Interview: Sami al-Hajj

Former detainee says a new body will pressure Washington to release detainees.

sami al hajj


Al-Hajj said most of the interrogation sessions at Guantanamo Bay Prison focused on Al Jazeera

Sami al-Hajj, an Al Jazeera cameraman who was arrested by Pakistani forces on the border with Afghanistan in December 2001 while covering the US-led invasion, says his captors knew they were working with faulty intelligence information.

Al-Hajj was moved between Pakistani and Afghan detention centres before being flown out of the region and thrown into a grisly cell at the Guantanamo detention facility.  

He said he spent six years and seven months at Guantanamo because of an “error” and has accused the administration of George Bush, the former US president, of continuing to incarcerate him despite knowing they had the wrong man.

Since his release, however, Al-Hajj says he is determined to use his plight to raise awareness of the conditions other inmates currently held at Guantanamo are facing and to pressure the US government for their release.

Al-Hajj and other released detainees are expected to launch the Guantanamo Justice Centre (GJC), a non-profit organisation headquartered in Geneva, which aims to peacefully resolve the plight of those who remain in US custody.

A British branch will be opened at the end of July.

Al Jazeera’s Ahmed Janabi met with al-Hajj on the eve of the GJC’s launch.  

Al Jazeera: Why were you arrested?

Sami al-Hajj: I was arrested on December 15, 2002 by Pakistani authorities on the Afghan border but it was a mistake on their part from the very beginning.

At first, they said there was an irregularity in my passport, which was just a pretext for my arrest. Then they told me there was a false identity case involving me; somebody out there pretending to be me.

They showed me the arrest warrant that came from Pakistani intelligence; it sought the arrest of “Sami, the Al Jazeera cameraman”, but all the other details were wrong: the passport number did not match mine, the last name was not mine – everything but the first name was wrong.

They asked me about Al Jazeera’s correspondent Tayseer Allouni, and I knew they could have been looking for the cameraman who worked with him when they interviewed Osama bin Laden, the al-Qaeda leader. His name was Sami.

I was not in or around Afghanistan when the bin Laden interview took place.

Nevertheless, on January 7, 2003 I was surrendered to US forces and moved to the Bagram detention centre.

In depth

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Were you interrogated at Bagram? Were any charges filed?

A week after I was held at Bagram, US investigators interrogated me and accused me of filming an interview with bin Laden.

I explained to them I did not film that interview, and even if I had done, what was wrong in that?

I am a journalist and interviewing people is my job, however, I have never met or interviewed bin Laden.

I explained to them that I was not part of the regular Al Jazeera team in Afghanistan, and I was dispatched there only in October 2002 to cover the war.

I showed them my passport and ticket, which proved I am a resident of Doha, Qatar not Afghanistan.

Here the investigator told me, “you know Sami in war, mistakes happen. The Pakistani authorities handed you over to us, but you are not wanted by us, if we let you go what will you say?”

I told him I would reveal that I and other detainees were beaten and tortured.

What was his response?

He just asked me if I needed anything.

Were you under the impression you would have been released had you agreed to remain silent? 

I believe so.

What happened next?

After Bagram, I was moved to Qandahar prison. There, the interrogators also told me that they carried out their investigations and discovered that I was not the one they were looking for. They blamed Pakistan for the error.

They even said they were going to release me but repatriate me to Sudan, my home country, not Qatar.

Why you were not released?

They started asking me to work with them. They used to ask me to cooperate with them and I thought they meant answer our questions, so I did.

I co-operated and answered all their questions until I realised they had really wanted to recruit me as an informant. I refused.

They wanted to know everything about Al Jazeera such as profiles of the people in charge and their ideological beliefs.

They told me that if I worked with them my family would be relocated to the US and enjoy a better future.

But I continued to turn down their offers.

Did the interrogation sessions continue after their admission that you were jailed in error?

Yes, in Afghanistan and later in Guantanamo.

What have you been doing since your release in May 2008?

The injustice, humiliation, and character assassination I endured during my imprisonment have given me vigour and passion to devote my years to ensure those responsible for my ordeal are brought to justice.

I want to save the potential innocent people in Guantanamo and to prevent the authorities there from inflicting on others what they inflicted on me.

A few former Guantanamo detainees and I have decided to set up an organisation based in Geneva, Switzerland to raise our grievances and pursue our detainers in courts.

Upon the request of Amnesty International, I also wrote a letter to Barack Obama, the US president, asking him to work to prevent detention for information-gathering purposes. I told him if we are after justice, then that should not be a secret and people must see us achieving justice.

I wrote to the president because he promised to close Guantanamo within a year, but we have seen very little progress although it has been six months since he launched he made that pledge.

Only 12 detainees have been released in the past six months. 

Source: Al Jazeera