The Sad Case of Sami al-Haj
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.