at Guantanamo Bay.

Upon his arrival at GITMO, a surprise: the Americans told him that he was being held by mistake and that he would soon be released! Imagine his joy at the prospect of returning home to Sudan, where he had a wife and an infant son. He was even promised American citizenship and a home for his family in the United States. All he had to do, according to his captors, was to become an American spy. It seemed as if his interrogators were primarily concerned with his links to al-Jazeera rather than al-Qaeda. Over and over they grilled him about the TV network and tried to recruit him to spy on it. He refused. It was soon apparent that Sami al-Hajj wasn’t going anywhere at all.

Al-Hajj was interrogated over 200 times by American, British and Canadian military and intelligence personnel. He was beaten repeatedly by his American guards. “They would slam my head into the ground,” he painfully recalled. He was thrown into an isolation cell for two years. All the while, the Americans kept trying to make a spy out of him. This went on for years. “‘Will you work with us?’ they asked me again. I said ‘no’ again, but I thanked them for their years of hospitality and for giving me the chance to live among them as a journalist,” he said. That he was able to maintain a sense of humor and purpose throughout his ordeal is nothing short of amazing. He wrote notes chronicling the horrors of Guantanamo and his jailhouse journalism reached the outside world. From 2007:

For more than four years many of us have been isolated in a small cell, less than 10 feet by 6 feet, with the intense neon light on 24 hours a day. Many of us are not allowed to exercise outside these cells for more than one hour, just once a week. We are provided with food and drinks which are not suitable for the iguanas and rats that live beside us on Torture Island.

And:

Here we encounter the “enhanced interrogation techniques.” One such method is solitary confinement which, for a selected number of prisoners, has been known to last for years. Interrogation itself can last for 28 hours without interruption, the prisoner forced to crouch or stand in stress positions, deprived of sleep, sexually humiliated, without any clothers, sometimes even having Israeli or US flags wrapped around their heads. If they want to frighten us, then when we are bound and hooded they bring in the dogs.

Sami also told how he and other detainees were forced to watch interrogators having sex, of prisoners ridden like animals, and of a female interrogator tugging at the scrotum of a detainee. Al-Hajj was also the victim of  racist abuse and was denied medicine. “Our human condition, our human dignity was violated, and the American administration went beyond all human values, all moral values, all religious values,” he lamented. “In Guantanamo… rats are treated with more humanity.”

There are surely many Americans out there who don’t believe that terror suspects ought to be treated better than rats. While we can debate the humaneness of this argument, what cannot be debated is that Sami al-Hajj and many other GITMO detainees were innocent men and the Americans knew it. And no innocent man should ever be treated the way Sami al-Hajj was treated.

Although he was being held as an “enemy combatant,” he was never charged with any crime the whole time he was a prisoner at Guantanamo. That’s because he never committed any crime. The US was trying to recruit him to their side so that he would spy on al-Jazeera for them. They had a hell of a way of trying to win him over.

By January 2007, after five years in captivity, Sami al-Hajj decided to go on a hunger strike. “I wanted my rights,” he explained. “The US Supreme Court said I should have my rights.” After being allowed to strike for a month, al-Hajj was subjected to a new kind of torture: force-feeding. It sounds innocent enough. You could even argue that force-feeding can save the life of a prisoner who refuses to eat. But that’s not how it was for al-Hajj and others who suffered through medically inappropriate, unsanitary and excruciatingly painful force-feedings. Here’s how he described it:

“I was tied to a chair with metal shackles and they force-fed me. They would insert a tube through my nose into my stomach. They chose large tubes so that it hurt and sometimes it went into the lung. They used the same tube they had used on other prisoners with muck still on it and they pumped more food into me than it was possible to absorb. They told us the people administering this were doctors but they were torturers, not doctors. They forced 24 cans of food into us so we threw up and then gave us laxatives to defecate. My pancreas was affected and I had stomach problems. Then they would forbid us from drinking water.”

His hunger strike and the torturous force-feeding that the Americans countered it with went on for a year and four months. Sami al-Hajj grew weaker and weaker. He started bleeding from his rectum. The powers that be decided that he’d had enough and on May 1, 2008 he was released without charge. Right up until the end his interrogators attempted to make a spy out of him. He thanked them for giving him a chance to be a journalist and report from the inside what was happening at Guantanamo. “You turned me from a zero into a hero,” he told them in his characteristically upbeat style. As he was boarding the plane back home to Sudan he waved goodbye to his interrogators, who he saw hiding nearby.

Sami al-Hajj says two things gave him the strength to endure the seven years of torture he suffered. One was his faith in God. “I know that God would not abandon me because He knew I was innocent,” he said. While he was inside, and things were looking really bleak, he wrote:

I sometimes ask myself, who are these people who are held in cages not even fit for wild animals? How do these humans survive? The Prophet Jonah lived inside a whale and Moses lived inside a coffin, so the Guantanamo cells are only for those who are strong and those who have a will to adopt the path of the prophets. If I stay all my life in these cages, let those who inflict this on me do what they wish, but I feel I am living the life of a King.

The second thing that got him through was journalism. “I lived inside Guantanamo as a journalist,” he said. “It was a chance for me to live among the detainees, see how they dealt with [their situations] and hear their stories,” he said.

Sami al-Hajj is still a journalist with al-Jazeera today, in charge of a special human rights section. “Before I got out of Guantanamo, the people inside told me: ‘Don’t forget us.’ So I believe that… I can help them.” He’s been reunited with his wife Asma and his son Mohamed, who was eight years old when his father was released. His brother didn’t recognize Sami because he looked like a beaten old man twice his age. Sami suffers flashbacks and sometimes awakens in the night thinking he’s back in Guantanamo. Loud noises, bright lights and barking dogs spook him. But despite all his problems, al-Hajj says he would forgive former US President George W. Bush if he would only apologize for the great pain and suffering that the United States inflicted upon him and the many other innocent Guantanamo detainees. But as many of us know, being the world’s only superpower means hardly ever having to say you’re sorry.

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2 Comments

  1. EuniceMay 24, 2011 at 6:18 amReply

    Bush was a worst terrorist than osama.he is a loser and a man wit self esteem issues.

    • Brett WilkinsMay 24, 2011 at 7:17 amReplyAuthor

      Bush certainly killed far more innocent people than Osama bin Laden.

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