Sylvain Savolainen

Reporter / Photographer

Released from the Free World

Sami Al Haj, the Al Jazeera cameraman recounts the six years of hell in Guantanamo

On May 1, 2008, Sami Al Haj, a Sudanese cameraman of Al Jazeera Channel, was released. For more than six years, he was detained and tortured in the US military camp of Guantanamo Bay. Captured while working for Al Jazeera, from December 2001 to May 2008, Sami Al Haj was illegally detained by the US army as an “enemy combatant”, initially in Afghanistan, and then in Cuba.

Sami Al Haj was the only journalist imprisoned in Guantanamo. He testifies that the US forces blackmailed him under torture to spy on Al Jazeera channel. After years of arbitrary detention and inhuman treatment, Sami Al Haj was released without any trial. The Pentagon did not comment on his release.

At the same time, on June 12, 2008, the US Supreme Court has just recognized the right of the prisoners of Guantanamo to contest the legality of their detention in federal courts under the terms of the habeas corpus legislation.

Sami Al Haj walks today with a cane, result of the mistreatment undergone during his detention. With a stuttering elocution and eyes that shine -with the light of a dawn of which the dark night is not yet completely gone-, he tells his suffering and the cause which he has adopted from now on: the defence of human rights.

The feature presents three long interviews: After six and a half years of detention, Sami Al Haj recounts the inside story of the situation lived by the prisoners in Guantanamo Bay and of the ill effects of the “war on terror”. He reports on the blackmail exerted by the American troops that wanted him to spy on Al Jazeera channel. The journalist tells of his hunger strike and how the jailers broke him down. A short time after his release, Sami Al Haj came to Geneva for a few days to meet the Office of the United Nations High Commission on human rights, diplomats, and NGOs Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International. He announced his new commitment: respect for human rights in all circumstances.

At the same time, Joanne Mariner, director of the terrorism and counter-terrorism program of Human Rights Watch, and Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, comment on, analyze and put into perspective the “war on terror” and the human rights situation in this context. An ongoing issue, as there are still 270 prisoners in Guantanamo, and according to Amnesty International, in 2007, 70,000 prisoners were held offshore by the United States, of which a good number are in secret prisons or on boats as admitted by the Pentagon.