The Sad Case of Sami al-Haj

by Kevin Jon Heller

Four detainees have committed suicide at Guantanamo Bay. Unfortunately, that number will likely soon increase to five:

Sami al-Haj, a Sudanese national, is 250 days into a hunger strike which he began in protest over his detention without charge or trial in January 2002. But British and American doctors, who have been given exclusive access to his interview notes, say there is very strong evidence that he has given up his fight for life, experiencing what doctors recognise as “passive suicide”, a condition suffered by female victims of Darfur.

Dr Dan Creson, a US psychiatrist who has worked with the United Nations in Darfur, said Mr Haj was suffering from severe depression and may be deteriorating to the point of imminent death.

He said the detainee’s condition was similar to that of Darfuri women in Sudan whose mind suddenly experiences an irreversible decline after enduring months of starvation and abuse. He said: “In the midst of rape, slow starvation, and abject humiliation, they did whatever they could to survive and save their children; then, suddenly, something happened in their psyche, and, without warning, they would just sit down with their small children beneath the first small area of available shade and with no apparent emotion wait for death.”

Any suicide at Gitmo is sad — and a powerful indictment of the inhumane conditions that reign there. But Al-Haj’s case is unique in one important respect:

He’s a journalist. A cameraman for al-Jazeera.

To be sure, that does not mean he is not a terrorist. As with so many of the detainees at Gitmo, however, the evidence against al-Haj is far from unequivocal:

For much of the last five years, the reasons surrounding al-Haj’s detention have been secret. In September 2002, CPJ wrote to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, calling on the Pentagon to detail the basis for al-Haj’s detention. CPJ received no response. Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman did not respond to requests for comment for this story.

At [Committee to Protect Journalists’] request, the Pentagon did provide declassified transcripts of hearings involving al-Haj. Those documents, along with information provided by al-Haj’s attorney, shed some light on the case.

Military officials have made what appear to be several troubling allegations against al-Haj, according to a summary of his 2004 Combatant Status Review Tribunal, a hearing to determine whether detainees were “enemy combatants,” and a transcript of his 2005 Administrative Review Board, a parole-type proceeding.

The military labels the allegations as “evidence.” But a review of the public documents shows that they are assertions of wrongdoing without the documentation or testimony normally considered by a court to be evidence. Supporting evidence, if any, is part of the U.S. military’s classified file—off-limits to the public, al-Haj, and his lawyer.

One prime allegation is that al-Haj served as a financial courier for Chechen rebels and other armed groups in the Caucuses, delivering large sums of cash from the United Arab Emirates to Azerbaijan on several occasions between 1996 and 2000. Azerbaijan was a known transfer point for arms and materiel in support of Chechen armed groups.

U.S. officials allege that al-Haj made cash deliveries on behalf of his boss at Union Beverages, Abdel Latif al-Umran, to the Baku branch of the Islamic charity Al-Haramain. Al-Umran, son of the company’s listed owner, did not respond to several requests for comment. The elder al-Umran also did not respond to messages from CPJ. Al-Haramain was not on a U.S. terrorist watch list at the time, although it was placed there after the September 11 attacks.

Al-Haj is also accused of meeting with and helping secure a visa for reputed al-Qaeda founder Mamdouh Mahmoud Salim, who was extradited to the United States on conspiracy charges stemming from the 1998 bombings of two U.S. embassies in Africa. Salim was convicted in 2004 of maiming a Manhattan corrections officer.

Military officials also say al-Haj falsified Romat International documents as a way to establish a corporation in Azerbaijan. Investigators allege Salim was affiliated with Romat, but provide no details about Salim’s role or the intent of the alleged scheme.

On their face, other accusations appear to be an indictment of al-Haj’s journalistic work. At his 2005 Administrative Review Board hearing, military officials said al-Haj had “interviewed several Taliban officials” and top al-Qaeda figure Abu Hafs al-Mauritani while in Afghanistan.

The U.S. government’s classified file could include other allegations, but such accusations, if any, have not been disclosed to the public, al-Haj, or Stafford Smith.

Not surprisingly, al-Haj’s lawyer, Clive Stafford Smith — the legal director of Reprieve, a London-based human rights group — rejects the government’s allegations:

Stafford Smith said his client did nothing wrong and has no involvement with terror groups. He said al-Haj traveled to Azerbaijan for family and business reasons, delivering money for his boss to Islamic charities on one, or possibly two occasions.

“At the time Sami didn’t know what it was for,” said Stafford Smith, who said his client acted solely on his boss’ instructions. “He thought it was going to charity.” On one occasion, when he was carrying US$220,000 to Azerbaijan, al-Haj declared the cash to customs officials, the lawyer said.

The defense lawyer said his client picked up Salim at an airport on one occasion, and drove his family around Dubai another time, both at his boss’ direction. Stafford Smith said that al-Haj helped secure a visa to the United Arab Emirates, not for Salim, but for Salim’s relatives, again at the behest of his employer.

He said that the military has disclosed so little about the corporate document allegation that he can’t respond substantively. “I really don’t know what they are saying and neither does Sami,” Stafford Smith said. “We haven’t seen anything on this. Sami has no idea and can’t respond.”

In all, he said, the accusations are pernicious because—without evidence, witnesses, or even a statement of what crime was committed—they cannot be rebutted. “It is impossible to defend against ’charges’ that are not real,” he said. “I could charge you with being unpleasant to your mother, and you would have a hard time disproving it.”

Given the well-documented failings of the CSRTs, it’s difficult to give the government the benefit of the doubt regarding any detainee. But there is even more reason to be suspicious of the government’s motives toward al-Haj, given Bush’s long-standing desire to punish al-Jazeera for having the temerity to provide an independent voice on Iraq. Indeed, nearly all of al-Haj’s interrogations have focused on al-Jazeera, not on his alleged terrorist activities:

But for Stafford Smith, the most persuasive evidence that the case is a sham is that al-Haj’s interrogators hardly seem interested in the allegations themselves. Virtually all of the roughly 130 interrogations al-Haj has been subjected to have focused on Al-Jazeera, Stafford Smith said. He said military officials have appeared intent on establishing a relationship between Al-Jazeera and al-Qaeda, questioning al-Haj about prominent network journalists, the station’s finances, and how it pays for airline tickets.

At one point, U.S. military interrogators allegedly told al-Haj that he would be released if he agreed to inform U.S. intelligence authorities about the satellite news network’s activities. Al-Haj refused. Bush administration officials have made no secret of their distaste for Al-Jazeera, repeatedly labeling its programming inflammatory and accusing the station of working with terrorists.

Maybe that’s why all of the evidence against al-Haj is classified. Perhaps the Bush administration assumes he is a terrorist not despite the fact that he works for al-Jazeera, but because he does.

10 Responses

  1. The American Committee to Free Sami Al-Haj has just launched an online petiton to U.S. Congress demanding Sami’s release and an investigation into the Bush Administration’s campaign against Al Jazeera.

  2. “Bush’s long-standing desire to punish al-Jazeera for having the temerity to provide an independent voice on Iraq.”

    Ahhh…. I think the “Bush administration” and most Western governments for that matter have legitimate objections to al-Jazeera beyond being an “independent voice” in Iraq. Most who study the ethics of journalism would agree that al-Jazeera has provided more propaganda than news regarding Al-Qaida. As evidence by the complete failure of their English speaking version, I think people in the West, not just their governments, reject al-Jazeera.

  3. I, for one, would like to have Al Jazeera provided by my cable service.

    “Most who study the ethics of journalism would agree that al-Jazeera has provided more propaganda than news regarding Al-Qaida.”–I doubt that, and thus would welcome the empirical evidence that supports this claim.

    “people in the West”–a rather grandiose generalization that is truly uninformative

    Incidentally, much of the ideologically motivated when not hysterical criticism of Al Jazeera might be tempered (or put in perspective) by a contextual (political, historical, socio-economic, cultural, etc.) comparison that relies on familiarity with the research, discussion and arguments found in the following:

    Alterman, Eric. Sound and Fury: The Washington Punditocracy and the Collapse of American Politics. New York: HarperCollins, 1992.

    Bagdikian, Ben H. The Media Monopoly. Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 6th ed., 2000.

    Bagdikian, Ben H. The New Media Monopoly. Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 2004.

    Eickelman, Dale F. and Jon W. Anderson, eds. New Media in the Muslim World: The Emerging Public Sphere. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2nd ed., 2003.

    Herman, Edward S. and Noam Chomsky. Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media. New York: Pantheon Books, 1988.

    Kamalipour, Yahya R. and Hamid Mowlana, eds. Mass Media in the Middle East: A Comprehensive Handbook. Westport, CT: Greenwood Publ., 1994.

    Lynch, Marc. Voices of the New Arab Public: Iraq, al-Jazeera, and Middle East Politics Today. New York: Columbia University Press, 2006.

    McChesney, Robert W. Rich Media, Poor Democracy: Communication Politics in Dubious Times. New York: The New Press, 1999.

    Miles, Hugh. Al-Jazeera: The Inside Story of the Arab News Channel that is Challenging the West. New York: Grove Press, 2005.

    Mowlana, Hamid, George Gerbner and Herbert I. Schiller, eds. Triumph of the Image: The Media’s War in the Persian Gulf—A Global Perspective. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1992.

    Said, Edward W. Covering Islam: how the media and the experts determine how we see the rest of the world. New York: Vintage, revised ed., 1997.

    Shaheen, Jack G. Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People. New York: Olive Branch Press, 2001.

    Shaheen, Jack G. Guilty: Holywood’s Verdict on Arabs after 9/11. New York: Olive Branch Press, 2007.

    Zayani, Mohamed, ed. The Al Jazeera Phenomenon: Critical Perspectives on New Arab Media. Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers, 2005.

  4. Patrick,

    I want to understand where you are coming from, but first I want to see if we can agree on a few basic facts rather than citing a bunch of books that neither of us have time to read. True or false — Al Jazeera’s English speaking version is not doing well in the West. I know you play the “what’s the West card” so the West = the US and Western Europe. Also “not doing well” means nobody wants to watch it.

    If true, doesn’t that provide rather convincing evidence that “the West” has a more fundamental dispute with Al-Jazeera than those manifest by the Bush administration. It seems to me that people are voting with their feet so to say.

    Second question, true or false, Al Jazeera is similar to Fox News in that it relatively unapologetically presents a side of the news based on a certain world view. In contrast, and by way of comparison, CNN may be bias, but the bias are not part of the raison d’etre of the channel. True of false? If false, walk me through how you distinguish Fox and Al-Jazeera.

  5. Speak for yourself when it comes to reading, as I see the above list as representative of the kind of literature one should know if one is to make pronouncements about media like Al Jazeera.

    Al Jazeera’s “English speaking version” has not had a reasonable chance to do well “in the West” because the powers-that-be (although they have appropriated the power to speak for the masses, are not its elected representatives or spokespersons) have not accorded it that chance. There’s no voting whatsoever (that power having been abrogated), as virtually no one, in this country at any rate, has had the opportunity to view Al-Jazeera for any meaningful length of time….

    I do not see see Al-Jazeera as anything remotely like Fox News, and CNN by my lights is not that different from the former in many respects, although I can at least watch the latter for a short span of time without getting so angry I want to destroy the television set. Al Jazeera has posted a code of ethics that it endeavors to adhere to and what limited viewing I’ve had access to via its website and snippets of coverage here and there I would say that it does a decent job of abiding by this code. Fox News, on the other hand, strikes me as unabashedly propagandistic in the sense that it is “an organized attempt through communication to affect belief or action or inculcate attitudes in a large audience in ways that circumvent or suppress and individual’s adequately informed, rational, reflective judgment.” (Randal Marlin’s definition from his Propaganda and the Ethics of Persuasion, 2002). It’s a tool and toady of Neo-Conservative and Libertarian Social Darwinians, according some time to demagogic populism by way of mass media’s provision of bread and circuses for the hoi polloi.

    That Al Jazeera allows for or provides perspectives, points of view, and opinions not routinely or rarely heard in mainstream Western media does not mean that it subscribes to some pernicious propagandastic worldview or ideology (if there is such, I’ll be damned if I’ve been able to identify it).

    If you read some of the books above I won’t have to walk you through anything as you’ll come to see (in that best of all possible worlds) for yourself how best to distinguish Fox News from Al Jazeera.

  6. Two things:

    First Al Haj was captured in late 2001 or early 2002 so I doubt the President’s supposed prejudice against Al Jazeera’s Iraq coverage has anything to do with the reason why Al Haj was captured.

    Secondly, how is it that “Dr” Creson can judge al Haj’s psychological state when he has never even seen al Haj let alone interviewed him. Creson could only have come up with his opinions from reading al Haj’s letters and/or speaking with al Haj’s lawyer, Clive Stafford Smith. Smith has obvious biases not the least of which is the fact that he believes that NO ONE should be punished for a crime that they commit no matter what the crime was.

  7. Dale,

    1. I never said Bush’s prejudice against al-Jazeera explains al-Haj’s capture. I said it explains his subsequent interviews and suspicious treatment by the CSRT. Both have largely taken place post-invasion of Iraq.

    2. This is one of my favorite arguments: “you can’t have an opinion on anything related to Gitmo, because we have prevented you from seeing what’s going on there.” It’s the same argument we always hear from the Bush administration about criticisms of detainee treatment: “how do you know things are bad if we have banned you from visiting?” Priceless.


  8. Three things Dale:

    1. I’m quite sure Dr. Creson (why the scare quotes?) would be the first to admit the paucity of evidence from which he made inferences about Sami al-Haj’s psychological state, for he was no doubt denied the sort of access and time with Haj that would have allowed for inferences better grounded in psychological evidence as recognized by the good doctor’s profession. You can hardly blame him for the legal and political circumstances that preclude him from practicing psychiatry in the optimal manner in which he and his colleagues have been trained.

    2. You appear bent on proving to us that you’re adept at libel and slander, as there’s no basis whatsoever for attributing to Clive Stafford Smith the belief “that NO ONE should be punished for a crime that they commit no matter what the crime was.” What you might have said instead was that he is opposed in principle to capital punishment, believes in the legal and ethical necessity of due process, and is committed to helping defendants who are poor and hence routinely denied adequate (i.e., competent and diligent) representation. See, for example, Andrew Perlman’s posts of August 21, 26, and September 1, 2007, over at the Legal Ethics Forum blog:

    No doubt you’re well acquainted with Gideon v. Wainwright, 327 U.S. 335 (1963), which held that the Sixth Amendment, as applied to the states by the Fourteenth Amendment, required that counsel be appointed to represent indigent defendants charged with serious offenses in state criminal trials (and later widened in scope). One line of cases related to Gideon focuses on the fact that the right to counsel implies the right to effective counsel and thus endeavors to set standards for determining when this right has been denied. This helps explain Stafford Smith’s legal focus in this country, while the earlier facts account for some of the reasons behind his work on behalf of Reprieve UK, which he founded in 1999.

    3. I think it is therefore safe to conclude that egregious prejudice and overweening bias has prevented you from making a meaningful comment to an important post.

  9. Patrick,

    Sorry I don’t have as much time as you. Maybe I can catch one of your classes at the learning annex. 🙂

    On the topic of competence, since you don’t watch more “than a snipet” of Al Jazeera, how do you come to the opinion that it is so distinct from the boys over at Fox News.

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