THE BLOG

A Letter from Guantánamo (By Al-Jazeera Cameraman Sami al-Haj)

05/25/2011 12:20 pm ET

Yesterday, the Associated Press reported on a letter from Guantánamo written by Al-Jazeera cameraman Sami al-Haj. The letter was dated December 27, 2007, and had just been declassified by the Pentagon's censors. It was translated from the Arabic by his lawyers at the London-based legal charity Reprieve, which represents dozens of the Guantánamo detainees.

Mr. al-Haj was captured by Pakistani forces, acting on behalf of the United States, in December 2001, as he prepared to resume the Arabic TV station's coverage of Afghanistan with the rest of his team. As Clive Stafford Smith, Reprieve's legal director, explained after visiting him at Guantánamo last September, he was seized "because the U.S. thought he had filmed Al-Jazeera's famous [Osama] bin Laden interview. As has so often been the case of late, the U.S. was wrong (though name me a journalist who would turn down a bin Laden scoop)."

In Guantánamo, Mr. al-Haj has been subjected to an extraordinary array of vague allegations for which the administration has failed to provide any evidence. At his administrative review in September 2006, it was alleged that he had transported $220,000 to Azerbaijan "for what he was told was told was a humanitarian mission which instead was destined for Chechen rebels," and that, when he worked for a company called the Union Beverage Company, he "interacted with the individual in charge of distribution of juice in Azerbaijan," who "was under investigation for possible ties to terrorism."

Referring to his first assignment in Afghanistan with Al-Jazeera, the authorities also decided that interviews allegedly conducted by Mr. al-Haj and a co-worker with "the Treasury Minister of the Taliban, the Minister of Electricity, and the Minister of Foreign Affairs," and with "a man who identified himself as a member of the al-Qaeda (sic)" constituted a connection or an association with terrorism. Throughout his detention, other claims -- including an allegation that he "arranged for the transport of a Stinger anti-aircraft system from Afghanistan to Chechnya" -- have been dropped from the "evidence" against him.

Confirming that these allegations are nothing more than a smokescreen, the authorities in Guantánamo have focused almost exclusively on Mr. al-Haj's association with Al-Jazeera. In an interview with Democracy Now on January 15, his younger brother, Asim, spoke to Amy Goodman from Khartoum, and explained that his brother is "a victim of a political operation against Al-Jazeera, which Washington does not approve of." He added that, in the 130 interrogations to which he has been subjected in Guantánamo, the questions "were all about Al-Jazeera and alleged relations between Al-Jazeera and al-Qaeda. They tried to induce him to work as a spy for American intelligence in return for U.S. citizenship for him and for his family and to help him even write a book, on the condition that he would spy on his colleagues at Al-Jazeera."

In Guantánamo, Mr. al-Haj has been a tireless campaigner for justice. He has been prominent in campaigns demanding that the detainees be freed or subjected to a fair trial, and has provided detailed information (declassified by the Pentagon) about his fellow detainees, and about the various hunger strikes that have plagued the administration.

As a result of his principled stand, Mr. al-Haj is regarded with particular suspicion by the authorities, and has been subjected to appalling treatment over the years. In despair at the treatment not only of himself, but also of all the other detainees, he embarked on a hunger strike on January 7, 2007, and has now gone without food for 376 days. The authorities' response to the hunger strikes has been brutal, as Clive Stafford Smith explained in October. "Medical ethics tell us that you cannot force-feed a mentally competent hunger striker, as he has the right to complain about his mistreatment, even unto death," Stafford Smith wrote in the Los Angeles Times. "But the Pentagon knows that a prisoner starving himself to death would be abysmal PR, so they force-feed Sami. As if that were not enough, when Gen. Bantz J. Craddock headed up the U.S. Southern Command, he announced that soldiers had started making hunger strikes less 'convenient.' Rather than leave a feeding tube in place, they insert and remove it twice a day. Have you ever pushed a 43-inch tube up your nostril and down into your throat? Tonight, Sami will suffer that for the 479th time."

Stafford Smith also noted a serious decline in his client's mental and physical health, and is worried that he may die in Guantánamo. "Sami looked very thin," he wrote in October. "His memory is disintegrating, and I worry that he won't survive if he keeps this up. He already wrote a message for his 7-year-old son, Mohammed, in case he dies here." On Democracy Now, his brother added, "If Sami dies, who will be responsible for this? If we were to file suit, that would be against whom? The most difficult thing for a human being is to be subject to injustice against which you cannot do anything, for yourself or for in support of others."

In the hope of providing a small gesture to keep the plight of Sami al-Haj in the public eye, I reproduce the full text of his letter below.

Sami al-Haj's letter from Guantánamo, December 27, 2007

It is with great pleasure that I pass on my warmest greetings and gratitude for all your efforts in regards to the case of the prisoners in Guantánamo Bay. Also I would like to pass on our wishes for the New Year and asking God to make it a successful and prosperous one.

As for our news, we remain here for more than six years, and we still seek to proclaim truth, freedom and world peace.

All of this takes place in a world which knows what is happening but remains silent and does little more than watch this sorry theatre.

By now, surely everyone knows that truth. The U.S. was the country that prided itself by bringing peace; now, sadly, instead it rains down violence and discord. Guantánamo is the most obvious example of this.

We prisoners entered Guantánamo alive, many have left it alive, and some of us remain in it, seemingly alive ourselves. However, those who remain die every second of every day that we are here. Each of us suffers new physical pain, and our injured hearts suffer from a psychological pain that can not be described.

All of this happens and the world remains silent. And, as it has been written, it is true of us:

I am alive and will listen if you call
But there will soon be no life for us who you call;
And if you blew at the embers now they would light up
But wait and you will find that you blow into ashes

Sami al-Haj

For further information about Sami al-Haj, and about the hunger strikes at Guantánamo, see my book The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America's Illegal Prison.