Reporters Without Borders voiced “deep concern” today about Sudanese cameraman Sami Al-Haj, a Guantanamo detainee since June 2002, whose lawyer, Clive Stafford Smith, said yesterday after recovering his notes from US military censors that his client’s health has worsened considerably in recent days. Referring to the death of four prisoners in just over a year, Al-Haj told him he feared for his survival.
“We strongly condemn the reprisals applied to Al-Haj and other prisoners for choosing to go on hunger strike,” the press freedom organisation said. “We do not encourage them to pursue this desperate course, but the US military does not have the right to feed them by force. It is also unacceptable that interviews between lawyers and their clients in Guantanamo are monitored and censored. We hope Al-Haj will finally be released and his constitutional rights will be guaranteed.”
Stafford Smith saw his client in Guantanamo in early July but his notes were not returned to him until last week and they came with many deletions. He said in a statement that Al-Haj was suffered from intestinal problems and has lost 18 kilos since beginning his hunger strike last December. This was disputed by Guantanamo spokesman Rick Haupt, who said Al-Haj’s weight was “ideal.”
Stafford Smith said his client’s mental condition had also worsened. He said Al-Haj had difficulty concentrating and expressing himself in English when they met. He was also very anxious and subject to paranoia attacks, and feared dying if his situation does not improve.
“Sami Al-Haj asks for just one thing, to be granted a fair trial and to be released,” Stafford-Smith said in a message to Reporters Without Borders. “But the US military are just as determined to deny him this right. When I saw him recently, he was in a bad physical and mental condition and was talking of his death. It is now more urgent than ever that he should be freed.”
Al-Haj told his lawyer that the conditions in which he was being held had become much worse and the guards often punished the hunger-strikers by, for example, putting them in more painful chains. “I never caused the military any problems, but they punish me over time.”
He also told Stafford Smith that often-inexperienced “nurses” inflicted injuries on the detainees during force-feeding by using large-diameter tubes or by inserting them into the lungs instead of the stomach.
Haupt insisted that, thanks to the medical team’s efforts, none of the hunger-strikers was in danger of dying. But Al-Haj said the doctors were useless and have not granted any of his requests. “We have more confidence in the guards than the doctors, who have not done anything for our health,” he said. Four prisoners have died in Guantanamo since June 2006 as a result of hunger-strikes and force-feeding.
A Sudanese newspaper recently reported that the US authorities planned to release Al-Haj soon, but Stafford Smith said the Sudanese government has advised his family to pay no attention to these “rumours.”
Aged 38 and the father of a small boy, Al-Haj was working as an assistant cameraman for the Qatar-based TV station Al-Jazeera when he was arrested by Pakistani security forces at the Afghan border in December 2001 and was handed over to the US military six months later. No charges have ever been brought against him.