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Release of tortured cameraman from Guantánamo contingent on his ban from journalism, says US, as his health deteriorates

(RSF/IFEX) - On the eve of the sixth anniversary of the arrival of the first detainees at the US naval base at Guantanamo Bay in eastern Cuba, RSF reiterated its call for the camp's closure and the release of Sami Al-Haj, a Sudanese cameraman with the pan-Arab TV station Al-Jazeera who has been held there without charge since June 2002.

Several hundred persons captured by the US army during "Operation Enduring Freedom" in Afghanistan were transferred to Guantanamo Bay on 11 January 2002, thereby turning the naval base into a prison camp where at one point 770 people were held without any of the legal guarantees envisaged by the US Constitution or by the Geneva Conventions on prisoners of war.

Al-Haj is one of the roughly 300 people still being held at the camp, which RSF secretary-general Robert Ménard visited during the first week of January without being allowed to see him. Ménard's visit will be the subject of an article in the next issue of the French magazine "Médias".

"We appeal for Al-Haj's release or his transfer to his home country," RSF said. "Negotiations on his transfer are currently under way. We went to Guantanamo in the hope of meeting him but we were not allowed to do this. However, we were able to visit the detention centres inside the camp and to talk to guards, hospital staff, military officers in charge of the Annual Administrative Reviews and Rear Admiral Mark H. Buzby, the head of the Guantanamo Joint Task Force.

"Guantanamo is a legal and humanitarian scandal that has now dragged on for six years. What has been achieved? In the absence of charges, 500 of its detainees have been removed and in most cases sent back to their country of origin. It is hard to understand why around 300 are still being held there, especially as the authorities plan to try only 60-80 of them. The US supreme court rightly ruled on 30 June 2006 that the special military tribunals set up to try these "enemy combatants" were unconstitutional, and the US senate judiciary committee said on 7 June 2007 that they should be restored their right to habeas corpus.

"This is not enough," RSF added. "The winner of the 7 November presidential election, who will take office in January 2009, must put an end to a situation that is humanely intolerable and legally untenable. We call on all the candidates competing for their party's nomination in the primaries to undertake to close Guantanamo."

Arrested by the Pakistani army on the Afghan border in December 2001, Al-Haj was handed over to the US military a month later and was transferred to Guantanamo on 13 June 2002. The US military claimed that he secretly interviewed Osama Bin Laden, trafficked in arms for Al-Qaeda and ran an Islamist website but no evidence was ever produced to support these allegations and he was never formally charged.

Regularly tortured and interrogated about 200 times by his guards, Al-Haj began a hunger strike on 7 January 2007 to protest against his detention and to demand respect for his rights. In reprisal, he was force-fed several times. His lawyer, Clive Stafford-Smith, who visited him in July, said he had lost 18 kilos and had serious intestinal problems. He also has paranoia attacks and has more and more difficulty in communicating normally.

Two of the nine Sudanese prisoners in Guantanamo were released last month. In a recent memo to the Sudanese government, the US authorities said they would return Al-Haj to Sudan only if he were banned from leaving the country and were banned from working as journalist.

The CIA announced on 15 December that it destroyed videos of detainees being interrogated in Guantanamo and in its secret prisons, despite a court order to preserve them. A criminal investigation into their destruction began on 2 January, but federal judge Henry H. Kennedy said a week later that he would not insist on questioning José Rodríguez, the former CIA officer who reportedly ordered their destruction. In response to congressional protests, Kennedy said he would await the results of a justice department internal probe. "The New York Times" reported in December that four White House legal advisers endorsed their destruction.

RSF established a system of sponsorship 18 years ago in which international media are encouraged to adopt imprisoned journalists. More than 200 news organisations, journalists' associations, press clubs and other entities throughout the world are currently supporting journalists by regularly calling on the authorities to release them and by publicising their cases.

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