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Thursday, October 12, 2006

Houston Chronicle Editorial: Release uncharged al-Jazeera reporter who has been held 5 years

Oct. 6, 2006, 8:02 PM
EDITORIAL: In legal limbo
An Al-Jazeera cameraman in U.S. detention for five years on suspicion of terrorist activities should be brought to trial or else released

Sudanese national Sami al-Haj was 32 when he was arrested at the Pakistan border in 2001 as he and another journalist for the Middle Eastern news agency Al-Jazeera were attempting to enter Afghanistan to cover the fall of the Taliban regime. In a two-year career as a television cameraman and correspondent, al-Haj made numerous trips into the war zone and sent dramatic images of the fighting to his employer.

What he initially took for a simple passport misunderstanding turned into a five-year, continuing legal nightmare for al-Haj, who currently resides in an eight-by-seven-foot cell at the U.S. terrorist detention facility at Guantanamo Bay. He was arrested by Pakistani intelligence officers and turned over to U.S. soldiers, held in Afghanistan and later transported bound and gagged with dozens of other prisoners to the U.S. facility in Cuba. Until last year, the U.S. would not acknowledge it was holding al-Haj, who has a wife and 6-year-old son.

Al-Haj has been accused by military authorities of assisting Chechen and al-Qaida terrorists as a money courier. But al-Haj says that most of his interrogation sessions have focused on the operations of Al-Jazeera, which has frequently obtained and run terrorist videos and tapes and has been criticized by U.S. officials for biased and incendiary reporting. One of the accusations against him is that he interviewed Taliban and al-Qaida leaders, but those are legitimate journalistic endeavors. Al-Haj claims U.S. military officers offered him his freedom in exchange for becoming an informant on Al-Jazeera's activities. He refused.

After five years, al-Haj has yet to be charged or tried, and he continues to maintain his innocence. "With all due respect," he told a Guantanamo administrative review board, "a mistake has been made because I have never been a member of any terrorist group, and I never took part in any terrorist or violent act."

Before his stint with Al-Jazeera, he worked as the administrative assistant for a beverage company owned by a United Arab Emirates national, Muhammad Abdullah al-Umran. In that capacity, he says he legally transported cash for his boss to an Islamic charity in Azerbaijan that was later placed on a terrorist watch list. Al-Haj claims he was simply following instructions and thought the transactions were innocent. He also served as a driver for a visiting friend of al-Umran who later was arrested for involvement in the terrorist bombings of U.S embassies in East Africa. Al-Haj maintains he knew nothing of the man's background.

"There is absolutely zero evidence that he has any history in terrorism at all," says al-Haj's lawyer. Clive Stafford Smith, the legal director of Reprieve, a British human rights group. A report by Joel Campagna of the Committee to Protect Journalists concludes that only a fair and transparent legal process can determine whether al-Haj was a knowing or unwitting conspirator with terrorists or an innocent journalist "plucked from the field while covering the world's biggest story."

According to CPJ, in 2005 U.S. forces held five journalists without charges, including al-Haj and four others in Iraq who were eventually released. That's the same number as Burma, a nation whose military rulers have been criticized repeatedly for violating press freedoms.

Rather than remain in the same category with such unsavory human rights violators, American authorities should swiftly produce any evidence they have against al-Haj and conduct a fair and open legal proceeding consistent with the principles of American jurisprudence. Otherwise, U.S. State Department pronouncements calling for protections for international journalists will continue to have a distinctly hollow ring.

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