Tortured Sudanese journalist Sami Al-Hajj released after 7 years in Guantanamo

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Egyptian journalists call for the release of Al-Jazeera cameraman Sami al-Hajj, a Sudanese national being held in Guantanamo Bay, arrested by the U.S. in Afghanistan.

by Safiya Ghori

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.

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