The scandal of prisoner 345

IT IS an image that has become associated with George Bush's so-called war on terror: terrorist suspects in orange jumpsuits, hands and feet shackled, kneeling in a prison yard, miles from home.

By Adam Cuna & Yvonne Singh (Media)

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Published: Fri 18 Jan 2008, 9:50 AM

Last updated: Wed 8 Apr 2015, 1:25 PM

Last week marked the sixth anniversary of so-called terrorist detainees being held at Guantanamo Bay detention camp in Cuba. Since January 2002, 775 detainees have been held at the controversial camp, and approximately 355 remain.

One of them is Al Jazeera cameraman Sami Al Haj, known as prisoner 345, the only journalist held at Guantanamo Bay. The 38-year-old Sudanese national has been detained as "an enemy combatant" for more than five years without trial.

Al Haj was arrested at the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan on December 15, 2001, while on assignment to cover the war against the Taleban, and transferred to Guantanamo in June 2002. Although he had a legitimate visa to work in Afghanistan, US Intelligence alleged that he was an Al Qaeda operative.

Like many detainees, Al Haj has endured appalling treatment during his incarceration: his supporters allege that he has been interrogated more than 100 times, and suffered physical and mental abuse, and that his medication for rheumatism and throat cancer has been denied.

Frustrated at not being given a fair trial or being allowed to see his family, the journalist has been on hunger strike for more than a year. His refusal of food has meant that he has had to endure an "assisted feeding: regime twice a day, where a tube is forced into the stomach through a nasal passage, and liquefied food pumped in. The process is used to deter prisoners at the US naval base from hunger strikes.

It is all taking a devastating toll on Al Haj, and friends and colleagues have voiced their most urgent fears yet for his sanity and survival. "He might not make it out alive from Guantanamo," says former BBC reporter Rageh Omaar.

"He is morbidly suicidal, he's lost the will to live. Sami is languishing, potentially in danger of death, simply because it's easier for the Americans to save themselves the embarrassment of having to admit they got a journalist and have held him for years."

Prisoner 345, a documentary by director Abdallah El-Binni, based on Al Haj's incarceration at Guantanamo, was released two years ago to publicise the cameraman's plight, and the BBC reporter Alan Johnston has written an open letter to the Guantanamo detainee, thanking him for his support (Al Haj made a plea for Johnston's release) when he himself was kidnapped and held in Gaza.

However, Omaar says he is "at times fairly sickened" by the lack of public outcry over the plight of Al Haj. "If you look at the response to the kidnapping of Alan Johnston in Gaza and compare it to the overwhelming, deafening silence in Sami’s case, it's completely shaken my confidence in the notion of journalistic solidarity," he says.

Al Haj's lawyer, Clive Stafford Smith, has been scathing about what he says are the "ludicrous" allegations against the Al Jazeera cameraman. "Sami is no more a terrorist than my grandmother," he says. Despite this, Al Haj continues to languish in a cell in Guantanamo Bay. His supporters hope that 2008 will be the year that he is released.

© Guardian News Service

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