New York, May 1, 2008–The Committee to Protect Journalists welcomes the release today of an Al-Jazeera cameraman who was held for six years without charge or trial at the U.S. Naval Base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Al-Jazeera reported late this afternoon that Sami al-Haj had been freed and was on a plane that was expected to land in Khartoum, Sudan, tonight. The Pentagon had no immediate comment.
“Sami al-Haj is the latest journalist to be freed by the U.S. military after spending years behind bars on the basis of secret evidence and without formal charge or trial,” said CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon. “We are delighted that Sami al-Haj can finally be reunited with his family and friends. But his detention for six years, without the most basic due process, is a grave injustice and represents a threat to all journalists working in conflict areas.”
Al-Haj, who is Sudanese, is the second journalist to be freed by the U.S. military in the last month after being held for a prolonged period without due process. On April 16, Associated Press photographer Bilal Hussein was released from U.S. custody in Iraq, ending a two-year ordeal in which he fended off unsubstantiated accusations from the U.S. military that he had collaborated with Iraqi insurgents. All told, 10 journalists have been held for extended periods by the U.S. military and then released without charge.
The U.S. military continues to hold Jawed Ahmad, a journalist for Canada’s CTV, at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan. Ahmad has been held without charge since October 26, 2007, according to CTV. “Jawed Ahmad should be charged or released immediately,” Simon added.
Al-Haj, 38, was detained in December 2001 by Pakistani forces along the Afghan-Pakistani border while covering the U.S. led-offensive to unseat the Taliban. He was later transported by the U.S. military to Guantanamo Bay in June 2002. He began a hunger strike in January 2007 to protest his continued incarceration.
The only confirmed journalist held at Guantanamo, al-Haj was never charged with a crime and he never faced trial. U.S. military authorities accused him of working as a financial courier for armed groups and assisting al-Qaeda and extremist figures. Al-Haj’s attorney, Clive Stafford Smith, called the accusations baseless and said that his client has committed no crime.
Stafford Smith said that al-Haj’s detention was political and 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. In October 2006, CPJ highlighted al-Haj’s plight in a special report titled “The Enemy?“