Some 20 Reporters Without Borders activists, representatives of al-Jazeera, members of the Arab human rights committee and other groups demonstrated on 8 February outside the Paris bureau of the Qatar-based TV to demand the release of Sami al-Haj, a Sudanese cameraman with the channel, who has been held at the US Guantanamo Bay detention centre since 13 June 2002.
Demonstrators waved pictures of the journalist, alongside slogans calling for his release, in English and Arabic. Some protestors were dressed symbolically in the orange jump suits which Guantanamo prisoners have to wear.
Sami al-Haj was captured by the Pakistani Army on the Afghan border in December 2001 then handed over to US troops before being transferred to Guantanamo on 13 June 2002. He was forced to confess alleged links between al-Jazeera and al-Qaeda. He underwent more than 150 interrogation sessions and was regularly tortured, through prolonged exposure to full sun, by ducking in water, sleep deprivation and so on. Ill and deprived of all contact with his family since his imprisonment, the journalist told his London-based solicitor Clive Stafford-Smith when he saw him in April 2006 that for the first time he had thought about suicide. The case of Sami al-Haj, accused without proof of having interviewed Osama bin Laden and to have been involved in arms trafficking for Islamic terrorists is typical of the fate suffered by many of his fellow detainees.
After a long legal battle, the Supreme Court ruled on 29 June 2006 that special military tribunals set up to try the “enemy combatants” were unconstitutional. On 28 September, Congress legalised the special courts and introduced amendments preventing prisoners from contesting their detention before being tried and banning all legal action against their jailors. On 17 October, another law authorised the recourse to torture.
The Guantanamo camp, which was converted into a prison for “enemy combatants” on 10 January 2002, received up to 770 prisoners. It now holds 395 and the US authorities plan to put between 60 and 80 of them on trial. Sami al-Haj’s lawyer Clive Stafford-Smith has been unable to tell Reporters Without Borders if his client is among them (see release of 10 January 2007).
The torture and ill-treatment inflicted on prisoners, which were exposed by an employee of the Marine Corps legal service, led to an internal investigation in October 2006. Making public his conclusions on 7 February 2007, Colonel Richard Bassett said there was “insufficient proof to support the accusations” of the witness.