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Gitmo still going

Sacramento News and Review
Kel Munger
April 22, 2010

UC Davis professor waits for change that hasn’t yet come to Guantánamo Bay

Sami al-Hajj was not in the wrong place at the wrong time. He was just doing his job. But he got arrested anyway.

A journalist for Al Jazeera, the international Arabic-language news channel, Hajj was a cameraman who covered the American invasion of Afghanistan. According to documents archived at UC Davis, the journalist was arrested in Pakistan in December 2001 as he attempted to return to Afghanistan to report on the inauguration of a new government. The Pakistanis turned him over to American forces in January of 2002.

Hajj spent 16 days in American custody at the Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan, during which Hajj says he was tortured. Then he was taken to Kandahar, still in American custody, where he stayed for five months. In June of 2002, Hajj was moved to Guantánamo Bay and detained there for the next five years as an “enemy combatant.” At one point, documents and news reports indicate that Hajj went on a hunger strike and was force-fed.

Hajj was released from Guantánamo Bay in May of 2008. He was never charged with any crime. So why was he arrested and detained?

According to Almerindo Ojeda, a UC Davis professor of linguistics and director of the university’s Center for the Study of Human Rights in the Americas, the place where the documents are stored, it was because of Hajj’s name.

“He was covering the war on terror, and he was picked up on suspicion of having once interviewed Osama bin Laden,” Ojeda told SN&R. “But it turned out it wasn’t him. It was another man with a similar name.”

The U.S. detention center at Guantánamo Bay is still open, in violation of President Barack Obama’s executive order to close the facility, which he signed in January of 2009.

“It’s not a nice place, where we’re at now,” said Ojeda. “We’ve got 183 people [in Guantánamo] now, which is 183 people that the president ordered—not just promised, but ordered—not to be there.”

According to Ojeda, the situation is slightly better than under the Bush administration, in that the current president has been able to find more nations willing to take prisoners that the United States has decided not to charge or try.

But there have been some troubling developments, Ojeda said. “President Obama is going on with the military commissions, and this is a discredited process.” The current plan is to have detainees in Guantánamo face military commissions rather than civilian criminal trials. “It’s probably unconstitutional,” said Ojeda.

What’s more, political pressure from the right, Ojeda says, has put the president in the position of disobeying his own order to close the detention center. “The president did issue the order, but it’s not being obeyed because of political pressure and because of President Obama’s belief that he can appease and negotiate with his opposition. It looks like he’s negotiating military trials in exchange for closing Guantánamo.”

It’s one instance where the president’s noted—and often praised—talent for compromise is not necessarily the right thing to do, said Ojeda.

“By our own admission those are not trials,” he said. “Some of those held are people who have been deemed not to be enemy combatants by both the Bush and the Obama administration, and are still in custody.”

The Center for the Study of Human Rights in the Americas will take a closer public look at the U.S. detention of prisoners at Guantánamo Bay later this month—and Hajj will be involved. The center will host a conversation between Hajj, a former prisoner, and Brandon Neeley, a former guard. Amy Goodman, a well-known journalist and host of the news program Democracy Now! will moderate the discussion. (See column note.)

Neeley, who was a sergeant in the Army’s military police when he was stationed at the Guantánamo detention center, will join Goodman on the UC Davis campus. Hajj will participate via video conferencing from Doha, Qatar, where he is a producer for Al Jazeera.

“It should be a big event,” said Ojeda. “You have someone who has taken on the uniform to defend this country from terrorism, and you have someone who was arrested, wrongly as it has come out, for being involved in terrorism. They undoubtedly have a lot to say to each other.”

And meanwhile, 183 people wait in Guantánamo, convicted of nothing, for the U.S. government to decide what to do with them.

“In this country, people are innocent until proven guilty,” said Ojeda. “It’s a very important principle, and if you love America, you should live up to that.”

This story has been corrected from its original print version.

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