Profile: Sami Alhaj

Al Jazeera cameraman released without charge after six years in Guantanamo Bay.

Sami al-Hajj returns to Doha


Since his release from Guantanamo Bay, Sami Alhaj, centre, has been raising awareness of global human rights abuses, including the plight of Palestinians under Israeli siege [EPA]

Sami Alhaj had been working as a cameraman for Al Jazeera when he was arrested on the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan in 2001.

He ended up spending more than six years in the US military prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Alhaj had been sent to the area to cover the US war against the Taliban and held a legitimate work visa.

He was arrested after suspicions that he had links with al-Qaeda when his name and passport number came up on a list from Pakistan intelligence.

The passport number that the Pakistanis had was for an old document that Alhaj had previously reported as having been lost in Sudan two years earlier.

He was kept prisoner in Afghanistan and Pakistan for five months before being handed over to US forces and taken to Guantanamo Bay as an “enemy combatant”.

For the next six years, he became prisoner 345.

He is the only journalist to have been detained at Guantanamo Bay.

Accusations but no charge

Sami Alhaj returned to Al Jazeera after recuperating in Sudan following his release

The US accused him of working for Al Jazeera to facilitate “terrorist acts”.

Clive Stafford Smith, a British human rights lawyer who took on Alhaj‘s case in 2005, said that in a 2007 review of his case the US alleged that Alhaj had received terrorist training.

Stafford Smith challenged the allegations, pointing out that the review merely stated: “the detainee was trained by Al Jazeera in the use of cameras”.

Alhaj had previously been accused of filming Osama bin Laden and others with links to al-Qaeda.

His captors also allege he funded Chechen rebels and that he bought Stinger missiles and shipped them to Chechnya.

But the allegations were baseless. Instead, the US interrogators focused almost exclusively on obtaining intelligence on Al Jazeera.

Violent interrogations

During his time in prison, Alhaj was beaten and interrogated more than 130 times.

Alhaj was one of about 20 prisoners who launched hunger strikes in protest at their imprisonment and treatment.

Up to his release in May 2008,  Alhaj was on hunger strike, which he started on January 7, 2007.

During this period Alhaj lost weight, developed a kidney infection and was receiving inadequate medical treatment.

Twice a day he was force-fed liquid through a tube inserted into one nostril.

The US banned the publication of cartoons drawn by Alhaj which illustrated his time at Guantanamo.

Drawings entitled Sketches of My Nightmare and Scream for Freedom depicted faceless skeletons in shackles and Alhaj being force-fed in a “Torture Chair’.

Detailed descriptions of the sketches were allowed through the censorship process and Lewis Peake, a British political cartoonist, was able to recreate them.

Calls for release

Meanwhile, Al Jazeera’s bureaus held several protests in an attempt to get Alhaj released.

Alan Johnston, a BBC reporter held for months in Gaza, also appealed for Alhaj’s right to a fair trial.

Several organisations such as The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), Reporters Without Borders and Amnesty International urged for Alhaj‘s release.

Farouq Abu Issa, a Sudanese member of parliament, also took up the case. In May 2008 the breakthrough came, and Alhaj was released.

In November 2008, he was made Head of Al Jazeera’s new Public Liberties and Human Rights Desk, a position he holds today.

Inspired by the suffering he experienced during his time in Guantanamo, the desk aims to give a voice to those experiencing similar abuse.

Alhaj was born in Khartoum, Sudan, in 1969. He grew up in central Sudan, the second eldest of six children.

With the help of his uncle, Alhaj studied English at a university in India before leaving in the early 1990s to take a job at a beverage company in the United Arab Emirates.

He had long been interested in journalism and took up photography in his youth, said his brother Asim Alhaj.

Sami Alhaj is married to Asma Ismailov and is the father of a nine-year-old son, who he was not able to see for over six years while imprisoned in Guantanamo.

Source: Al Jazeera, News Agencies