Sami al-Haj, an Al Jazeera cameraman, was beaten, abused and humiliated in the name of the war on terror. He tells our correspondent about his struggle to rebuild a shattered life
The Independent, Thursday, 25 September 2008
Sami al-Haj walks with pain on his steel crutch; almost six years in the nightmare of Guantanamo have taken their toll on the Al Jazeera journalist and, now in the safety of a hotel in the small Norwegian town of Lillehammer, he is a figure of both dignity and shame. The Americans told him they were sorry when they eventually freed him this year – after the beatings he says he suffered, and the force-feeding, the humiliations and interrogations by British, American and Canadian intelligence officers – and now he hopes one day he’ll be able to walk without his stick.
The TV cameraman, 38, was never charged with any crime, nor was he put on trial; his testimony makes it clear that he was held in three prisons for six-and-a-half years – repeatedly beaten and force-fed – not because he was a suspected “terrorist” but because he refused to become an American spy. From the moment Sami al-Haj arrived at Guantanamo, flown there from the brutal US prison camp at Kandahar, his captors demanded that he work for them. The cruelty visited upon him – constantly interrupted by American admissions of his innocence – seemed designed to turnal-Haj into a US intelligence “asset”.
“We know you are innocent, you are here by mistake,” he says he was told in more than 200 interrogations. “All they wanted was for me to be a spy for them. They said they would give me US citizenship, that my wife and child could live in America, that they would protect me. But I said: ‘I will not do this – first of all because I’m a journalist and this is not my job and because I fear for myself and my family. In war, I can be wounded and I can die or survive. But if I work with you, al-Qa’ida will eliminate me. And if I don’t work with you, you will kill me’.”
The grotesque saga began for al-Haj on 15 December, 2001, when he was on his way from the Pakistani capital Islamabad to Kandahar in Afghanistan with Sadah al-Haq, a fellow correspondent from the Arab satellite TV channel, to cover the new regional government. At least 70 other journalists were on their way through the Pakistani border post at Chaman, but an officer stopped al-Haj. “He told me there was a paper from the Pakistani intelligence service for my arrest. My name was misspelled, my passport number was incorrect, it said I was born in 1964 – the right date is 1969. I said I had renewed my visa in Islamabad and asked why, if I was wanted, they had not arrested me there?”
Sami al-Haj speaks slowly and with care, each detail of his suffering and of others’ suffering of equal importance to him. He still cannot believe that he is free, able to attend a conference in Norway, to return to his new job as news producer at Al Jazeera, to live once more with his Azeri wife Asma and their eight-year old son Mohamed; when Sami al-Haj disappeared down the black hole of America’s secret prisons the boy was only 14 months’ old.
Al-Haj’s story has a familiar ring to anyone who has investigated the rendition of prisoners from Pakistan to US bases in Afghanistan and Guantanamo. His aircraft flew for an hour and a half and then landed to collect more captives – this may have been in Islamabad, the Pakistani capital – before flying on to the big American base at Bagram.
“We arrived in the early hours of the morning and they took the shackles off our feet and pushed us out of the plane. They hit me and pushed me down on the asphalt. We heard screams and dogs barking. I collapsed with my right leg under me, and I felt the ligaments tearing. When I fell, the soldiers started treading on me. First, they walked on my back, then – when they saw me looking at my leg – they started kicking my leg. One soldier shouted at me: ‘Why did you come to fight Americans?’ I had a number – I was No 35 and this is how they addressed me, as a number – and the first American shouted at me: ‘You filmed Bin Laden.’ I said I did not film Bin Laden but that I was a journalist. I again gave my name, my age, my nationality.”
After 16 days at Bagram, another aircraft took him to the US base at Kandahar where on arrival the prisoners were again made to lie on the ground. “We were cursed – they said ‘fuck your mother’ – and again the Americans walked on our backs. Why? Why did they do this? I was taken to a tent and stripped and they pulled hairs out of my beard. They photographed the pupils of my eyes. A doctor found blood on my back and asked me why it was there. I asked him how he thought it was there?”
The same dreary round of interrogations recommenced – he was now “Prisoner No 448″ – and yet again, al-Haj says he was told he was being held by mistake. “Then another man – he was in civilian clothes and I think he was from Egyptian intelligence – wanted to know who was the “leader” of the detainees who was with me. The Americans asked: ‘Who is the most respected of the prisoners? Who killed [Ahmed Shah] Massoud ([the leader of the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance Afghan militia]?’ I said this was not my business and an American soldier said: ‘Co-operate with us, and you will be released.’ They meant I had to work for them. There was another man who spoke perfect English. I thought he was British. He was young, good-looking, about 35-years-old, no moustache, blond hair, very polite in a white shirt, no tie. He brought me chocolate – it was Kit Kat—and I was so hungry I could have eaten the wrapping.”
On 13 June, al-Haj was put on board a jet aircraft. He was given yet another prison number – No 345 – and once more his head was covered with a black bag. He was forced to take two tablets before he was gagged and his bag replaced by goggles with the eye-pieces painted black. The flight to Guantanamo took 12 to 14 hours.
“They took us on a boat from the Guantanamo runways to the prison, a journey that took an hour.” Al-Haj was escorted to a medical clinic and then at once to another interrogation. “They said they’d compared my answers with my original statement and one of them said: ‘You are here by mistake. You will be released. You will be the first to be released.’ They gave me a picture of my son, which had been taken from my wallet. They asked me if I needed anything. I asked for books. One said he had a copy of One Thousand and One Nights in Arabic. He copied it for me. During this interview, they asked me: ‘Why did you talk to the British intelligence man so much in Kandahar?’ I said I didn’t know if he was from British intelligence. They said he was.