Journalist says U.S. target was Al-Jazeera

By Bob Egelko  | After more than six years as a prisoner of the United States, former TV cameraman Sami al-Hajj is back at work with Al-Jazeera, the largest broadcaster in the Arab world, a thorn in the side of most Arab governments – and, by most indications, a target of deep hostility from the Bush administration.

Al-Hajj, 39, was the longest-held journalist in U.S. custody at the time of his release in May, and the only one ever held at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Military authorities repeatedly accused him of being a terrorist in league with al Qaeda, then released him without charges.

His case is emblematic of the poisoned relationship between the U.S. government and a television network with 40 million viewers in the Middle East.

Since 2001, Bush administration officials have regularly denounced Al-Jazeera as an anti-American propaganda organ and a mouthpiece for terrorists, and have periodically urged its chief patron, the emir of Qatar, to rein it in.

The United States even founded a rival Arab-language network, Al Hurra, in 2004, but commentators on the region generally agree it hasn’t made a dent in Al-Jazeera’s popularity.

Al-Jazeera has also been hit twice by U.S. artillery fire. One shelling destroyed its Kabul bureau in November 2001. The second struck a Baghdad office in April 2003, killing correspondent Tareq Ayoub. The U.S. military concluded both shellings were accidents.

According to the Defense Department, al-Hajj was just another suspected terrorist among the 780 who have been held as enemy combatants since January 2002 at Guantanamo. But his lawyer, Clive Stafford Smith, says al-Hajj’s imprisonment was all about Al-Jazeera.

“We calculated about 135 times he’d been interrogated, and about the first 120 the only interest they had was Al-Jazeera,” Smith said. “They told him that they thought Al-Jazeera was an al Qaeda front.

“They were trying to get him to finger a number of well-known Al-Jazeera journalists as being in the Muslim Brotherhood,” an Islamist organization based in Egypt. “They offered to let him go if he’d spy.”

Al-Hajj’s response, Smith said, was that “he’d rather stay in Guantanamo for another 10 years.”

Al-Hajj gave a similar account to a gathering of supporters in his native Sudan in late May.

“They wanted me to betray the principles of my job and to turn me into a spy,” he said, according to an Al-Jazeera account.

Smith, who heads a London-based legal organization called Reprieve, which has represented about 80 inmates at Guantanamo, took on al-Hajj’s case in 2005 after the prisoner’s brother contacted him.

His information about the case, he said, comes from speaking with his client and from investigating the government’s varying allegations against him – all of which, Smith said, proved baseless.

The Defense Department declined to provide anyone to speak for attribution about the case, but denied pressuring al-Hajj to denounce Al-Jazeera or offering to free him if he agreed to spy on the network.

No deals

“We don’t make deals with detainees,” said a department official, speaking anonymously.

The official said the U.S. military doesn’t target journalists in general or Al-Jazeera in particular.

“If we were going to try to silence Al-Jazeera, it would be at a higher level of personnel than some cameraman trainee,” the official said of al-Hajj, who – according to the network – was a full-fledged cameraman when he was arrested.

An exception to state-run broadcasting in much of the Arab region, Al-Jazeera was founded in 1996 and quickly became the most-watched channel in Arab nations while angering many of their governments with its coverage, which included appearances by political dissidents.

The U.S. government has criticized Al-Jazeera for its coverage of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, which has included footage of dead and wounded civilians as well as U.S. military casualties that is seldom shown in the United States.

Since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the network has carried videotaped messages from Osama bin Laden and other al Qaeda leaders.

Smith said one of the reasons U.S. military authorities first gave for imprisoning al-Hajj was a suspicion – which proved unfounded – that he had taken part in Al-Jazeera’s interview of bin Laden in October 2001.

Born in Sudan

Al-Hajj, born and raised in Sudan, studied English at a college in India, then worked at a beverage company in the United Arab Emirates in the early 1990s before turning to journalism, according to biographical information from Al-Jazeera.

He got his first news media job with Al-Jazeera in 2001 and was assigned to Afghanistan to cover the war in October of that year. He entered Pakistan after U.S.-led forces ousted the Taliban government in Afghanistan, and was arrested by Pakistani authorities when he tried to re-enter Afghanistan in December 2001.

Al-Hajj was turned over to U.S. authorities at the military base in Bagram in January 2002, was transferred to the base at Kandahar a month later and was flown to Guantanamo in June 2002.

In describing al-Hajj as an enemy combatant and suspected terrorist, military authorities offered a variety of allegations that mostly had a common theme, Smith said: that he was using his journalistic credentials to promote terrorism.

They accused him at different times of filming bin Laden and other al Qaeda figures for Al-Jazeera and of maintaining a Web site to contact the terrorist group, Smith said.

Military officials also alleged for a time that al-Hajj had smuggled Stinger missiles to Chechen rebels.

Trained in use of cameras

A final assessment by a military panel at Guantanamo in October 2007, accusing al-Hajj of working to facilitate “terrorist acts,” cited as evidence the fact that he “was trained by Al-Jazeera in the use of cameras,” Smith said, quoting the report.

Smith said al-Hajj was subjected to physical and psychological abuse throughout his captivity. The Pentagon disputes his description, and it can’t be verified independently. But it is consistent with human-rights groups’ assessments of conditions at the U.S. detention facilities.

Al-Hajj still bears the scars of some of his treatment, his lawyer said – a broken kneecap that was stomped on by guards at Bagram, and marks on his knees from being forced to kneel on cold concrete for long periods at Kandahar. U.S. military police at Kandahar also beat him regularly and pulled out the hairs of his beard one by one, Smith said.

At Guantanamo, Smith said, the worst injuries were psychological – the isolation and hopelessness that led al-Hajj to begin a hunger strike in January 2007.

After three weeks, Smith said, al-Hajj, like other hunger-strikers at the base, was force-fed twice a day for the rest of his imprisonment, strapped to a restraint chair while a 43-inch-long tube was inserted in one nostril to carry high-protein liquid to his stomach.

Pressure from reporters

Throughout his captivity, Al-Jazeera and Reporters Without Borders, a free-press organization that monitors governments’ treatment of journalists, pressed for al-Hajj’s release.

They were eventually joined by the government of Sudan and by the BBC, whose correspondent Alan Johnston was kidnapped and held for nearly four months in Gaza last year.

But Smith said U.S. authorities insisted to the end that al-Hajj denounce Al-Jazeera and also tried, unsuccessfully, to get the Sudanese government to restrict his travel and prevent him from working for the network.

His release was as abrupt and unexplained as his imprisonment, Smith said.

Al-Hajj was blindfolded, shackled and chained to the floor of the plane that took him back to Sudan, Smith said. He said al-Hajj collapsed when he landed, was hospitalized for a few days and then returned to his wife and their son, now 7.

Two months after his release, the former cameraman was given a new job, as news producer for human rights at Al-Jazeera’s headquarters in Doha, the capital of Qatar. In a statement released by the network, al-Hajj said he hopes to use his position “as a vehicle to show the world that human rights abuses still occur all over the globe.”