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Sami al-Hajj: 'Thank you, Guantanamo'

by Tima Chadid
October 7, 2008

DOHA, October 7, 2008 (AL-AKHBAR) – Six years and six months in jail have not been a waste for Sami al-Hajj. Despite the bitterness, the interrogations, the torture that he was subjected to and that he saw others being subjected to, the Al-Jazeera cameraman looks back on his time in the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay as an enriching experience.

The Sudanese journalist who is currently living in Doha, and was recently honored in Norway, is aware of the importance of his experience to others. During his last interrorgation at Guantanamo Bay, he actually thanked his jailers "because you gave me the change to witness the torture of the prisoners and to meet them. This is a chance every journalist dreams of. You also turned me from a beginning photographer into a famous hero with friends who support me all around the world."

Defending human rights

Al-Hajj's never tires of talking about the details of his experience. But this man, 39, who was detained by mistake and released without any conviction, has decided, with the collaboration of Al-Jazeera, to establish a department to defend human rights and freedoms in the world, to be a basket for news and reports about abuses and to present them to the public.

A dedicated website for the department will be launched on November 1 to coincide with the 13th anniversary of Al-Jazeera.

"The idea came from my insistence that the journalist is the best mediator to uncover the truth," Al-Hajj says in an interview with Al-Akhbar. "So I won't miss a chance to relate the abuses and the torture taking place in Guantanamo."

Al-Hajj says he recently visited Switzerland and Norway to promote the new website and to meet with organizations already working in the field of human rights.

"We are counting on the European countries now that the United States have proved their failure in this matter," he said.

Speaking with a calm voice that is nevertheless filled with pain, al-Hajj recounts the torture and the abuse he suffered in Guantanamo, especially during the two-hundred interrogation sessions in which 95 percent of the questions dealt with his employer, Al-Jazeera.

"I was subjected to all kinds of physical and psychological abuse. Because the detainees are Muslims, the administration of the detention center used different methods of humiliation by insulting Islam. I saw soldiers tearing the Quran apart and throwing the pages in the toilet. During the questioning, they used to sit on the holy book for long periods of time. They cursed us and used racist language...

"They locked us in freezing rooms, and fed us one cold meal a day. They kept us from sleeping. If we closed our eyes, they hit us on our heads like cattle, or threw cold water on us. They forced us to watch pictures and video of people dying under torture, bleeding. They forced us to watch porn pictures, put on women clothes or strip and walk naked like donkeys. We were forced to salute when the American anthem played. They humiliated the prisoners by forcing them to cover their bodies with the American and Israeli flags."

Millions of dollars

As for the medical treatment, al-Hajj taks about detainees having their limbs ampytated. "They cut the feet of a Saudi detainee, and the hands of many others. They also cut the fingers of a Tunisian prisoner."

Today, al-Hajj hopes he will be able to walk without the cane that never leaves his side. He suffers from a ruptured ligament in his right leg which needs surgery. He also suffers from many stomach diseases, due to a 438-day fast.

During his imprisonment, al-Hajj never gave up hope. Since the first second he was arrested, he says he knew he would onde day return to his Azerbaijani wife Asma' and his eight-year-old son Mohammad.

"I was convinced of my innocence so I didn't even curse the U.S.," he says.

"All they wanted was my cooperation. They insisted until the last minute before my release. They offered me millions of dollars, American citizenship for me and my family in addition to a car and a villa with full protection. But I refused because I'm a journalist and it is not my job to spy..."

December 5, 2001 was the day Sami al-Hajj's life turned into a nightmare. Al-Hajj and Al-Jazeera reporter Abdul Haq Saddah were preparing to cross the Pakistani border into Afghanistan to cover the end of the Taliban rule after the American air attacks and the Afghani ground attacks. The border guards arrested al-Hajj on the order of the Pakistani intelligence service on suspicion that he was member of al-Qaeda.

"They then took me to Baghram airbase where I stayed for 16 days during which I was subjected to physical abuse and questioning. They claimed I was transporting money to fighters through Azerbaijan. They asked me why I was fighting the Americans and whether I personally took pictures of Osama bin Laden."

He was then transferred to Kandahar, "where they offered me to work as a spy in return of my release..."

No apology

After six months in Kandahar, he was transported in chains in a plane to the U.S. base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. There, he lived the worst days a human being could live, and met with American, British and Canadian interrogators.

One question remains: is it possible that the American authorities released al-Hajj without any conditions? If they admitted he was detained by mistake, did they apologize properly?

Al-Hajj says they put three conditions to him: not to work with the media, not to talk about what he saw in Guantanamo, and not to travel outside Sudan. But he refused to sign, as did his government.

While no official apology was ever made, al-Hajj says he received many letters from American citizens, "denouncing my detainment and presenting their personal apologies."

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