Aljazeera.net spoke to al-Hajj’s lawyer, Clive Stafford-Smith, regarding his case and the prospects for his release.
He said al-Hajj had suffered extreme physical and sexual abuse and religious persecution.
Stafford-Smith said despite the US government’s denials, Guantanamo detainees were being held in pitiful conditions.
“Guantanamo is a PR disaster. It is one of the most iconic symbols of hypocrisy in the world. It is just incredible how the US has squandered all the goodwill it had after the 11 September attacks,” the lawyer said.
He visited clients, including al-Hajj, in Guantanamo recently and told Aljazeera.net about notes that the cameraman had written, which were declassified by the US.
The notes detail how al-Hajj had been beaten and abused by his interrogators; how he was asked to spy for the US in exchange for citizenship and how the interrogators threatened his family, including his five-year-old son, if he did not comply, he said.
“The Americans have tried to make him an informant with the goal of getting him to say that Aljazeera is linked to al-Qaida.
“He is completely innocent. He is about as much of a terrorist as my granddad. The only reason he has been treated like he has is because he is an Aljazeera journalist,” Stafford-Smith said.
“The US needs to wake up to the fact that the most effective counter-terrorism measure is the enforcement of human rights such as the freedom of the press, rather than attempting to muzzle such freedoms by persecuting members of media networks that it disagrees with,” he told Aljazeera.net.
Aljazeera.net: What are the latest legal developments regarding al-Hajj’s case?
Clive Stafford-Smith: There has been no change in any meaningful terms.
The Guantanamo cases are once again before the Court of Appeals in Washington DC with the Bush administration once again arguing that the prisoners have no enforceable legal rights.
Unfortunately, the US legal system allows parties to delay proceedings for years and years.
A client of mine who had been on death row for 31 years recently died of old age, with his appeals still unexhausted.
Just as the Bush administration has complained about delay in capital cases, so the Bush administration is now using the same methods to delay a resolution of the prisoners’ rights.
When was the last time you met Sami al-Hajj and how would you describe his situation, specifically his health and morale?
Al-Hajj says interrogators
Sami was most positive about his family, glad to know that Aljazeera was looking after his wife and son and for bringing them to Doha.
He was also very happy that the station was helping him to tell the world about the plight of the prisoners in Guantanamo.
However, I last saw him just as he was about to re-enter the hunger strike, and he was sombre at the idea that the US was forcing him into a situation where – just to assert basic human rights – he and many others were being forced to place themselves in harm’s way.
I am worried about what has happened to Sami since I last saw him two months ago.
Do the charges brought against him have any legal basis?
There are technically no charges against Sami.
He has not been charged with any crime.
He has simply been accused of being an “enemy combatant” – a ridiculously vague term that can include anyone the Americans want to include.
There is absolutely no factual basis to this allegation, and the way that the US makes it is simply dishonest.
For example, he is accused of being seized when he was trying to go to Afghanistan. Of course that is true.
But what the US does not say in its charges is that he was on assignment for Aljazeera, he had a legitimate visa to go, and he was not doing anything wrong.
We heard a lot about torture and abuse in Guantanamo. Has al-Hajj been affected in any way by this and if so, to what extent?
“The US military has revealed to him that the US taps the telephones of Aljazeera journalists (they were tapping Sami’s personal calls to his wife while he was on assignment)”
Sami has endured horrendous abuse – sexual abuse and religious persecution.
He suffered his worst abuse when he was seized and detained in Afghanistan. He was beaten on various occasions, and sexually assaulted.
He has definitely been beaten. He had a huge scar on his face when I saw him.
He has suffered in Guantanamo as well, mostly because he was punished when he objected to the desecration of the Quran.
Did he face any US pressure with regards to his position as a journalist?
Sami has been interrogated roughly 130 times.
For a long time, this was exclusively aimed at trying to get him to become an informant against Aljazeera.
The US military wants Sami to say that Aljazeera is a front for al-Qaida, and is funded by al-Qaida.
He refuses to say this because it is not true.
The US military has revealed to him that the US taps the telephones of Aljazeera journalists (they were tapping Sami’s personal calls to his wife while he was on assignment).
In particular, the US wants Sami to be an informant against some of his colleagues at Aljazeera, whom they claim are members of al-Qaida.
Sami resolutely refuses to do this, as he says it is simply not true.
The lawyer says the US wants
Only when he demanded that he be interrogated about the supposed “charges” against him did the US ever ask him questions about the vague allegations, and even then there are some that the US has never even bothered to question him about.
On a personal level, I have immense respect for Sami’s courage.
He refuses to make up stories against his employers and colleagues to buy his freedom, even though he is under immense pressure to do so, and even though he is promised the world by the US if he will turn informant.
Do you think that this is in fact another fiasco or show-trial in an attempt to have Aljazeera cornered and to tarnish its reputation?
There is no show-trial here, because there is no trial.
I wish there were a trial, because at least then we would have the opportunity to contest real allegations.
As an American, I am ashamed to say this, but this is just the Bush administration’s effort to force Sami to make up lies against Aljazeera for political purposes.
Do you think his case is being used to send a message to journalists around the globe?
“He has suffered in Guantanamo as well, mostly because he was punished when he objected to the desecration of the Quran”
Sami is being used to send a message to Aljazeera – that the US, though it purports to encourage free speech, wants to close Aljazeera down or force the station to censor itself consistent with the Bush administration’s message.
I have been frustrated by the difficulty in getting Western news organisations to take up Sami’s cause.
One reason that Sami has not obtained the support he should have from journalists around the world is that the US has waged a campaign against Aljazeera and has made many Western journalists think that Aljazeera is not a legitimate news organisation.
Of course, this is made possible by the fact that most journalists do not speak Arabic, and therefore cannot judge for themselves.
This will, I hope, be changed with the creation of the English language Aljazeera channel which will allow these journalists to make their own judgments.
Are you optimistic about al-Hajj’s case and how much longer do you think the case will drag on?
I am optimistic that as long as Sami gets consistent help from Aljazeera he will be released in the next six months.
Clive Stafford-Smith says al-Hajj’s
But it is crucial to recognise that his release will not come from any US court – of the 248 prisoners released to date, zero have been released due to a court order and 248 have been released due to political pressures.
There are thus various conditions that will cause his release:
1. That the Sudanese government strongly asserts to the US that Sami should be released. I am glad to say that I met the Sudanese ambassador in London and he was very supportive, but Aljazeera must help secure this assistance.
2. That Aljazeera publicise everything that it can about Sami, including organising a spot once a week where his reports can go out to the world.
3. That Sami’s friends and colleagues around the world help secure other support for him, to press for his release.
Anyone who wishes to help Sami should contact me either at the charity where I work (email@example.com) or on my personal email (firstname.lastname@example.org).
If you were successful with his case, do you think he would be able to bring legal action against the US for having him detained for such a long period?
He absolutely will bring legal action against the United States, and I have already arranged for this to happen.
Whether it will ever result in financial compensation is a different matter. I have exonerated a number of prisoners off America’s death row, proving them innocent after years of wrongful incarceration, and, incredibly, the most any of them has ever received is $10.
Stafford-Smith wants Rumsfeld
The system is stacked against the prisoner in this respect.
However, we will bring the litigation against the Bush administration on Sami’s behalf, and on behalf of every prisoner in Guantanamo who wants us to, because there is an important principle here.
One day, I very much hope to have President George Bush and Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld on the witness stand explaining precisely why they thought they could treat prisoners in this way.
At the very least, we must make sure that this does not happen again.