Reporters Without Borders voiced concern today about detained Sudanese cameraman Sami Al-Haj of the pan-Arab TV station Al-Jazeera and reiterated its call for his release in the absence of specific charges after speaking to his London-based lawyer Clive Stafford-Smith. Arrested by the Pakistani army on the Afghan border in December 2001, Al-Haj has been held at the US detention centre at Guantanamo Bay (Cuba) since 13 June 2002.
“Aside from the fact that Guantanamo Bay is a legal and humanitarian scandal, the Americans seem to be holding Al-Haj simply because they have it in for Al-Jazeera,” the press freedom organisation said. “How else can you explain the fact that he has been held for four years without being charged while other journalists have been cleared and released in no time at all?”
Reporters Without Borders added: “At the same time, his lawyer says he has throat cancer and is not getting appropriate treatment. The US authorities must release him, even if it is only on humanitarian grounds.”
On his return from visits to Guantanamo Bay and Qatar (where Al-Jazeera has its headquarters), Stafford-Smith told a Reporters Without Borders representative in London on 11 April: “Sami is very depressed. He even spoke of suicide for the first time in my presence. Furthermore, he still needs treatment for his throat cancer which the US authorities refuse to give him. He also has trouble with a knee.”
Stafford-Smith said Al-Haj was recently moved to Guantanamo Bay’s Camp 4 “for good conduct” but conditions there were still bad and anyway his stay in Camp 4 could be quite brief. “Supposedly there is a plan to transfer all the detainees to Camp 6, a high-security facility,” he said. “This would be a disaster for Sami because it would signify a deterioration in the conditions in which he is being held. The transfer could be in September.”
He has not found out anything more about what Al-Haj is charged with, and he is still awaiting a response from the Administrative Review Board, which is supposed to examine the cases of the Guantanamo Bay detainees each year and above all determine whether they still pose “a threat to the security of the United States.”
The situation is “nonsensical,” Stafford-Smith said, “because the ARB has no real legal competence and modifies its charges as it goes along, without any evidence.” The Combat Status Review Tribunal, which has a more senior status, ruled in March 2005 that Al-Haj was an “enemy combatant” on the grounds that he had allegedly run a website that supported terrorism, that he had trafficked in arms, that he entered Afghanistan illegally in October 2001 while US air strikes were under way, and that he interviewed Osama bin Laden. All these claims are disputed by Al-Jazeera (see our report on Guantanamo Bay and Camp Bucca in Iraq, “Where the United States imprisons journalists”).
Furthermore, according to a report in the London-based Guardian newspaper on 26 September, the US authorities offered to free Al-Haj and give him a US passport if he agreed to spy for them inside Al-Jazeera.
According to Stafford-Smith, there is still a complete lack of transparency, despite an official investigation into the Guantanamo Bay detention centre by the House of Representatives and a supreme court ruling in June 2004 that Guantanamo Bay detainees could file habeas corpus petitions challenging the legality of their detention.
“There is no protocol or convention determining the relation between a defendant and his lawyer,” he said. “Guantanamo Bay is a place beyond the law, subject to the whim of the US authorities.”