Thursday, 28 September 2006

Letters from Guantanamo - Sami al-Hajj

Letters From Guantanamo, presented by Gavin Esler was broadcast on BBC Radio Four on Wednesday 27 Sept 2006, repeated Saturday 30 Sept 2006. Listen to the programme here (40MB Mp3 file, 43 min).
Guantanamo Bay is the world's most controversial prison, the heart of George Bush's "war on terror".

Over the past few months the BBC has obtained access to the biggest cache of letters to come out of Guantanamo from someone still detained there.

He is known to the Americans as Enemy Combatant Prisoner 345, Camp Four, Guantanamo Bay.

His employers - the Arab TV station Al Jazeera - call him Sami al-Hajj, a cameraman who was picked up on the Pakistan-Afghan border almost five years ago.

And his young son Muhammad, who is just six years old, hardly knows him at all.

'Abuse'

Sami's story emerges in his own words, through the letters he has sent out and which have been through the US censorship process.

Here's a flavour:

"Who are these people who are held in cages not even fit for wild animals? How do these humans live?"

"The Prophet Jonah lived inside a whale - and Moses lived in a coffin. So, I have to force myself to think that these Guantanamo cells are only for those who are strong, and those who have the will to adopt the path of the prophets.

"If I have to stay all my life in these cages, let those who inflict this on me do what they wish, but I feel that I am living the life of a king."

Sometimes the letters are moving, sometimes shocking, sometimes merely recounting the tedium of his life.

Throughout, they are impossible to corroborate.

Sami claims he and other prisoners are beaten and that medical treatment is used as an inducement to cooperate with the interrogators - the US authorities strongly deny this.

But the Americans will not say why Sami is being held or why he has been interrogated more than 130 times.

They have not charged him with any offence, he has not been tried, he has not been sentenced - and therefore he has no hope of one day being freed, except at the whim of those holding him.

It is possible Sami could be some kind of terrorist.

But in months of talking to his family, relatives, lawyers, former detainees, and US sources including the commander of Guantanamo Bay, Rear Admiral Harry Harris, we have found absolutely no evidence which would suggest Sami is anything other than what he claims - "a man of peace."

'Asymmetrical warfare'

Of course that doesn't necessarily mean that there isn't any.

Rear Admiral Harris is adamant that the people in his care are well looked after and are enemies of the United States.

He told me they use any weapon they can - including their own urine and faeces - to continue to wage war on the United States.

The suicide of three detainees, he reaffirmed to me, amounted to "asymmetrical warfare."

The letters undeniably show there is a struggle between inmates and those holding them.

In one letter Sami imagines cells like those at Guantanamo at the foot of the Statue of Liberty: "Inside there are creatures wearing orange clothing. It hardly seems possible that they are human (but) they breathe, just like we breathe, they have feelings just as we have feelings, sentiments and emotions..."

"Will one day the world stand for a moment of silence beside that colossal wreck saying, 'there used to be a stone statue here - a statue called Liberty?"
Gavin Esler, BBC.


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