Al-Jazeera's Sami al-Haj, the only journalist to have been detained in Guantánamo, talks about media coverage of the issue and how his life has changed
Following the latest news on Guantánamo Bay has been a frustrating experience for Sami al-Haj, the only journalist to have been detained at the US camp. Recent coverage has been highly misleading, he says, for instance when dealing with the release of detainees to the "paradise islands" of Palau and Bermuda. The New York Times ran the headline: "Out of Guantánamo, Uighurs bask in Bermuda".
"Even if you put someone in hell, they are going to say it's great, because they just left Guantánamo," says the Al Jazeera reporter.
"The media is not asking the real questions: how are they going to be reunited with their families? What are they going to live from once they are released? How is their security going to be guaranteed? … Many ex-detainees are suffering. Getting back to daily life is so hard that some even say they want to go back to Guantánamo."
Many media outlets are no longer asking questions about what still goes on inside. "The media does not talk as much about Guantánamo as before. But there are still many men inside and the torture continues."
We are thousands of kilometres away from Cuba, in tranquil Oslo, where the 40-year-old Sudanese is taking part in a conference, but the US base is never far away from al-Haj's thoughts. His walk is stiff, the result of a beating that shattered his knee. His body still suffers from the consequences of his 478-day-long hunger strike to protest at his detention. The youthful, slightly round face on his Al Jazeera photo byline has aged beyond his years. And then there are the flashbacks.
"Sometimes I wake up and I think I am still in Guantánamo," says al-Haj. "Or it happens when I hear noises, when I see light, or I hear dogs or shoutings. I feel bad when I hear these things. But with the help of my psychological doctor, I feel my situation is (getting better). I wish in the near future I will become normal."
The former cameraman was illegally detained and tortured by US authorities for seven years, before being released in May 2008. Since then, al-Haj has been campaigning on behalf of detainees, past and present. He plans a legal case against the former US president George Bush and other officials, on behalf of all Guantánamo detainees. "I need them to go to court … we don't want (what happened to us) to be repeated again," he says.
The legal action will be conducted by an organisation co-founded by al-Haj, the Guantánamo Justice Centre, which will establish its international HQ in Geneva, Switzerland, and led by the British ex-detainee Moazzam Begg. A British branch will open this month.
Back to work
The journalist has also gone back to work at Al Jazeera's headquarters in Doha, where is heading a new section dedicated to issues of civil liberties and human rights. "Before I got out of Guantánamo, the people inside told me: 'Don't forget us.' So I believe that with my new section, I can help them," he says.
Al-Haj is frustrated with the way other journalists cover the subject and he believes the media is giving an easy ride to the current US president. "They believe Obama and his promises, but he has not kept them. Obama said he would immediately close Guantánamo Bay when he came to power. He has not. He said he would bring the people who committed torture to trial. He has not."
Al-Haj's ordeal began when Pakistani police arrested him in December 2001 while on his way to Afghanistan as a cameraman with an Al Jazeera crew. They detained only him, over some alleged irregularity with his passport, and handed him over three weeks later to US forces, which sent him to Bagram air base in Afghanistan, where, according to Amnesty International, he was severely mistreated.His interrogations in Afghanistan repeatedly focused on his employer. "They were constantly asking me about Al Jazeera and whether it had links with Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda," recalls al-Haj. US authorities have often cited his job at Al Jazeera as a reason why they considered him a danger.
Al-Haj was flown to Cuba in June 2002. According to Amnesty International, he was repeatedly beaten, subjected to racist abuse and denied medicine, with military dogs used to intimidate him. When he and other detainees began a protest hunger strike in 2003, he was placed in isolation and taken to the harshest camp in Guantánamo.
When al-Haj recalls his time in detention, his speech slows down and his gaze, which had held steady until then, floats in the distance. "The life in Guantánamo... We are feeling like we are not human beings," he says. "The guards respected the animals more than (they did) us."
How did he survive his ordeal? "Two things helped me. First my faith. I know that God would not abandon me because He knew I was innocent. Second my profession. I lived inside Guantánamo as a journalist. It was a chance for me to leave among the detainees, see how they dealt with (their situations) and hear their stories."
What would he tell George Bush if he ever met him? Without hesitation, al-Haj says: "'Be courageous and say that you made a mistake. I will forgive you.' If he said: 'Yes, I made mistake,' we would leave him alone, we would forgive him." He pauses, and then adds with a half-smile: "But I doubt he does."