Sami Al Haj in Guantanamo
By Dr. Marwan Asmar
Online Journal Contributing Writer

May 13, 2008, 00:13

It was freedom at last! The release of Sami Al Haj after six-and-a-half years, languishing in prison on Guantanamo Bay in Cuba, is a surreal reality going to the heart of international political intrigue, media manipulation and human rights violations.

Despite what is regarded as a botched up theatrical play by the US government, Sami Al Haj, a Sudanese cameraman who worked for world-famous Al Jazeera, was viewed as an �enemy combatant� who in the end was released without any charges, despite the fact he had to endure 130 sessions of interrogations in which he claimed the authorities offered to set him free if he would spy on his own employer Al Jazeera, and the journalists working there as he says 35 of these sessions were solely related to his work at the satellite station that has an audience of 40 million.

The imprisonment of Sami Al Haj, first snatched from the Pakistan/Afghan border in December 2001 to Afghanistan and then six months later to his final resting place in Guantanamo where he was to remain till early May 2008, a total of 2,340 days behind bars. It speaks volumes about the respect or lack of which many in the world have for journalism, media, freedom of speech, or simply the word and the image for it was also reported that the Americans didn�t like the Al Jazeera reporting of human rights violations in Afghanistan.

Sami Al Haj became a prisoner in an Orwellian drama that had no ending; a destination involving torture, simulated drowning and possibly death that was in the end averted through cruel force feeding. America under the administration of George W. Bush, and its pretense of democratic practice, continued to beat the drums of fighting terrorism as if Sami Al Haji, and all the other 500-odd prisoners still in Guantanamo, were the real enemy who had to stay behind bars as if they were the greatest threat to Western civilization.

If it was frustrating to see the �free Sami Al Haj� news ticker at the bottom of the Al Jazeera screen night after night, month-after-month and year-after-year, with its morbid sense of uselessness as if Sami Al Haj were an aberration that did not really exist, except in the eyes of lawyers who had bare minimum access to him and to his devoid of humanity jailers who were blinkered by the words of �terrorists� and �terrorism.�

At the end of his natural days, a phrase that may be justifiably given since he was already emaciated, and only saved through a miracle, Sami Al Haj was in a state of delirium, had lost 40 pounds and looked like an old man of 80. In his desperate attempt to change his withering life, he had gone on a hunger strike in 2007 as a form of protest.

But that did not do any good, despite international conventions banning forced feeding. Sami Al Haj was force fed twice a day through a tube down rammed into his nostrils without any lubrication, so that the American boys can tell the world �hey we kept him alive� despite their open desecration of the holy Koran and despite the fact he was nearly suffocated.

Sami Al Haj was the only media man in Guantanamo and despite the fact there was overwhelming evidence he was not the man the Americans were reputedly looking for, he was kept and bludgeoned, terrorized and held at bay, many say to teach Al Jazeera a lesson it will not forget about not broadcasting alleged Osama Ban Laden videos as if they are horror movies.

Al Jazeera however never budged, it stuck to what it believed was its special exclusives and at the same time continued behind-the-scenes moves to free Al Haj which never worked in the end. But media is a complex affair. Most of the Arab broadcast and print media, including those in Europe and America, began to toe the line, becoming very uneasy about what to print or broadcast with factual reporting taking a back seat in favor of staying on the right side of the fence and making sure of not rocking the boat, honest reporting became interpreted as backing the wrong side.

The post-11 September climate was harsh and austere, the �terrorist in every cupboard� mentality was rife, becoming the new mantra that it needed to be fought regardless whether there was an ounce of truth in the finding or not. Politicians became blinded by the very fact that everyone wanted to put things right through judicious, unmitigated security, they, including and foremost the Americans, hadn�t yet realized that for them anyway, it was �match, set and game.�

Through embedded journalists in Iraq and Afghanistan they had it all to protect their eagles through a lame news media that preferred to nod and wink to the triad of establishment positions rather than report the facts.

And so Sami Al Haj was lost in between; he got caught in the middle while trying to do his job as best as he could. But what he didn�t realize was the world was really changing in the months following 11 September, with nervous international forces chasing rumors in their search for Osama bin Laden.

Most of those in Guantanamo are religious with long beards but they are not terrorists, and the same goes for Sami Al Hajj, but this was a heavy price he had to pay. He was captured when he was 32 and released at 38. Towards the end, he was suffering bouts of paranoia, unwilling to trust anyone, including his fellow inmates who were being subjected to the worst kinds of humiliation and treatment. He says he was kept in the �most heinous prison mankind has ever known.�

The Bush administration needn�t have done this, triggering a good portion of the world to hate anything that is American. The physical scars of Sami Al Haj will probably heal in due time, but the psychological scars will remain and will probably haunt him to his natural grave.

Dr. Marwan Asmar is an Amman, Jordan-based writer.

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