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Sudanese Journalist Detention Reveals Guantanamo Embarrassment


Sunday, June 1, 2008
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Almost seven years after 9/11, Guantanamo Bay remains a shameful symbol
of the War on Terror. The United States continues to argue that the
Constitution has no jurisdiction outside U.S. borders, thereby
violating international and national law. Guantanamo Bay has since
housed hundreds of men accused of being linked to terrorism, who have
been continually mistreated and denied their rights.

President George W. Bush has repeatedly assured Americans that the
prisoners being held at Guantanamo Bay are “the worst of the worst.”
Last week, one of these men, Sami Al-Hajj, was released after spending
more than seven years in U.S. custody. He was released without ever
being prosecuted.

Al-Hajj is a Sudanese cameraman who worked for Al-Jazeera at the time
of his arrest. Amnesty International stated that “after the attacks of
Sept. 11, 2001, [Al-Hajj] was asked by his editors to cover the
international conflict in Afghanistan.” Al-Hajj was stopped near the
border of Pakistan with his crew, at which time only he was arrested.
He was held by Pakistani authorities for three weeks before being
transferred to U.S. custody.

Once in U.S. custody, he was sent to Bagram Airbase where Amnesty
International reports that he was subjected to torture and
interrogations before being sent to Guantanamo Bay. Interestingly,
Al-Hajj held a legitimate visa to work for Al-Jazeera’s Arabic channel
in Afghanistan – a circumstance of his arrest that is often left untold.

In September 2007, the U.S. government justified Al-Hajj’s detention by
stating that he had traveled extensively throughout the Middle East,
the Balkans and the former USSR, had arrived in Afghanistan in October
2001, and was apprehended for inconsistencies with his travel
documents. Despite the lack of substantive allegations, Al-Hajj was
never prosecuted while at Guantanamo Bay, yet remained in a state of
legal limbo for almost seven years.

Upon release from Guantanamo Bay, Al-Hajj was returned to Sudan, where
he was immediately transferred to a hospital due to the reported
torture and interrogation that he underwent, as well as the many hunger
strikes he attempted while at the detention facility. The Associated
Press also reports that “Sudanese officials said Al-Hajj would not face
any charges.”

It doesn’t require a close examination of the details emanating from
detainees released from Guantanamo to understand that detainees have
been held for years and rarely informed of the charges brought against
them.

Sadly enough, if they are released, many are sent back to their
countries of origin where they are retried, imprisoned and often
treated like criminals. For many detainees, the stigma of being
allegedly associated with terrorist or extremist groups as a result of
their detention leads to an unfortunate presumption of guilt in their
home countries.

Because of this stigma, many inmates fear for their lives even when
they return home. One detainee, Ahmed Belbacha, has even gone as far as
trying to keep himself detained in prison for fear of being tortured
upon deportation to his home country of Algeria, according to CNN. In
this regard, Sami Al-Hajj seems to be the exception, since Sudan has
chosen not to prosecute him.

The time is now to shut down the embarrassment that is Guantanamo Bay.
Officials lack the evidence to prosecute many of the hundreds of
remaining detainees but warn against the supposed danger of setting
them free. Our government must honor its constitutional commitment to
free and fair trials for all those accused.

To watch a video interview of Sami Al-Hajj click here.

Muslim Public Affairs Council Government Relations Director Safiya Ghori can be reached at (202) 547-7701 or [email protected]

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