Andy Worthington

Apparently seized because of erroneous claims that he had interviewed

Osama bin Laden, Sami was subjected to numerous groundless claims that

he was involved with the Al-Qaeda.

Sami al-Haj is a journalist, but one unlike any other. For over six years, since December 15, 2001, when he was seized by Pakistani soldiers on the Afghan border, while on assignment as a cameraman for the Qatar-based broadcaster al-Jazeera, he has been in a disturbing but unique position: a trained journalist held as an “enemy combatant” on the frontline of the Bush administration’s “War on Terror,” first in Afghanistan, and then in Guantánamo.

Apparently seized because of erroneous claims that he had interviewed Osama bin Laden, Sami has been subjected to numerous groundless claims that he was involved with the Al-Qaeda (he was, for example, once accused of attempting to smuggle Stinger anti-aircraft missiles into Chechnya from Afghanistan). Even more disturbingly, however, his many interrogations in Guantánamo have focused solely on the administration’s attempts to turn him into an informant against al-Jazeera, to “prove” a connection between the broadcaster and Osama bin Laden that does not exist.

Throughout his long ordeal, Sami has used his journalistic background to report on conditions in Guantánamo in unprecedented detail, using what his lawyer, Clive Stafford Smith of the legal action charity Reprieve, has described as “the incredible prisoner bush telegraph” to report on the religious abuse — primarily of the Koran — that has led to a series of hunger strikes and suicide attempts, and to produce a pioneering assessment of the number of prisoners who were under 18 at the time of their capture.

Since January 7, 2007 (the fifth anniversary of his detention without trial by the U.S.), Sami has been on a hunger strike, but although he is strapped into a restraint chair twice a day and force-fed against his will and although, as Stafford Smith pointed out last October, he is “very thin” and “his memory is disintegrating,” he continues to seek ways to publicise the plight of his fellow prisoners.

During the most recent visit from his lawyers in February, he produced a number of morbid, and almost hallucinatory sketches illustrating his take on conditions in Guantánamo, which he described as “Sketches of My Nightmare.” Featuring faceless skeletons in shackles enduring brutal force-feeding, often while unconcerned medical officials are monitoring the process, these were banned by the military, but were made available after his lawyers, who asked Sami to describe them in detail, commissioned British political cartoonist Lewis Peake to produce versions of the pictures based on his descriptions.

Force-feeding experience

Sami also continues to speak about his experiences, and of others who have chosen to resist their imprisonment without charge or trial by embarking on hunger strikes. In his most recent account, he explained that he was recently force-fed by a new member of staff. “They gave him only ten minutes training,” Sami said, “then he did three of the eight men being fed that day, including me. He screwed the tube into my nose, not slowly, and not using lotion. I had flu at the time and my nostril was closed. It made it much harder. I was in the chair. I could barely talk, and my mouth was covered with the mask they put on. I was waving my hands.”

Sami continued: “‘That’s very painful!’ I eventually said. There were tears streaming down my face. ‘I am meant to do this to you,’ the man said, harshly. ‘If you don’t like it, don’t go on strike.’ He would not look me in the eye. He did not look in the least bit ashamed. He never said sorry, or paused when I was in pain. I almost thought he seemed happy that he was doing it.”

Sami also spoke about his fears for his health. “I am very concerned about having cancer,” he said, explaining that he has had blood in his urine for some time, but that the military initially refused to believe him. After several scans, he said, “eventually a doctor came to see me, a black male, about 40 years old, clean shaven, in a uniform without rank on it. He saw me for only five minutes. He began decently, but then got rather hostile. ‘From my experience,’ the doctor said to me, ‘I think it’s cancer.’”

Sami explained that he was then told that the next time a doctor would be coming with the appropriate expertise would be in May, and described his response: “‘You will leave me worrying about this for months?’ I asked. ‘I don’t have the necessary equipment,’ said the doctor. ‘I don’t mind if you suffer or not,’ he said. ‘It is not my problem. I’m not here for you.’ He left.”

Sami continued:

“I worried too much after this. For three days I got barely any sleep. I was worrying that maybe I was dying. Then the brothers around me said, perhaps they are just telling you this, just trying to break your strike. I took some heart from this. But I still worry, as Abdul Razzaq Hekmati, an Afghan prisoner, died of cancer here on December 30, and it was a very painful death.”

Doctors’ involvement

The last of his recent statements adds a disturbing conclusion to the story of the doctors’ involvement in the force-feeding process, and the horrendous isolation and deprivation that still prevail in Guantánamo. “We met recently with a senior female doctor from the hospital,” he explained. “‘Only if you break your strike can we give you medical care,’ she told those of us on hunger strike. ‘Otherwise we cannot help you.’ Some have now broken their strike. Four men are very sick, and were suffering too badly. But the truth is that they have given no help even to those who stop.”

“I am having bone problems,” he continued. “The cold is bad. I am on disciplinary for being on strike, so I get a plastic blanket at 10 p.m., at least three hours after our last prayer time. Every other day I hardly get to sleep anyway, as rec [recreation time] is in the middle of the night … I am not allowed a prayer rug. I am not allowed a prayer cap. I am not allowed my prayer beads. I am not allowed any holy book except for the Koran. I have no books to read. The last book I was allowed was in December 2006, before I began my strike. All I have are orange clothes, flip flops, an isomat, a Koran, and a bottle of water. I suppose I should think myself lucky. Another of the men here has been disciplined by having even his isomat taken away — for a whole year. Another man has lost his right to a water bottle for a whole year. All this made another man so upset that he tried to hang himself.”