Today, on the first day of Ramadan, Reporters Without Borders reiterates its appeal to the US authorities to free Al-Jazeera cameraman Sami Al-Haj, a Sudanese national who has been held at the US military base at Guantanamo, Cuba, since 13 June 2002 without being tried and without any precise charges being brought against him.
Al-Haj has tried to stage several hunger strikes since January and his physical and psychological condition has deteriorated a great deal. His lawyer, Clive Stafford-Smith, is due to travel to Guantanamo on 26 September.
“Ramadan is traditionally the month of self-denial and forgiveness and for the individual to confront his own humanity, but how much humanity remains when someone is detained arbitrarily and deprived of all contact with his family for more than five years?” Reporters Without Borders asked. “And what remains of the rule of law, when a prisoner is denied a fair trial, denied treatment and tortured? The Al-Haj case is a legal scandal, as is the Guantanamo prison camp itself.”
The press freedom organisation added: “Together with the International Committee for the Release of Sami Al-Haj, we call on the United States to free him immediately. We also urge the US congress, where the camp’s existence is increasingly criticised, to press for his release. And we call on the US federal courts, which have ruled that it is unconstitutional to try the Guantanamo ‘enemy combatants’ before military tribunals, to impose their decisions.”
Arrested at the Afghan border by the Pakistani security forces in December 2001, Al-Haj was handed over to the US army a month later and flown to Guantanamo on 13 June 2002. The US army claimed he secretly interviewed Osama Bin Laden, trafficked in arms for Al-Qaeda and ran an Islamist website. But no evidence has ever been produced to support these claims and no formal charge has ever been brought. In reality, Al-Haj’s detention is way for the US State Department to harass his employer, Al-Jazeera, which it suspects of ties with Al-Qaeda.
Regularly tortured and interrogated about 200 times by his guards, Al-Haj began a hunger strike on 7 January to protest against his detention and to demand respect for his rights. In reprisal, he has been force-fed several times. His lawyer, Stafford-Smith, who last visited him in July, said he had lost 18 kilos and had serious intestinal problems. He also has paranoia attacks and has more and more difficulty in communicating normally. Stafford-Smith suspects he will encounter more hostility and censorship from the camp authorities when he returns at the end of the month.
Nine of the 380 persons currently held in Guantanamo are Sudanese. The Khartoum-based daily Al-Sahafa reported on 11 September that the US government is on the point of freeing two them and that talks are under way about the other seven, including Al-Haj. A recent US government memo to the Sudanese authorities set conditions for their possible release. In Al-Haj’s case, the Americans want him banned from leaving Sudan and from working as journalist.
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.