December 23, 2009
From Guantánamo to Desk at Al Jazeera
The journalist, Sami al-Hajj, was working for Al Jazeera as a cameraman when he was stopped by Pakistani forces on the border with
Now, more than a year after his release, Mr. Hajj, a 40-year-old native of
“I wanted to talk for seven years, to make up for the seven years of silence,” Mr. Hajj said through an interpreter during an interview at the network’s headquarters in
Among Al Jazeera’s viewers in the Arab world since the 9/11 attacks, perhaps nothing has damaged perceptions of
But Mr. Hajj has not restricted himself to Guantánamo and his own incarceration. He has expanded the network’s coverage of other rights issues, including press freedom in Iraq, Palestinians in Israeli prisons and the implications of the USA Patriot Act. On a Wednesday morning in mid-August, Mr. Hajj pushed Al Jazeera’s news desk to cover a hunger strike by political prisoners in
Nor has his experience radicalized him: he said that, despite his upbringing in a violent and often repressive country and his experience in detention, he maintained a sustaining belief in democracy and the rule of law.
Terry Anderson, an Associated Press correspondent who was detained in
“In prison, what do you do? You think about your life. You think about what you were doing, and how it led you here,” Mr. Anderson said.
Mr. Hajj’s story is well known to Al Jazeera viewers, but not to most Americans. (As with the experiences of many detainees at
He later came to believe that the Americans were seeking another Al Jazeera cameraman, one with a similar name who had recorded an interview with Osama bin Laden after the Sept. 11 attacks.
After being detained by local authorities in
“I had seen a lot of things that I shouldn’t have seen,” he said, citing the treatment of prisoners at Bagram in particular. Mr. Hajj claims that in lengthy interrogations he was asked for details of the network’s staff, policies and processes and that some guards started calling him “Al Jazeera” as a nickname.
He said an interrogator once asked him, “How much does bin Laden pay Al Jazeera for all the propaganda that Al Jazeera supplies?”
“You’re asking the wrong question,” he replied, emphasizing that bin Laden was not a propaganda partner of Al Jazeera, “he’s a newsmaker.”
In American custody, he tried to keep practicing journalism, he said, writing eyewitness accounts for his lawyers and family members, interpreting fellow detainees’ stories of abuse and even making drawings of forced feedings during a hunger strike.
“I felt that I needed to document this for history,” he said, “so that the next generation knows the depth of the crime that was committed.” He audibly emphasized the Arabic word for depth as he spoke.
During the interview, Mr. Hajj displayed a deep wound on his left leg, which he said he suffered when he was pinned against cell bars during a beating at Guantánamo. He reiterated that the emotional trauma was more extensive than the physical; he says he continues to see psychotherapists.
Asked about questioning about Al Jazeera, a Pentagon spokesman said members of the media “are not targeted by U.S. forces, but there is no special category that gives members of media organizations immunity if captured engaging in suspicious, terror-related activity.” The spokesman added that all detainees were treated humanely while in custody.
According to Zachary Katznelson, the legal director for Reprieve, a human rights group that represented Mr. Hajj, the allegations changed over the years: “First, he was alleged to have filmed an interview of Osama bin Laden. It was another cameraman. So, that allegation disappeared. Then the
There was no evidence to back that up at all. So that allegation disappeared.”
Mr. Hajj’s release, back to
Since his release, he has put on weight and honed his rhetoric. He splits his time between Al Jazeera and the
Even during a translated interview, he remained keenly sensitive to language, calling the detainees at Guantánamo “captives,” to call attention to what he says is a “place outside of law.”
When a visitor mentioned “enhanced interrogation techniques,” an American term that characterizes harsh treatment of detainees, Mr. Hajj interrupted the interpreter and said, in Arabic, “instead of torture?”
“We are giving the wrong impression” with that term, he said. “We as journalists are violating human rights because we are changing the perception of reality.”
Oddly, while in a prison sanctioned by American authorities, Mr. Hajj put his faith in the American political system. He gathered bits of news from the guards and, leading up to the 2004 election, was sure that American voters would reject Mr. Bush, which would lead to his freedom. When the guards informed him that the president had been re-elected, he was stunned.
“I was sure I would outlive Bush,” he said.
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"The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles. The master class has had all to gain and nothing to lose, while the subject class has had nothing to gain and everything to lose--especially their lives." Eugene Victor Debs