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United States12 June 2007

Sudanese cameraman Sami Al-Haj begins sixth year in Guantanamo

The detention of Al-Jazeera assistant cameraman Sami Al-Haj, who tomorrow begins his sixth year without charge or trial in the US military base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, is “unconstitutional and contrary to international law,” Reporters Without Borders said today, describing the detention centre as “one the biggest legal and humanitarian scandals of recent years” and reiterating its call for its closure.

Al-Haj is from Sudan, where the press freedom organisation met his family during a visit to the country in March (see release of 28 March, and accompanying video of the meeting).

“How does the US government dare to lecture other countries about human rights when it does not respect them itself and flouts its own constitutional principles?” Reporters Without Borders asked. “The supreme court has ruled twice that holding ‘enemy combatants’ in Guantanamo is unconstitutional. On 7 June, the senate judicial committee came out in favour of ‘restoring’ habeas corpus for these prisoners, meaning they should appear before civilian and not military courts.”

The press freedom organisation added: “Finally, a federal appeal court, ruling on the case of an individual held in South Carolina, pointed out on 11 June that the president does not have the power to order the armed forces to arrest and hold people indefinitely. US law and jurisprudence require that Al-Haj be set free.”

The Pakistani security forces arrested Al-Haj at the Afghan border in December 2001. Although he had just been doing his job as a journalist, he was accused without any proof of being in the pay of Al-Qaeda and was handed over on 7 June 2002 to the US military, who transferred him to Guantanamo on 13 June 2002. Since then, no charges of any kind have been brought against him.

Mistreatment, torture and denial of contact with his family have been Al-Haj’s lot for five years. According to the latest news provided by his lawyer, Clive Stafford-Smith (who was himself threatened by the camp authorities at one point), Al-Haj tried to assert his rights and began a hunger strike in January (see release of 6 March 2007). Camp guards force-fed him in reprisal.

Petitioned by lawyers representing the camp’s 380 detainees, the supreme court has twice ruled that their detention and proposed trial by military tribunal are unconstitutional. A bill guaranteeing the application of constitutional rights to the alleged “enemy combatants” in Guantanamo was endorsed by the senate judicial committee on 7 June. It will now go before congress for a debate and vote.

The federal government meanwhile continues to insist that US laws do not apply to those not held on US soil, although Guantanamo Bay is territory under full US control.

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.

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