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Life after guantanamo

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by… Gamal Nkrumah

Gamal Nkrumah traces the triumph of human dignity embodied by the struggle of a Sudanese cameraman's affliction


The ordeal of Al-Jazeera cameraman Sami Al- Haj has touched the Arab world. He has become an iconic figure and his release has demonstrated to all and sundry that the world's most powerful nation has committed a terrible blunder. Al-Haj was a professional media worker with no proven connections with Al-Qaeda. He was not put on trial and neither was he charged. Yet he languished in Guantanamo Bay, was tortured and nearly lost his life. The administration of United States President George W Bush cannot admit that, of course.

Al-Haj's brother Assem told Al-Ahram Weekly, "Sami is in high spirits, his morale is high even though his health is poor. He needs time to rest and recuperate to regain his strength. He has started to drink fluids, but it will take some time for him to eat solid food. It always takes time to recover from a shock, and Sami's was a shocking experience."

Sami Al-Haj is a familiar face to viewers of Al-Jazeera, the Arab world's most popular and influential satellite television channel. The outpouring of solidarity and congratulatory messages was overwhelming.

His is a complicated saga, with dramatic twists which took place in countries as far afield as East Africa, the Caucuses, the Arabian Gulf, South and Central Asia. By all accounts Al-Haj was driven by a determination to succeed in his chosen profession. He earned his keep through effort and ingenuity.

When few at Al-Jazeera wished to risk a stint in Afghanistan, Al-Haj jumped at the opportunity. His colleagues warned him that he was courting disaster. However, while being a journalist in Afghanistan was no picnic, his tribulations began in earnest when he was kidnapped and made to languish first in Kandahar and then in the infamous Guantanamo Bay.

"His memory is exceptionally sharp. He remembers minute details and in particular the worst moments of his prison experience in Guantanamo," Al-Jazeera's bureau chief in Sudan Al-Kabbabshi told the Weekly.

Images of Sami Al-Haj embracing his eight- year-old son, Mohamed, were intensely moving. His wife, Asma, an Azerbaijani national, stood by her husband throughout their ordeal.

On 15 December 2001, Al-Haj was arrested by Pakistani security forces at the Chaman crossing point, on the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan. He was detained along with Al-Jazeera reporter Abdel-Haq Sadah.

On 23 January 2002, the US military transferred Al-Haj to Kandahar and on 13 June, he was shipped to Guantanamo Bay.

Al-Haj says that he was deprived of sleep, and that he was subjected to cruel interrogation techniques. He suffers from rheumatism among other ailments but was denied medication and medical attention. During the past 16 months he went on a hunger strike in protest at his illegal detention. And, he says that he was force-fed by intravenous means.

Al-Haj's case highlights the flawed justice system at Guantanamo. The Military Commission's building at Guantanamo has emerged as a symbol of lawlessness and war crimes, where torture was the order of the day even for those who faced no charges of terrorism, material support or any other connection to Al-Qaeda or the Taliban. Another outrage is the ad hoc nature of military commissions there. Any suspects under US law should have recourse to federal courts. As for his day-to-day existence, Al- Haj endured the indignity of being confined to an eight by seven foot detention cell.

For better or for worse, at one point Al-Qaeda leader and Saudi dissident Osama bin Laden called for Al-Haj's release in a taped message. Bin Laden's plea in all probability did not serve Al-Haj's cause.

He was accused of supporting Chechen separatist fighters via Azerbaijan. Azerbaijan was a transfer hub of arms for Chechen armed opposition groups. The fact that his wife is Azeri aroused the suspicions of his American captors.

Al-Haj's family paid a terrible price for his professionalism. They will have to deal with those frustrations head-on. Psychologically traumatised, his faith kept him alive. Nearly seven years of incarceration in inhuman conditions, subjected to physical and psychological torture, it is a miracle that he retained his sanity. Al-Haj was severely beaten by US troops who had apparently confused him with another similarly named cameraman. Unjustly called an "enemy combatant" it is not entirely clear at this point whether Al-Jazeera, or Al-Haj and his family would sue the US government.

The question of the release of other innocent inmates at Guantanamo has now taken on a new urgency, a new stridency. To stay unassailable, the US has got to do much to improve its tarnished image. Some of this was sour grapes. The question of the release of other innocent inmates at Guantanamo has now taken on a new urgency, a new stridency. The US, too, has its fragilities. And, its brand of democracy is not as flawless as its lawmakers would have us believe.

The other point for the US ought to be the battle for the hearts and minds of people around the world. Al-Haj's adversity at the hands of the Americans will certainly not endear it to Arabs and Muslims around the world. At this point true believers raise the contentious issue of America's claims to the moral upper hand.

Guantanamo cannot be erased from history. The horrific legacy of imprisoning innocent media workers without trial ought not to go unpunished. Those responsible for the horrors of Guantanamo must be brought to book. This is a question that the entire Arab and Muslim worlds are pondering. Passions and tempers are running high.

The new US president will have to undo his or her bumbling predecessor's mistakes. Al-Haj was anything but an Al-Qaeda-minded suicide bomber and jihadist. Militant Islamism, though hardly eradicated, has calmed down markedly in many Muslim nations, no thanks to the so- called war on terror.

Washington has failed to grasp this nettle. Most visibly, recent years have seen a return to the use of brute force as an instrument of US foreign policy, and to the advance of perceived American interests abroad.

The much-touted military might of the US does not give Washington the excuse to terrorise Muslims, as Al-Haj so eloquently put it. This is a most opportune pause for reflection. The American people, and not just Al-Jazeera's Arab audience, ought to contemplate the implications of the unjust detention and torture of an innocent man. It is shameful and regretful that Al-Haj's release merited such little attention by the Western media.

Did Al-Haj get what he wanted? Yes, and no. To top it all, if a white, non-Muslim Westerner were in similar straights, there would have been no end to incessant pleas for their release. Indeed, scandalous silence surrounded the incarceration of several Muslims of Western nations at Guantanamo. To cut a long story short, Pax-American is not infallible.

"Security and human rights are inseparable issues," Al-Haj said upon his release. "Human rights are not only for times of peace," he added. Al-Haj expressed his effusive appreciation of the support and affection of his well-wishers.

"My message to the US administration is that torture will not stop terrorism — torture is terrorism."

Al-Haj is a free man. But whether he really got all he wanted is hard to say. And yet as the festivities celebrating his return to his native Sudan died down, it is widely anticipated that Al- Haj will lodge formal complaints. Yet the release of Al-Haj is still a step forward. It is a chance to stem the tide of chaos and to beat back the wave of anti-Islamic hysteria in the West.

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