Reporters Without Borders secretary-general Robert Ménard pledged to keep pressing the US government to release detained Al-Jazeera assistant cameraman Sami Al-Haj when he met with Al-Haj’s brother, Asim Al-Haj, sister, Wafa Al-Haj, and cousin, Hoyam Abdel-Atti, in the Sudanese capital of Khartoum on 19 March.
A Sudanese national, Al-Haj was arrested by the Pakistani armed forces on the Afghan border in December 2001. He has been held by the US military at its Guantanamo Bay base in Cuba since 13 June 2002.
During a 30-minute meeting at the headquarters of the Khartoum Centre for Human Rights and Environmental Development (KCHRE), Ménard assured the family that Reporters Without Borders would continue to wage an active campaign for his release. He asked them if they had any news of him and promised to relay any appeal they would like to make for his release.
After thanking Sudanese and international press freedom organisations for campaigning on his behalf, the relatives voiced concern about his health, especially as a result of the hunger strike he began on 7 January. He now has difficulty in standing. They have had extremely infrequent contacts with him and the news from Guantanamo is “very disturbing,” his brother said. In all, the family has received only six letters from him, which were passed on by the Red Cross. One of the letters took two years to reach them.
The relatives appealed to the United Nations, in particular, to the Human Rights Council, to help obtain Al-Haj’s release. His sister said the emir of Qatar had promised to intercede on his behalf. She also appealed to the US authorities to recognise that “Sami Al-Haj is innocent, that he was in Afghanistan as a journalist.”
She said the family was financially dependent on him and his only son “asks after him a great deal.” Addressing the US authorities, his brother said: “If you have no serious charges to bring against my brother, why do you maintain this crushing secrecy about his case?”
Reporters Without Borders established a system of sponsorship 16 years ago in which international media are encouraged to adopt imprisoned journalists. More than 200 news organisations, journalists’ associations, press clubs and other entities throughout the world are currently supporting journalists by regularly calling on the authorities to release them and by publicising their cases.
Al-Haj has been adopted by four Spanish media organisations - La Sexta, IPS-Comunica, La Voz del Occidente and Colexio de Xornalistas de Galicia - and six Canadian ones - Corriere Canadese, Atlas media, Magazine de Saint-Lambert, Mouton Noir, CIBL and Radio Canada Sudbury.
Video of the meeting
Robert Ménard meets Asim Al-Haj, Wafa Al-Haj and Hoyam Abdel-Atti in Khartoum on 19 March 2007