Former BBC captive voices support for detained Al-Jazeera cameraman

New York, October 4, 2007—A BBC reporter kidnapped and held captive in the Gaza Strip for nearly four months this year is expressing his support for Al-Jazeera cameraman Sami al-Haj, who has been held for more than five years without charge at the U.S. Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

In a personal letter addressed to al-Haj, a copy of which was provided to CPJ today, Alan Johnston said he supports the cameraman’s effort to be brought to trial to answer any allegations. “In the light of my own experience of incarceration I am aware of how hard it must be for you and your family to endure your detention, and I very much hope that your case might be resolved soon,” Johnston wrote. “I understand that after some five years in Guantanamo you are calling to be allowed to answer any allegations that are being made against you. And of course I would always support any prisoner’s right to a fair trial.”

Al-Haj had expressed support for Johnston earlier this year, issuing a statement through his lawyer that called for militants to release of the BBC journalist. Johnston, the BBC’s Gaza correspondent, was seized March 12 by four armed men in a white Subaru as he drove near the BBC’s Gaza City office on Al-Wihdah Street. He was freed after nearly four months, following widespread calls for his release. Al-Haj had urged Johnston’s kidnappers that as “brothers in one faith, consider this gift that I request of you: That you release Alan Johnson as soon as possible, without conditions. While the United States has kidnapped me and held me for years on end, this is not a lesson that Muslims should copy.”

In his letter, Johnston thanked al-Haj for the statement. “In the weeks since my release I have done my best to express my gratitude to many of those colleagues who took the time to voice their support for me, and I am writing this letter now to say thank you to you,” Johnston wrote. “I was particularly grateful for your contribution given your own very difficult circumstances.”
Al-Haj, the only known journalist imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay, was detained by Pakistani authorities at the Pakistan-Afghan border on December 15, 2001, while covering the U.S.-led fight to oust the Taliban. He was transferred to U.S. custody and then transported to Guantanamo in June 2002, where he has remained without charge. U.S. military authorities have made vague accusations that al-Haj worked as a financial courier for armed groups and assisted al-Qaeda and extremist figures. Al-Haj’s attorney, Clive Stafford Smith, has called the accusations baseless and contends that U.S. interrogators 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.

Al-Haj, who has staged a hunger strike, is said to be in declining physical and mental health. He has lost nearly 40 pounds, suffers from intestinal and other ailments, and his mental health is deteriorating, according to his lawyer. Last month, U.S. and British medical experts who reviewed some of al-Haj’s recent conversations described the journalist as being in a deteriorated mental state, severely depressed, and “passively suicidal.”
Al-Haj has demanded that he be set free or given a fair trial in a U.S. civilian court. For background on the al-Haj case, read CPJ’s 2006 special report, “The Enemy?