Sami al-Haj, an Al Jazeera cameraman, was beaten, abused and humiliated in the name of the war on terror. He tells our correspondent about his struggle to rebuild a shattered life
Sami al-Haj walks with pain on his steel crutch; almost six years in the nightmare of Guantanamo have taken their toll on the Al Jazeera journalist and, now in the safety of a hotel in the small Norwegian town of Lillehammer, he is a figure of both dignity and shame. The Americans told him they were sorry when they eventually freed him this year – after the beatings he says he suffered, and the force-feeding, the humiliations and interrogations by British, American and Canadian intelligence officers – and now he hopes one day he’ll be able to walk without his stick.
The TV cameraman, 38, was never charged with any crime, nor was he put on trial; his testimony makes it clear that he was held in three prisons for six-and-a-half years – repeatedly beaten and force-fed – not because he was a suspected “terrorist” but because he refused to become an American spy. From the moment Sami al-Haj arrived at Guantanamo, flown there from the brutal US prison camp at Kandahar, his captors demanded that he work for them. The cruelty visited upon him – constantly interrupted by American admissions of his innocence – seemed designed to turnal-Haj into a US intelligence “asset”.
“We know you are innocent, you are here by mistake,” he says he was told in more than 200 interrogations. “All they wanted was for me to be a spy for them. They said they would give me US citizenship, that my wife and child could live in America, that they would protect me. But I said: ‘I will not do this – first of all because I’m a journalist and this is not my job and because I fear for myself and my family. In war, I can be wounded and I can die or survive. But if I work with you, al-Qa’ida will eliminate me. And if I don’t work with you, you will kill me’.”
The grotesque saga began for al-Haj on 15 December, 2001, when he was on his way from the Pakistani capital Islamabad to Kandahar in Afghanistan with Sadah al-Haq, a fellow correspondent from the Arab satellite TV channel, to cover the new regional government. At least 70 other journalists were on their way through the Pakistani border post at Chaman, but an officer stopped al-Haj. “He told me there was a paper from the Pakistani intelligence service for my arrest. My name was misspelled, my passport number was incorrect, it said I was born in 1964 – the right date is 1969. I said I had renewed my visa in Islamabad and asked why, if I was wanted, they had not arrested me there?”