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Fears grow for hunger strike journalist held in Guantanamo

Press Gazette
by Julie Tomlin
October 19, 2007


Concern for the health of the only journalist held at Guantanamo Bay increased this week after news that his weight has plummeted because of a decision to reduce force-feeding during Ramadan.

Al Jazeera cameraman Sami Al-Haj, who has lost 18kg (40lb) since beginning his hunger strike in January, lost a further 15lb during Ramadan, according to his lawyer, Clive Stafford Smith.

He also told Press Gazette this week that the US authorities have now made fresh allegations that Al-Haj is a terrorist.

“They have said that he received terrorist training – and that was training from Al Jazeera in the use of cameras,” said Stafford Smith, director of Reprieve. “Each year they change the allegations against him, and each year they allege something new. But this one is really offensive.”

The human rights lawyer said Al Jazeera chiefs were considering taking legal action after he advised them that they should pursue a claim of defamation against the US government.

“It’s something you journalists should all be concerned about,” he said.

Stafford Smith, who returned from a trip to Guantanamo Bay this week, has to have his notes cleared by the US authorities and could not give specific details about Al-Haj’s physical and mental health.

Stafford Smith said after visiting his client in July that Al-Haj was losing his memory and had become “fixated on his death”.

He said after his most recent visit that Al-Haj, who has been in Guantanamo Bay since June 2002, has lost more weight because of the guards’ decision to force feed him just once a day during Ramadan between 12 September and 3 October “out of respect for his religious belief”.

Al-Haj, a Sudanese national who was detained at the Pakistan border in December 2001 while on his way to work in Afghanistan, made a plea for the release of Alan Johnston during the BBC correspondent’s 113-day captivity in Gaza earlier this year.

Stafford Smith has since made contact with Johnston, who earlier this month wrote an open letter in support of Al-Haj.

Johnston, who was released in July, said he supported Al-Haj’s call to be allowed to answer any allegations that are being made against him.

“And of course, I would always support any prisoner’s right to a fair trial.” Johnston wrote.

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