In U.S., concern about jailed Al-Jazeera cameraman’s health

New York, February 28, 2007—The Committee to Protect Journalists is deeply concerned about reports that an Al-Jazeera cameraman detained for nearly five years without charge at the U.S. naval base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, has been on hunger strike over the last 48 days and that he may be in failing health.

Al-Jazeera’s Arabic-language Web site has reported that Sami al-Haj, a 38-year-old cameraman, has been on hunger strike since early January in protest of his continued incarceration. In December 2001, al-Haj was detained by Pakistani forces along the Afghan-Pakistani border while covering the U.S. led-offensive to unseat the Taliban and later transported by the U.S. military to Guantanamo Bay in June 2002.

Zachary Katznelson, senior counsel of Reprieve, a London-based human rights group representing al-Haj, visited the cameraman at Guantanamo Bay on February 1. He would not confirm whether his client was on hunger strike, stating that information from his meeting with al-Haj had not yet been declassified by the U.S. military. However, he did say that al-Haj appeared frail during their encounter. “I can tell you he looked noticeably thinner from the last time I saw him and he had difficulty standing up,” Katznelson told CPJ, adding that al-Haj drank only water during their day-long meeting. Katznelson said al-Haj had indicated in previous communications that he intended go on hunger strike until he was released, or he died.

Last week, the Associated Press reported that 11 Guantanamo inmates were on hunger strike as of February 22, but that it was unknown whether al-Haj was among them.

Pentagon spokesman J.D. Gordon told CPJ that inmates “from time to time do go on hunger strike,” but that he had no information about al-Haj and whether he was taking part in one.

“We are concerned for the wellbeing of Sami al-Haj who has been held by the U.S. for more than five years without charge or trial,” said CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon. “The United States should either charge him with a crime and give him a fair trial, or release him at once.”

The only confirmed journalist held at Guantanamo, al-Haj has not been charged with a crime, or faced trial. U.S. military authorities have accused him of working as a financial courier for armed groups and assisting al-Qaeda and extremist figures. Another of al-Haj’s attorneys, Clive Stafford Smith, has called the accusations baseless and said that his client has committed no crime. Stafford Smith contends that al-Haj’s continued detention is political and that U.S. interrogators have focused almost exclusively on obtaining intelligence on Al-Jazeera and its staff. At one point, he said, military officials told al-Haj that he would be released if he agreed to inform U.S. intelligence authorities about the satellite network’s activities. Al-Haj refused, he said.

In October 2006, CPJ highlighted al-Haj’s plight in a special report titled “The Enemy?”