Sami's Shame, And Ours
By Nicholas D. Kristoff
The New York Times
October 17, 2006
There is no public evidence that Sami al-Hajj committed any crime other than journalism for a television network the Bush administration doesn't like.
But the U.S. has been holding Mr. Hajj, a cameraman for Al Jazeera, for nearly five years without trial, mostly at Guantanamo Bay. With the jailing of Mr. Hajj and of four journalists in Iraq, the U.S. ranked No. 6 in the world in the number of journalists it imprisoned last year, just behind Uzbekistan and tied with Burma, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.
This week, President Bush is expected to sign the Military Commissions Act concerning prisoners at Guantanamo, and he has hailed the law as ''a strong signal to the terrorists.'' But the closer you look at Guantanamo the more you feel that it will be remembered mostly as a national disgrace.
Mr. Hajj is the only journalist known to be there, and, of course, it's possible that he is guilty of terrorist-related crimes. If so, he should be tried, convicted and sentenced.
But so far, the evidence turned up by his lawyers and by the Committee to Protect Journalists -- which published an excellent report on Mr. Hajj's case this month -- suggests that the U.S. military may be keeping him in hopes of forcing him to become a spy.
Mr. Hajj, 37, who attended university and speaks English, joined Al Jazeera as a cameraman in April 2000 and covered the war in Afghanistan. He was detained on Dec. 15, 2001, and taken to the American military prison in Bagram, Afghanistan.
''They were the longest days of my life,'' Mr. Hajj's lawyers quoted him as saying. He told them he was repeatedly beaten, kicked, starved, left out in the freezing cold and subjected to anal cavity searches in public ''just to humiliate me.''
In June 2002, Mr. Hajj was flown to Guantanamo, where he says the beatings initially were brutal but have since subsided somewhat.
At first, interrogators said Mr. Hajj had shot video of Osama bin Laden during an Al Jazeera interview, but it turned out that they may have mixed him up with another cameraman of a similar name. When that assertion fell apart, the authorities offered accusations that he had ferried a large sum of money to a suspicious Islamic charity, that he had supported Chechen rebels, and that he had once given a car ride and other assistance to an official of Al Qaeda.
One indication that even our government may not take those accusations so seriously is that the interrogations barely touched on them, Mr. Hajj's lawyers say.
''About 95 percent of the interrogations he went through were about Al Jazeera,'' said one of the lawyers, Zachary Katznelson of London. ''Sami would say, 'What about me? Will you ask about me?' ''
He added, ''It really does seem that the focus of the inquiry is about his employer, Al Jazeera, and not about him or any actions he may have taken.''
Mr. Katznelson also says that interrogators told Mr. Hajj they would free him immediately if he would agree to go back to Al Jazeera and spy on it. He once asked what would happen if he backed out of the deal after he was free.
''You would not do that,'' Mr. Hajj quoted his interrogator as saying, ''because it would endanger your child.''
The Defense Department declined to comment on Mr. Hajj's case, saying that in general, it does not comment on specific detainees at Guantanamo.
While Mr. Hajj is unknown in the U.S., his case has received wide attention in the Arab world. The Bush administration is thus doing long-term damage to American interests.
Mr. Hajj's lawyers say he has two torn ligaments in his knee from abuse in his first weeks in custody, making it exceptionally painful for him to use the squat toilet in his cell. The lawyers say he has been offered treatment for his knee and a sitting toilet that would be less painful to use -- but only if he spills dirt on Al Jazeera. And he says he has none to spill.
And while Defense Department documents indicate that he has been a model inmate at Guantanamo, he protests that he has been called racial epithets (he is black) and that he has seen guards desecrate the Koran.
When Sudan detained an American journalist, Paul Salopek, in August in Darfur, journalists and human rights groups reacted with outrage until he was freed a month later. We should be just as offended when it is our own government that is sinking to Sudanese standards of justice.
This doesn't look like a war on terrorism, but a war on our own values.