KHARTOUM, Sudan — He's all but unknown in the United States, the country of his jailers, but in his homeland of Sudan, Sami al Hajj is a national hero. The president has spoken out about him, demonstrations have been held in his name, and a bakery in Khartoum has printed his picture on its packaging.
A 38-year-old cameraman for the Arabic news network al Jazeera, Hajj has been imprisoned as an “enemy combatant” at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, for five years, but never charged with any crime. He was arrested by Pakistani police in December 2001 while on his way to a news assignment in Afghanistan, but he's denied having any links to terrorism.
The independent, Qatar-based network earned the wrath of top U.S. officials after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks for airing statements by Osama bin Laden. Hajj has been interrogated approximately 130 times, according to his attorneys, and nearly every question has been about whether the network or its journalists are connected to al Qaida or other terrorist groups.
Hajj had been with al Jazeera for only a few months at the time of his arrest, and he’s told military interrogators that he knows nothing about the network’s corporate structure or financing.
Family members describe him as a soft-spoken romantic who’d dreamed since boyhood of becoming a cameraman. Before he joined the network, he had a succession of low-level jobs with private companies in Sudan and the United Arab Emirates.
“People here know him to be so calm, so respectful. He’s not a terrorist at all,” said his younger brother, Asim al Hajj, 31, who lives in the family home in a working-class suburb of Khartoum, Sudan’s desert capital. “He is caught up in this because the United States government is against al Jazeera.”
Interrogators offered to secure Hajj’s release if he agreed to spy on al Jazeera, his attorneys say, but Hajj has refused.
Sudanese officials and international human rights and press freedom groups have demanded that Hajj be tried or released. Neither appears likely. Documents released by the military suggest why Hajj continues to be held: He's alleged to have couriered money in the late 1990s to the Azerbaijan branch of al Haramayn, a Muslim charity that provided support to extremist groups, and to have once met an unnamed “senior al Qaida lieutenant.”
Hajj’s attorneys said both allegations, which surfaced in an August 2005 review board hearing, stemmed from his work as an assistant to the head of a soft-drink distribution company in Dubai. In the hearing, which he attended wearing the white uniform reserved for the most cooperative inmates, Hajj refused to respond in the absence of his attorneys, who are barred from such proceedings.
“With all due respect,” he said, reading a statement, “a mistake has been made because I have never been a member of any terrorist group, and I never took part in any terrorist or violent act.”
According to Hajj’s attorneys, on his boss’s orders Hajj once picked up Mamdouh Mahmoud Salim, the al Qaida official, at the airport in Dubai, but didn’t know he had links to terrorism. As for the funds, Hajj told his lawyers he once brought $220,000 in cash into Azerbaijan on behalf of his boss, but he thought the money was for charitable purposes.
“The money was destined for Chechen rebels and not for humanitarian support as the detainee was told,” an unidentified U.S. military officer said, according to a transcript of the hearing.
Zachary Katznelson, one of Hajj’s lawyers and senior counsel at the British legal aid group Reprieve, said that comment indicates that U.S. officials don’t have evidence that Hajj knowingly transported funds intended for terrorism.
But military interrogators haven’t questioned Hajj about those allegations, Katznelson said. In previous hearings and documents, the military made other allegations — that Hajj was part of an al Jazeera crew that interviewed bin Laden, that he tried to sell Stinger missiles to Chechen rebels, that he operated a jihadist Web site — that subsequently were dropped.
“Over the last few years, they’ve kind of shifted the goalposts,” Katznelson said. “As lawyers, if they just told us what the allegations are, we could put the proof to the test to see if he’s guilty or not.”
While in U.S. custody, Hajj has told human-rights groups that American soldiers beat him, threatened him with rape, broke his kneecap by stomping on his leg and threw him down a flight of stairs and badly injured his face.
Pentagon spokesman Jeffrey D. Gordon said the account was "fictitious."
Since Jan. 7, he’s been on hunger strike, a practice that Guantanamo officials call “voluntary fasting.” Soldiers force-feed Hajj and the others by tying them down with 16 straps, snaking a tube through their noses and down to their stomachs, and pumping water and a vitamin-fortified milkshake into their bodies, according to Hajj’s attorneys.
“It’s clear his body is starting to break down,” said Katznelson, who last visited Hajj in mid-May. “His eyesight is failing. He had a lot of difficulty mentally focusing on things. He’s an incredibly intelligent guy but … you can see how he’s struggling.”
To Hajj’s supporters in Sudan — where the Bush administration has accused the government of genocide against civilians in Darfur — his imprisonment is a symbol of American hypocrisy on human rights.
“The U.S. says it is for freedom and human rights and an end to Darfur. They say Darfur is unjust. Why, then, do they treat Sami unjustly, and others from around the world?” said Sidahmed al Khalifa, the publisher of the independent newspaper al Watan and one of Hajj’s most prominent advocates.
Pentagon spokesman Gordon said there was a "significant amount of evidence, both unclassified and classified" that justifies holding Hajj as an "enemy combatant." Gordon also said Hajj had repeatedly declined to answer "any substantive questions about his alleged ties to terror despite being given ample opportunities over the years."
Al Jazeera, widely watched in Sudan and throughout the Arab world, regularly reminds viewers of Hajj’s case. The network has launched a campaign for his release and produced a documentary — each named for his Guantanamo ID number, Prisoner 345. Hardly a day goes by without a Sudanese newspaper or broadcast station mentioning his story.
He’s become Sudan’s most famous journalist, even though he was only on his second-ever assignment. In mid-2001, soon after completing an internship program, he was assigned to research a story on Chechnya and met several times in Qatar with the exiled former president of the rebellious Russian republic, who was alleged to have ties with al Qaida.
Ahmad Ibrahim, a producer for al Jazeera’s English service, said Hajj was given the assignment because of his experience in the region — his wife is from Azerbaijan — but the project was eventually scrapped.
Shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks, he was asked to go to Afghanistan. Hajj was on vacation in Damascus, Syria, with his wife and baby son when the call came. Other cameramen had turned down the assignment, and Hajj hesitated.
He finally took the job, family members said, because he wanted to prove himself with his new employers.
In early October 2001, he and four other al Jazeera staff members traveled to Pakistan, obtained visas for Afghanistan and crossed into Kandahar. For about 50 days, the team covered the U.S. bombardment of Kandahar, a Taliban stronghold, and lived in guesthouses alongside journalists from CNN and other news organizations.
While in Kandahar, U.S. officials said Hajj interviewed several officials, including Abu Hafa al Moritani, a bin Laden adviser who was the leader of the al Qaida cell in the northern African nation of Mauritania.
Yusuf al Shuli, a veteran correspondent who led the al Jazeera team, said Hajj was dedicated to his work and to prayers, and he rejected the idea that Hajj had extremist ties.
“We spent 50 or 55 days together. If he had any links (to terrorists), I would know,” Shuli said by phone from Qatar. “We lived together all those days. You don’t separate in those conditions. I didn’t notice him speaking with other people or trying to contact anyone.”
In December, the team returned to Pakistan, but Hajj was soon asked to go back to Afghanistan to cover Hamid Karzai’s newly formed government. At the border, he was stopped by Pakistani authorities when his name appeared on a watch list, according to U.S. officials. After three weeks he was transferred to American authorities and taken to Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan.
According to Amnesty International, Hajj described his 16 days at Bagram as “the worst in my life.”
“He states that he was severely physically tortured and had dogs set upon him, that he was held in a cage (in) a freezing aircraft hangar and was given insufficient, often frozen food,” Amnesty reported.
He was then taken to Kandahar and, on June 13, 2002, transferred to Guantanamo in chains. Not until this time did Hajj’s family learn that he was in U.S. custody, from a letter he wrote to his wife in Qatar.
His family in Sudan kept the news from his ailing father for several months, but when they finally told him, the news sent him into shock. He died a few days later.