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
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.
“Then after two months, two more British men came to see me. They said they were from UK intelligence. They wanted to know who I knew, who I’d met. I said I couldn’t help them.” The Americans later referred to one of them as “Martin” and they did not impress al-Haj’s senior interrogator at Guantanamo, Stephen Rodriguez, who wanted again to seek al-Haj’s help. “He said to me: ‘Our job is to prevent “things” happening. I’ll give you a chance to think about this. You can have US citizenship, your family will be looked after, you’ll have a villa in the US, we’ll look after your son’s education, you’ll have a bank account’. He had brought with him some Arabic magazines and told me I could read them. In those 10 minutes, I felt I had gone back to being a human being again. Then soldiers came to take me back to my cell – and the magazines were taken away.”
By the summer of 2003, al-Haj was receiving other strange visitors. “Two Canadian intelligence officers came and they showed me lots of photos of people and wanted to know if I recognised them. I knew none of them.”
In more than 200 interrogations, al-Haj was asked about his employers the Al Jazeera television channel in Qatar. In one session, he says another American said to him: “After you get out of here, al-Qa’ida will recruit you and we want to know who you meet. You could become an analyst, we can train you to store information, to sketch people. There is a link between Al Jazeera and al-Qa’ida. How much does al-Qa’ida pay Al Jazeera?”
“I said: ‘I will not do this – first of all because I’m a journalist and this is not my job. Also because I fear for my life and my family.'”
Many beatings followed – not from the interrogators but from other US guards. “They would slam my head into the ground, cut off all my hair. They put me into the isolation block – we called it the ‘November Block’ – for two years. They made my life torture. I wanted to bring it to an end. There were continual punishments without reason. In interrogations, they would tighten the shackles so it hurt. They hadn’t allowed me to receive letters for 10 months – even then, they erased words in them, even from my son. Again, Rodriguez demanded I work for the Americans.”
In January of last year, Sami al-Haj started a hunger strike – and began the worst months of his imprisonment. “I wanted my rights in the civil courts. The US Supreme Court said I should have my rights. I wanted the right to worship properly. They let me go 30 days without food – then I was tied to a chair with metal shackles and they force-fed me. They would insert a tube through my nose into my stomach. They chose large tubes so that it hurt and sometimes it went into the lung. They used the same tube they had used on other prisoners with muck still on it and then they pumped more food into me than it was possible to absorb. They told us the people administering this were doctors – but they were torturers, not doctors. They forced 24 cans of food into us so we threw up and then gave us laxatives to defecate. My pancreas was affected and I had stomach problems. Then they would forbid us from drinking water.”
Al-Haj says he completed 480 days of hunger strike by which time his medical condition had deteriorated and he was bleeding from his anus. That was the moment his interrogators decided to release him.
“There were new interrogators now, but they tried once more with me. ‘Will you work with us?’ they asked me again. I said ‘no’ again – but I thanked them for their years of hospitality and for giving me the chance to live among them as a journalist. I said this way I could get the truth to the outside world, that I was not in a hurry to get out because there were a lot more reporters’ stories in there.” They said: ‘You think we did you a favour?’ I said: ‘You turned me from zero into a hero.’ They said: ‘We are 100 per cent sure that Bin Laden will be in touch with you…’ That night, I was taken to the plane. The interrogators were watching me, hiding behind a tennis net. I waved at them, those four pairs of eyes.”
The British authorities have never admitted talking to Sami al-Haj. Nor have the Canadians. Al Jazeera, whose headquarters George Bush wanted to bomb after the invasion of Iraq, kept a job open for Sami al-Haj. But Prisoner No 345 never received an official apology from the Americans. He says he does not expect one.