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Al-Jazeera cameraman's lawyer speaks about client's ordeal in Guantánamo

(RSF/IFEX) - Human rights lawyer Clive Stafford-Smith gave a candid interview on 19 May 2008 to Reporters Without Borders USA Director Lucie Morillon about his client, Al-Jazeera cameraman Sami Al-Haj. Al-Haj had spent six years detained in Guantanamo Bay before being released earlier in May. Smith arrived in the United States the week of 19 May to testify before Congress about Al-Haj's health condition and his future as a journalist after being released.

Al-Haj was charged with running an extremist Islamic website, connecting him to Al-Qaeda in his attempt to interview Osama Bin Landen.

"[The US military] alleged that he was a terrorist because he had trained in Al-Jazeera. The precise words were, 'the detainee admitted that he had trained in the use of the camera with Al- Jazeera,' and that is meant to be understood as some sort of terrorism," Smith said.

"There's no legal basis. They would come up with new allegations and we would prove that the allegations were rubbish."

Based on Smith's testimony, there were no clear reasons as to why Al-Haj was not released before. In fact, according to Smith, Al-Haj is still considered a terrorist by US authorities.

During his imprisonment in Guantanamo Bay, interrogators coerced Al-Haj into becoming a witness against Al-Jazeera, accusing the network television of receiving funds directly from Al Qaeda.

"I think it's just an assault on Al-Jazeera, I mean its very, very sad - speaking as an American - we are meant to support free speech . . . Al-Jazeera in the beacon of free speech in the Middle East," Smith explained.

He also commented on Al-Haj's health, saying that he arrived at hospital in Khartoum, Sudan very weak after facing a long and tough flight. He was not allowed to use the toilet for twenty hours and Al-Haj kept the hunger strike until he arrived in Sudan. He was also in shackles and was blinded with a hood.

"The doctors [in Sudan] were worried that he wouldn't survive," Smith said. "On the other hand, within two or three days he was doing a lot better."

In addition to being tortured during his captivity in Guantanamo Bay, doctors informed Al-Haj that he had cancer, but he could not see a specialist. Sudanese doctors, who examined Al-Haj upon his arrival, said he tested negative for cancer.

As for Al-Haj's professional life, Smith said that for the time being his client has no intention of travelling to a war zone again. He also said that the US has tried to put pressure on the Sudanese government to prevent Al-Haj from travelling or working again with Al-Jazeera.

"He would rather stay in Guantanamo ten years rather than signing any such papers," Smith said. "When he was being released, the admiral who came to see him tried to get him to sign a document, and he told him that the advice of his lawyer was not to sign anything."

On the allegations of torture, which the US authorities deny, Smith said his client was interrogated on 130 different occasions, out of which 120 of the interrogations focused on trying to get Al-Haj to say that Al Jazeera is a terrorist organisation. Smith also discussed the methods by which he was force-fed in the prison - guards pulled the tube inserted through the nose - explicitly to try to press prisoners to come off the hunger strike. "I think that's inhumane," he said. Al-Haj spent a total of 478 days on a hunger strike. "You think about the IRA hunger strikers back in the 1980s - the maximum anyone did was 70 [days]."

Smith himself was subject to accusations by the US government, alleging that he incited three prisoners to commit suicide. "I think it's pretty disgusting that they accuse me of trying to get my clients to commit suicide."

In regards to the future of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, Smith said that we face more danger today than before 11 September 2001. "No sane person can look you in the eye and say that Guantanamo Bay has made the world a safer place."

According to Smith, "Guantanamo Bay is going to close." But the real issue is that the US has about 27,000 prisoners and other secret jails where prisoners are in worse conditions than those in Guantanamo Bay.

Smith also thanked Al-Jazeera, the Qatari and Sudanese governments as well as organisations such as Reporters Without Borders, for tirelessly advocating for the release of Sami Al-Haj.

Updates the Sami al-Haj case: http://www.ifex.org/en/content/view/full/93202

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