Almost a year ago, I wrote a piece in which I decried the rash and immoral acts perpetrated by the Bush administration since 9/11, ostensibly in the name of national security. Specifically, I took exception to the unjust and Kafkaesque detainment of alleged enemy combatants at the GuantÃ¡namo military prison. Despite some shift in the tide of public opinion (and political representation), this shameful symbol of all that has gone wrong with America these last few years remains open for business. The injustice persists. In today’s McClatchy Newspapers, Shashank Bengali reports on the unrelenting nightmare that one of the detainees, Sami al Hajj, has endured for more than half a decade now:
He’s all but unknown in the United States, the country of his jailers, but in his homeland of Sudan, Sami al Hajj is a national hero. The president has spoken out about him, demonstrations have been held in his name, and a bakery in Khartoum has printed his picture on its packaging.
A 38-year-old cameraman for the Arabic news network al Jazeera, Hajj has been imprisoned as an â€œenemy combatantâ€? at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, for five years, but never charged with any crime. He was arrested by Pakistani police in December 2001 while on his way to a news assignment in Afghanistan, but he’s denied having any links to terrorism.
The independent, Qatar-based network earned the wrath of top U.S. officials after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks for airing statements by Osama bin Laden. Hajj has been interrogated approximately 130 times, according to his attorneys, and nearly every question has been about whether the network or its journalists are connected to al Qaida or other terrorist groups.
Hajj had been with al Jazeera for only a few months at the time of his arrest, and heâ€™s told military interrogators that he knows nothing about the networkâ€™s corporate structure or financing.
Family members describe him as a soft-spoken romantic whoâ€™d dreamed since boyhood of becoming a cameraman. Before he joined the network, he had a succession of low-level jobs with private companies in Sudan and the United Arab Emirates.
â€œPeople here know him to be so calm, so respectful. Heâ€™s not a terrorist at all,â€? said his younger brother, Asim al Hajj, 31, who lives in the family home in a working-class suburb of Khartoum, Sudanâ€™s desert capital. â€œHe is caught up in this because the United States government is against al Jazeera.â€?
Interrogators offered to secure Hajjâ€™s release if he agreed to spy on al Jazeera, his attorneys say, but Hajj has refused.
Sudanese officials and international human rights and press freedom groups have demanded that Hajj be tried or released. Neither appears likely. Documents released by the military suggest why Hajj continues to be held: He’s alleged to have couriered money in the late 1990s to the Azerbaijan branch of al Haramayn, a Muslim charity that provided support to extremist groups, and to have once met an unnamed â€œsenior al Qaida lieutenant.â€?
Hajjâ€™s attorneys said both allegations, which surfaced in an August 2005 review board hearing, stemmed from his work as an assistant to the head of a soft-drink distribution company in Dubai. In the hearing, which he attended wearing the white uniform reserved for the most cooperative inmates, Hajj refused to respond in the absence of his attorneys, who are barred from such proceedings.
â€œWith all due respect,â€? he said, reading a statement, â€œa mistake has been made because I have never been a member of any terrorist group, and I never took part in any terrorist or violent act.â€? [full text]