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Al-Jazeera cameraman freed from Guantanamo

Sami al-Haj, who had been on a hunger strike for the past 16 months, is released after six years of imprisonment that drew worldwide protests.

world Updated: May 02, 2008 08:20 IST

An Al-Jazeera cameraman released from US custody at Guantanamo Bay returned home to Sudan on early Friday after six years of imprisonment that drew worldwide protests. Sami al-Haj, along with two other Sudanese released from Guantanamo prison in Cuba on Thursday, arrived at the airport in Sudan's capital Khartoum on a US military plane. The cameraman, who had been on a hunger strike for the past 16 months, grimaced as he was carried off the plane by US military personnel. He was put on a stretcher and taken straight to a hospital.

Al-Jazeera showed footage of al-Haj being carried into the hospital on a stretcher, looking feeble with his eyes closed but smiling. Some of the men surrounding his stretcher were kissing him on the cheek.

"Thank God...for being free again," he told Al-Jazeera from his hospital bed. "Our eyes have the right to shed tears after we have spent all those years in prison. ... But our joy is not going to be complete until our brothers in Guantanamo Bay are freed," he added. "The situation is very bad and getting worse day after day," he said of conditions in Guantanamo. He claimed guards prevent Muslims from practicing their religion and reading the Quran. "Some of our brothers live without clothing."

The US military says that it goes to great lengths to respect the religion of detainees, issuing them Qurans, enforcing quiet among guard staff during prayer calls throughout the day. All cells in Guantanamo have an arrow that points toward the holy city of Mecca. Al-Haj was the only journalist from a major international news organization held at Guantanamo and many of his supporters saw his detention as punishment for a network whose broadcasts angered US officials.

The military alleged he was a courier for a militant Muslim organization, an allegation his lawyers denied.

Al-Haj said that he believed he was arrested because of US hostility toward Al-Jazeera and because the media was reporting on US rights violations in Afghanistan.

Al-Haj was detained in December 2001 by Pakistani authorities as he tried to enter Afghanistan to cover the US-led invasion. He was turned over to the US military and taken in January 2002 to Guantanamo Bay, where the United States holds some 275 men suspected of links to al-Qaida and the Taliban, most of them without charges. Reprieve, the British human rights group that represents 35 Guantanamo prisoners including al-Haj, said Pakistani forces apparently seized al-Haj at the behest of the US authorities who suspected he had interviewed Osama bin Laden, said . But that "supposed intelligence" turned out to be false, Reprieve said in a news release.

"This is wonderful news, and long overdue," said Clive Stafford Smith, Reprieve's Director who has represented al-Haj since 2005. "The US administration has never had any reason for holding Mr. Al Haj, and has, instead, spent six years shamelessly attempting to turn him against his employers at Al-Jazeera."

Sudanese officials said that al-Haj would not face any charges. The US Embassy in Khartoum issued a brief statement confirming the detainee transfer with Sudan and saying it appreciated Sudan's cooperation. US relations with Sudan have been badly strained over the conflict in Darfur which the UN says has killed as many as 300,000 people in five years.

Al-Haj's lawyers said the 38-year-old has been on hunger strike since January 2007 to protest conditions and indefinite confinement at the prison.

Attorney Zachary Katznelson of Reprieve, who met al-Haj at Guantanamo on April 11, said that he was "emaciated" because of his hunger strike. and had recently been having problems with his liver and kidneys and had blood in his urine.

"Sami is a poster child for everything that is wrong about Guantanamo Bay: No charges, no trial, constantly shifting allegations, brutal treatment, no visits with family, not even a phone call home," Katznelson said Thursday.

"Sami was never alleged to have hurt a soul, and was never proven to have committed any crimes. Yet, he had fewer rights than convicted mass murderers or rapists. What has happened to American justice?"

Al-Jazeera is based in Qatar and is funded by the royal family of the Persian Gulf nation. Its Arabic channel has been excoriated by the Bush administration as a mouthpiece for terrorists including Osama bin Laden.

Wadah Khanfar, managing director of Al-Jazeera Arabic, said of al-Haj's release: "We are overwhelmed with joy." Al-Haj was never prosecuted at Guantanamo so the US did not make public its full allegations against him. But in a hearing that determined that he was an enemy combatant, US officials alleged that in the 1990s, al-Haj was an executive assistant at a Qatar-based beverage company that provided support to Muslim fighters in Bosnia and Chechnya.

The US claimed he also traveled to Azerbaijan at least eight times to carry money on behalf of his employer to the Al-Haramain Islamic Foundation, a now defunct charity that US authorities say funded militant groups.

The officials said during this period that he met Mamdouh Mahmud Salim, a senior lieutenant to Osama bin Laden who was arrested in Germany in 1998 and extradited to the United States. Officials did not provide details.

Reporters Without Borders expressed "huge relief" at al-Haj's relief.

"Sami Al-Haj should never have been held so long. US authorities never proved that he had been involved in any kind of criminal activity. This case is yet another example of the injustice reigning in Guantanamo. The base should be closed as quickly as possible," Reporters Without Borders said.

The Committee to Protect Journalists also welcomed the release. "His detention for six years, without the most basic due process, is a grave injustice and represents a threat to all journalists working in conflict areas."

Reprieve identified the two other Sudanese Guantanamo detainees who were released as Amir Yacoub Al Amir and Walid Ali. Reprieve also said Moroccan detainee Said Boujaadia, 39, was also released. He was flown home on the same plane as al-Haj, which made a stop in Morocco. The group said that he was in taken into custody in Morocco.