Tuesday, February 14, 2006

The story of Sami al-Hajj: U.S. targets Al Jazeera

Reporters Without Borders today called upon the U.S. to release two journalists who are being held without charge. While the case of Abdel Amir Yunes Hussein needs to be considered, it was the case of Sami al-Hajj that specifically caught my attention due to the length of time and the location in which he has been held, and because of what this case says about the Bush administrations vendetta against Al Jazeera.

Sami al-Hajj was captured in Pakistan by Pakistani forces (the Reporters Without Borders press release mistakenly says he was captured in Afghanistan) December 15 of 2001. He was a cameraman for Al Jazeera and had just been assigned to cover the inauguration of the new government in Afghanistan. He was held by Pakistani authorities until January 7, 2002 when he was transferred to U.S. custody and detained at Bagram airbase in Afghanistan.
Sami al Hajj has described the 16 days he spent in detention in Bagram air base as "the worst in my life". He states that he was severely physically tortured and had dogs set upon him, that he was held in a cage a freezing aircraft hangar and was given insufficient, often frozen food.

He was then transferred to Kandahar, where his abuse continued. Sami al Hajj alleges that:

- He was subjected to sexual abuse by US soldiers, including being
threatened with rape

- He was forced into stress positions, being forced to kneel for long
periods on concrete floors

- He was beaten regularly by guards

- He had all the hairs on his beard plucked out one by one

- He was not allowed to wash for over 100 days, and he was covered
with lice
Sami al-Hajj was transferred to Guantanamo Bay on June 13, 2002. This quite clearly is a case where, despite repeated declarations by president Bush, a detainee was not captured fighting on the battlefield. According to Sami al-Hajj, the treatment he recieved at Guantanamo was horrendous as well:
- Guards at the camp shattered his knee cap by stamping on his leg

- He has been beaten on the soles of his feet

- Military dogs were used to intimidate him on his arrival in Guantánamo

- He has been subjected to racist abuse and has been given less time for recreation because he is black

- Prior to being allowed to see Sudanese intelligence agents who had come to Guantánamo to interview him, he alleges that he was shackled and pepper sprayed
Now one may wonder why a journalist, would be treated in this manner. He has not been charged with any crime: Al Jazeera relates:
There are technically no charges against Sami.

He has not been charged with any crime.

He has simply been accused of being an "enemy combatant" – a ridiculously vague term that can include anyone the Americans want to include.

There is absolutely no factual basis to this allegation, and the way that the US makes it is simply dishonest.

For example, he is accused of being seized when he was trying to go to Afghanistan. Of course that is true.

But what the US does not say in its charges is that he was on assignment for Aljazeera, he had a legitimate visa to go, and he was not doing anything wrong.
One of the most novel charges against Sami al-Hajj is that of "making videos of Osama Bin Laden". Of course any journalist on the face of the earth, given the chance to make a tape of Osama, or interview, or report live from the location of, or whatever journalistic term you wish to use would leap at the chance. If video taping Osama is a crime, why hasn't Peter Arnett been arrested yet? It's called journalism. Maybe this administration should look that word up.

The true reason Sami al-Hajj has been through all this appears to be quite simply that this administration can not tolerate Al Jazeera. Sami al-Hajj has made clear whenever given the chance to communicate with the outside world that he is being pressured to connect Al Qaida and Al Jazeera. According to al-Hajj's lawyer, Clive Stafford-Smith in the previously referenced article from Al Jazeera :
The US military wants Sami to say that Aljazeera is a front for al-Qaida, and is funded by al-Qaida.

He refuses to say this because it is not true.

The US military has revealed to him that the US taps the telephones of Aljazeera journalists (they were tapping Sami's personal calls to his wife while he was on assignment).

In particular, the US wants Sami to be an informant against some of his colleagues at Aljazeera, whom they claim are members of al-Qaida.

Sami resolutely refuses to do this, as he says it is simply not true.
It should shock the conscience of all freedom loving Americans that our government would torture a reporter simply because he worked for a network that the administration did not like. But the unfortunate truth of the matter is that this animosity for Al Jazeera manifests itself in ways that go beyond detaining reporters. Al Jazeera offices in Kabul and Baghdad have been struck by U.S. bombs, killing several employees of the network. Indeed in December 2005, a memo was released by British sources which detailed a conversation between president Bush and prime minister Blair in which Bush discussed bombing the headquarters of Al Jazeera in Qatar.

The fact that the administrations overt hostility to Al Jazeera lead to the bombing of both the Baghdad and Kabul offices (despite repeated declarations from the administration that we do not target journalists) is demonstrated by the admission from Rear Admiral Craig Quigley to BBC correspondent Nik Gowing:
He said the Pentagon was indifferent to media activity in territory controlled by the enemy, and that the Al-Jazeera compound in Kabul was considered a legitimate target because it had 'repeatedly been the location of significant al-Qaeda activity'. It turned out that this activity was interviews with Taliban officials, something Al-Jazeera had thought to be normal journalism.
Now this administration would like to portray itself as the purveyor of freedom around the globe? Maybe if they would like to be taken seriously in this they will stop bombing the media outlets they do not care for and release these journalists held without charges. Freedom of the press as a principle of democracy should not just pertain to Fox news.

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