New York, October 26, 2005—The Committee to Protect Journalists is concerned about alleged attempts by the U.S. military to recruit a detained journalist as a spy. London’s Guardian newspaper reported that U.S. military interrogators allegedly told a journalist for Qatar-based Al-Jazeera that he would be released if he agreed to inform U.S. intelligence authorities about the satellite news network’s activities.
The Guardian published the allegation on September 26. CPJ later interviewed the military and the journalist’s lawyer and reviewed letters said to have come from the journalist.
The journalist, Sami Muhyideen al-Haj, an assistant cameraman for Al-Jazeera, was arrested by Pakistani authorities along the Afghan-Pakistani border while on assignment for the network in December 2001. He was later transferred to U.S. custody. Al-Haj has since been brought to the U.S. military facility in Guantanamo Bay, where he is being held as an accused “enemy combatant,” according to his London-based lawyer, Clive Stafford Smith.
“There is very little against him in terms of the official allegations,” Smith told CPJ. “They are mostly trying to get Sami to become an informant against Al-Jazeera.”
U.S. Navy Lt. Cmdr. Chris Loundermon declined to respond to the lawyer’s charge or to confirm al-Haj’s detainment. “I’m not going to get into an intelligence conversation,” said Loundermon, a spokesman for the U.S. Southern Command, which administers the Guantanamo military facility.
Al-Jazeera reported in 2002 that al-Haj, a 35-year-old Sudanese national, was being held in Guantanamo Bay. The network said it learned of his detention—first at a U.S. detention camp in Afghanistan and later at Camp X-ray in Guantanamo Bay—from letters he sent to the station and to his wife in care of Al-Jazeera, beginning in April 2002. His letters identify him as detainee #JJJSDE, Al-Jazeera said at the time.
Al-Haj was detained by Pakistani forces on December 15, 2001, after he and an Al-Jazeera reporter attempted to re-enter southern Afghanistan at the Chaman border crossing in Pakistan, station officials said.
The reporter who was with al-Haj at the border told CPJ that the cameraman was stopped by order of Pakistani intelligence. According to the reporter, a Pakistani intelligence official said that there was a problem with al-Haj’s passport.
In September 2002, CPJ wrote to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld calling on the Pentagon to detail the basis for al-Haj’s detention. CPJ received no response.
“We’re troubled by these latest reports, but most disturbing is the U.S. military’s long-term detention of Sami al-Haj without putting forward evidence that he has committed a crime,” CPJ Executive Director Ann Cooper said. “The implication here is that the military can detain a journalist in the field, as it does with other suspects, and hold him for months or years without due process or establishing a legal basis for his incarceration.”
Cooper added: “The United States should credibly explain the basis for Sami al-Haj’s detention or release him immediately.”