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Al-Jazeera cameraman in worse condition at Gitmo, lawyer says

Associated Press
August 21, 2007

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) - The health of a hunger-striking TV cameraman at the military prison in Guantanamo Bay has deteriorated sharply in recent months, according to notes released Tuesday by his lawyer after they were censored by U.S. authorities.

Sami al-Hajj, a cameraman for the Al-Jazeera TV network, has lost (18 kilograms) 40 pounds since he began his strike late last year and has developed intestinal problems and other conditions, according to the notes from attorney Clive Stafford Smith.

Al-Hajj, who has been held at Guantanamo since June 2002, seemed anxious and «even paranoid,» and had difficulty concentrating or speaking his previously fluent English during a meeting with the attorney, the notes said.

«He's just losing it,» Stafford Smith said in a telephone interview. «He's definitely deteriorating physically and mentally from the hunger strike.

The meeting was in early July but Stafford Smith said he received the notes only late last week.

Attorneys for Guantanamo Bay detainees must submit notes from meetings with prisoners to U.S. authorities for review to prevent the release of classified information, a process that typically takes several weeks. Stafford Smith said portions of his notes were barred from disclosure.

A Guantanamo Bay spokesman, Navy Cmdr. Rick Haupt, denied that al-Hajj has lost 40 pounds (18 kilograms) and said the detainee is at 100 percent of his ideal body weight.

Haupt said no Guantanamo Bay hunger striker is in immediate medical danger «thanks to the heroic efforts of the medical staff who strive to preserve the life and health of detainees.

The spokesman said there were 22 detainees on hunger strike as of Tuesday, including 20 who are force-fed nutritional supplements through a nasal tube to prevent them from starving themselves.

Guantanamo detainees began a hunger strike in August 2005 to protest their indefinite confinement and the number of participants has fluctuated, at times dwindling to just two men. Military officials have described the hunger strike as a «voluntary fast» intended to draw international sympathy.

Through his attorney, al-Hajj said that medical staff have begun using larger tubes to feed the detainees and at times have inserted them incorrectly, reaching the lungs instead of the stomach, or have forgotten to use a lubricant. The military denied both allegations.

Al-Hajj also complained hunger strikers are stripped of all personal items except their clothes and have only a thin mat on which to sleep. Military officials say hunger striking is considered a violation of camp rules and they confiscate «comfort items» such as extra clothing, a thicker mattress and access to library books as a consequence.

The U.S. holds about 355 men at Guantanamo on suspicion of terrorism or links to al-Qaida or the Taliban. Officials said they plan to prosecute about 75 with military tribunals and hope to transfer more than 150 back to their home countries or other nations that will accept them.

A newspaper in al-Hajj's native Sudan reported that the U.S. planned to release him soon, but Stafford Smith said his family has since been told by their government that the report was not accurate. «I'm afraid they are just rumors,» he said.

At their meeting, al-Hajj appeared haggard and complained that a guard had broken his toe by shoving him while escorting him to recreation _ an allegation also denied by the military.

His lawyer said the detainee seemed nearly incoherent at times and «obsessed» with death. «I'm afraid it reflects his deteriorating mental health,» the lawyer said.

Al-Hajj, 38, is believed to be the only journalist from a major international news organization held at Guantanamo. He was stopped at the Afghanistan border by Pakistani authorities in December 2001, turned over to U.S. forces and taken to Guantanamo six months later.

Authorities accused him of transporting money in the 1990s for a charity that allegedly provided money to military groups, but no charges have been filed against him.

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