Commentary
Cover-ups insult our intelligence
By Linda S. Heard
Online Journal Contributing Writer


May 7, 2008, 00:19

Sami Al Haj, the Al Jazeera cameraman thrown into Guantanamo six years ago where he remained until last week without charge or trial, is finally together with his wife and young son following an emotional reunion in Khartoum. He's only 39 but his friends say he looks like a frail old man. Al Haj has always protested his innocence. He says he was detained to punish Al Jazeera for its independent reporting in Iraq and Afghanistan and claims he was tortured, humiliated, force fed and made to endure insults to his religion.

"Rats are treated with more humanity" than inmates, he told reporters.

In this case, a picture really is worth 1,000 words. Al Haj, who was whisked off to a hospital bed upon arrival in Sudan, looks emaciated, exhausted and ill, his psychological state as yet unknown although it is said he is clinically depressed.

According to his British lawyer and his brother, Al Haj is suffering from intestinal problems, deterioration in eyesight as well as pain in his back and knees. There is also a suggestion he has throat cancer.

As an innocent person who was arbitrarily deprived of his freedom, his health and his family for six long years at the very least he should expect an apology from the Pentagon if not hefty compensation.

Instead, officials from the US Department of Defence have gone on the attack complaining about the former detainee's "constant drumbeat of allegations" and challenging him to substantiate them with hard evidence.

Moreover, they have labelled him "a manipulator and a propagandist" with the implication he is faking his state of health so as to influence public opinion.

One thing is certain. Al Haj didn't spend those years sunbathing, windsurfing, fishing or bowling like US military personnel are entitled to do, according to Angela Levin author of Greetings from Guantanamo Bay . . . and the sickest souvenir shop in the world.

He wasn't teeing off or watching the latest blockbuster at the cinema. He didn't shop at Wal-Mart or order spicy drumsticks from KFC.

And he didn't take home a souvenir T-shirt "decorated with a guard tower and barbed wire" reading "The Taliban Towers at Guantanamo Bay, the Caribbean's newest 5-star Resort" either.

Hunger strike

Al Haj was initially kept in a tiny cage, initially open to the elements, and treated with less respect than the iguanas roaming the facility. When he went on hunger strike to protest his open-ended incarceration, he had tubes forced through his nostrils and down into his stomach.

Why on earth would a person who had endured such horrendous physical and psychological treatment through absolutely no fault of his own have to fabricate ill health to make a point? I'm surprised he can still stand up and form coherent sentences.

In her expos´┐Ż, Levin quotes Zachary Katznelson, a human rights lawyer and spokesman for Reprieve, thus: "When I see the conditions the prisoners have to cope with and then think of the T-shirt slogans, I am appalled. To say I am repulsed in an understatement. Unbelievable as it may seem the US authorities are proud of the 'souvenirs' (branded mugs, cuddly toys, T-shirts and postcards) and what they are doing".

The Israeli military is equally as hard-hearted and duplicitous. Last week, a woman and four of her children were eating breakfast at home in Gaza when, according to the BBC, an Israeli missile smashed through the ceiling killing everyone at the table. Not our fault, said the Israelis who insist their targets were two Palestinian militants whose own explosives must have detonated causing the innocents' deaths.

Just like the Americans who levelled Fallujah, massacred 24 civilians in Haditha, shot dead a wounded unarmed man in a mosque and obliterated entire wedding parties with impunity, the Israelis are never to blame for anything.

It wasn't their fault that 1,200 Lebanese civilians -- a third of them children -- died at their hands in the summer of 2006. It's not their fault that the people of Gaza are imprisoned, malnourished and lacking essential medicines.

They've never apologised for mowing down Rachel Corrie, a young American woman who stood in front of an army bulldozer in an attempt to save a Palestinian home from being demolished. And they've yet to apologise to the parents of Tom Hurndell, a 22-year-old British student shot as he was trying to pull Palestinian children to safety during a demonstration. We've faced a "wall of deceit and fabrication over the shooting", say his mother and father.

It's evident that the US and Israeli militaries consider lies and cover-ups as integral tools in their arsenal. The only way that Sami Al Haj and his fellow victims -- at least those lucky enough to still be alive -- can fight back is with the truth.

Al Haj is doing just that. He may have been beaten but he's not cowed. He's speaking out on behalf of the 275 detainees who still wake up each day in that hellish place.

We should, at least, give him the courtesy of listening.

Linda S. Heard is a British specialist writer on Middle East affairs. She welcomes feedback and can be contacted by email at heardonthegrapevines@yahoo.co.uk.

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