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Sami al-Hajj and Bilal Hussein: Their Names Mostly Unknown in U.S., Jailed Journalists Have Spent Combined Six Years in U.S. Military Prisons Without Charge

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We take an in-depth look at the case of two reporters whose imprisonment by U.S. forces has gone largely ignored in the corporate media. Al Jazeera cameraman Sami al-Hajj has been jailed without charge at Guantanamo for the past five-and-a-half years. Associated Press photographer Bilal Hussein has spent more than a year in a U.S. military prison in Iraq, also without charge. U.S. officials haven’t made public any evidence of wrongdoing. We speak with Rachel Morris, author of a new article detailing al-Hajj’s ordeal, and Scott Horton, a lawyer specializing in international law and human rights who’s closely followed Hussein’s case. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: The release of BBC reporter Alan Johnston earlier this month after 114 days in captivity in Gaza made headlines around the world and was hailed internationally as a victory for press freedom.

During Johnston’s nearly four months in captivity, calls for his release came from world leaders and human rights organizations alike. Over 200,000 people signed an online petition calling for him to be freed.

But perhaps the most poignant of Johnston’s supporters came from deep within the U.S. prison camp at Guantanamo Bay. Sami al-Hajj, an Al Jazeera cameraman who had been jailed without charge at Guantanamo for the past five-and-a-half years, sent a letter via his lawyer calling for Johnston’s release. He wrote, “While the United States has kidnapped me and held me for years on end, this is not a lesson that Muslims should copy.”

AMY GOODMAN: In comparison to journalist Alan Johnston, Sami al-Hajj’s story of abduction has been largely ignored by the corporate media, kept out of the global spotlight. He’s a Sudanese national. Al-Hajj was working as a cameraman for the Arabic television network Al Jazeera when he was detained on December 15th, 2001, at a Pakistani town on the border with Afghanistan. After being transferred to U.S. custody, he was flown to Bagram Air Base, six months later flown to Guantanamo. He has been imprisoned there without charge ever since.

A new article detailing Sami al-Hajj’s ordeal is the cover story of the latest issue of The Columbia Journalism Review. It’s called “Prisoner 345: What Happened to Al Jazeera’s Sami al-Haj.” It’s written by Rachel Morris, an editor at The Washington Monthly. Rachel joins us now from Washington, D.C.

Welcome to Democracy Now!, Rachel. How did you learn about Sami al-Hajj? Why did you do this piece?

RACHEL MORRIS: Well, I had been reading and following what had been happening in Guantanamo ever since the first prisoners were sent over there. And after the lawyers first got access to the prisoners in 2004, very, very slowly you started to see, you know, reports and even eventually a couple of books coming out by, you know, people who had been released. So I was really keeping track of trying to figure out who was in there and what some of their individual stories were.

JUAN GONZALEZ: In your piece, you go into a lot of his history, his upbringing and his entry into journalism. Could you talk a little about who he is?

RACHEL MORRIS: Sure. When I was reporting the piece, I talked to, you know, friends and family and as many of his former colleagues from Al Jazeera as I could track down. And in terms of his actual personal life, I, you know, didn’t manage to provide an incredibly detailed picture of who he was, but from what I know, he grew up in the Sudan, and his family was not particularly well-off, and went to university in India, where he studied English and computer studies, which is one of the reasons that he was hired by Al Jazeera, because of his skills in those two areas. And from what people have told me from, you know, a pretty early age, he was an avid reader, followed the media very closely, particularly Al Jazeera, read a lot of newspapers, just a very sort of interested student of what’s going on in the world. He started at Al Jazeera in around 2000 as a trainee cameraman. They sort of started him on a trial basis, and so he was, you know, relatively inexperienced when he wound up going to Afghanistan in 2001.

AMY GOODMAN: And what exactly was he doing on the border? And then explain what happened, how he ended up in Guantanamo, and what the U.S. government has said about him.

RACHEL MORRIS: Sure. Well, essentially, he initially went to Afghanistan fairly soon after the U.S. started military operations there and was filming for one of its correspondents and working out of a bureau in Kandahar, which was operated by CNN. And the Al Jazeera and the CNN crews spent some time together and got to know each other a little bit, and, you know, there was some sort of interaction there.

And then after about a month or so, I think, the initial Al Jazeera correspondent who had gone there had to return, and so Sami al-Hajj went back to Pakistan to meet the replacement. And so, it was when the new correspondent and al-Hajj were attempting to reenter Afghanistan to continue reporting, that that was when he was detained. And the other correspondent was not, you know, held in any way. It was just Pakistani intelligence claimed to have, you know, a letter saying that al-Hajj was suspected of terrorist activities or links to terrorists and should be stopped if he was found at a border point.

In terms of what the U.S. has said about him, it took an awfully long time before, you know, any sort of official statement or, you know, description of what he was alleged to have done came out at all. I mean, really for the first couple of years, nobody really knew why he was there at all. People from Al Jazeera had attempted to make some contact with U.S. authorities, not sort of that much in the initial stages of his detention, and they really couldn’t learn that much about why he was there. It was all sort of very vague statements about, you know, him having sort of suspicious links with terrorist organizations, but not really any specifics.

It wasn’t until basically he got a lawyer, and then that after the Supreme Court ruling in 2004, that, you know, said that the detainees had to have some sort of, you know, process to determine their status, that basically you started to get these sort of — they’re not really charges at all or sort of allegations. They’re called a summary of evidence. And it sort of summarizes what the government says it has on each detainee.

And the evidence that they have said that they’ve got has sort of changed over time. Initially, his lawyer was told that, you know, they thought that he had been trying to purchase Stinger missiles in Afghanistan. Then it changed to Stinger missiles in Chechnya. The most recent record that I have seen had dropped those charges entirely. There had also been a sort of — when he was first picked up, people in Afghanistan had said, you know, “We think you’ve recorded a video for Osama bin Laden.” That was never stated in any sort of official capacity. That was something he was accused of by guards in Afghanistan not long after he was transferred to American custody.

AMY GOODMAN: Rachel Morris, we have to break, but we’re going to come back, and I want to ask you about his lawyer contending that the U.S. authorities said they would release him if he would be a spy on his own network, on Al Jazeera. Rachel Morris is the editor of Washington Monthly, wrote a cover story of The Columbia Journalism Review on the more-than-five-year detention of Sami al-Hajj, Al Jazeera cameraman at Guantanamo. We’re also going to talk about a Pulitzer Prize-winning AP photographer who’s being held by U.S. military in Iraq for more than a year.


AMY GOODMAN: Our guest, Rachel Morris, editor at The Washington Monthly, author of a new piece on Sami al-Hajj, Al Jazeera cameraman, who has been held at Guantanamo for five-and-a-half years. Rachel, is it true that his attorney, Clive Stafford Smith, said that Sami al-Hajj told him that U.S. authorities said they’d release him if he was willing to spy on his own network, on Al Jazeera?

RACHEL MORRIS: That’s right. What Clive Stafford Smith has told me is that really ever since al-Hajj has been in Guantanamo, that he’s had around 130 interrogations, approximately. And around 125 of them have concerned his work for Al Jazeera, rather than any, you know, alleged terrorist links or anything like that, and that at some point during one or more of those interrogations, he was told that if he, you know, would inform on the network, that he would be released.

AMY GOODMAN: We want to bring Scott Horton into this conversation. We want him also to talk about the photographer who is being held by U.S. military in Iraq for more than a year, but I want to stay on this subject. Scott Horton, New York attorney specializing in international law, he formerly served as the head of the New York City Bar Association and also is with the Iraq Bar Association, a member of that bar. Scott, what about this allegation of Sami al-Hajj?

SCOTT HORTON: Well, when I heard about this — I discussed it with Clive Stafford Smith earlier, and when I heard it, it struck me as amazing, because it’s a consistent pattern with detentions of journalists that occurred in Iraq, particularly two cases that I worked on indirectly, the one involving the CBS cameraman, Abdul Ameer Younis Hussein, and then later the AP photographer, Bilal Hussein. In both cases, when they were detained and interrogated, the interrogators were heavily focused on the internal functionings of the news organizations they worked with, wanted to know what was going on, how they interacted, how they hired local staffers to pursue their work. So it seemed to be gathering intelligence on the media, rather than with respect to any notion of a crime or wrongdoing by these people.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And the AP photographer, could you talk to us about his case?

SCOTT HORTON: Yes. Well, he’s now been imprisoned since April 5th of last year, more than a year, and we still don’t know the reasons for his detention. In fact, in discussing this with the military, almost every time you talk to them they have different concerns that they trot out. I investigated those concerns for about eight months. I found virtually every specific fact that they trotted out as a basis for a concern was simply untrue. They refuse to bring charges of any kind. In fact, Sami al-Hajj just said he was kidnapped. Well, I would say Bilal Hussein has been kidnapped by the military. There is no legal justification of any kind for his detention.

JUAN GONZALEZ: How was he grabbed initially?

SCOTT HORTON: He was grabbed in Ramadi by a patrol. The initial announcement by the Baghdad Command was that he was caught red-handed in some sort of action. Of course, I interviewed some of the people who were involved in detaining him. They told me that was a complete lie, that they had been sent out on a mission to get him and that the instructions had come way, way, way up the chain of command, in fact, the implication being that it hadn’t been decided in Baghdad, it had been decided in the Pentagon and Washington.

AMY GOODMAN: So the U.S. government simply calls him a security threat, and on those grounds alone they can just hold him indefinitely?

SCOTT HORTON: They claim to be able to seize and hold anyone as a security threat indefinitely, without charges, without review, without presenting cases to the courts.

AMY GOODMAN: What is AP doing about this?

SCOTT HORTON: I have not been involved in the matter since the end of last year, but, you know, the president of AP and numerous senior people there have been very aggressive in this case, and they’ve been pursuing it along several different channels, including, I think, a very intense dialogue with the Pentagon.

AMY GOODMAN: You referred to the U.S. cameraman. This is the case that you seriously investigated. In fact, didn’t you represent him, the CBS cameraman?

SCOTT HORTON: The CBS cameraman, that’s right.

AMY GOODMAN: Explain his case, to give us some insight. He has since been released.

SCOTT HORTON: He was released one week before Bilal Hussein was arrested. In fact, we think there’s some connection between these two events. But he had been taking pictures of an attack on an American convoy that occurred in Mosul in the north of Iraq, and he was shot as he did this. CBS was told in the first couple of hours after the event that he was going to be released, and then he continued to be held. And he kept being moved around.

And we learned that the center of decision making had passed out of Iraq and was being taken in the Pentagon, in Washington. And in the Pentagon and Washington, unnamed senior press spokesmen, we believe an assistant secretary of defense, were telling reporters, off the record and not for attribution, that he had been found with photographs of four separate incidents of attacks on Americans at the time of the attack. And when we got to the end of the case and the trial, we discovered that was a conscious lie. Absolutely not the case. But it was reported, by the way, on CBS on continuous feed for 36 — excuse me, on CNN on continuous feed for 36 hours, as well as on Fox News. Neither of them ever corrected the false statements that were put out.

JUAN GONZALEZ: What is the impact on the journalists who are in Iraq when you have situations like this of the military just grabbing people and holding them indefinitely without charges?

SCOTT HORTON: Well, we have — I mean, we need to start with the fact that we have more than 110 journalists at this point who have been killed in Iraq. That’s twice the number who were killed in World War II. The number of journalists who have been arrested is now into the thousands. Most of those arrests are simply for establishing identity, and they are resolved in a period of four to six hours, but many of them have gone on for weeks and indeed months, and it is — you know, it creates continuous pressure on the journalists.

But the most disturbing thing here is a tendency on the part of the U.S. military to view these journalists as, quote, “the enemy.” And back three months ago, we actually got to see some classified operational security briefing materials that were prepared by the Department of Defense, in which they labeled journalists in a category together with al-Qaeda and drug dealers as potential enemy, to be treated and viewed as such. That leads to people being killed, by the way.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to go back to Sami al-Hajj and also to talk about the hunger strike he had engaged in. But first, I wanted to turn to the head of Al Jazeera. In February of 2006, Democracy Now! traveled to the headquarters of Al Jazeera in Doha, Qatar. Wadah Khanfar serves as the managing director of Al Jazeera. This is what he had to say about Sami al-Hajj at the time.

WADAH KHANFAR: For more than three years, he is still in Guantanamo Bay. And we have received some letters from him, you know, that goes through the, of course, American guards, but basically I would say that the issue of Sami al-Hajj again has created that rift and that feeling that there are many things that have gone wrong in the relationship between the Arab world and the United States of America after the 11th of September.

We have been — I remember, as a journalist, before 2001, a lot of our Arab governments feared, you know, and they were very — it was difficult for them to jail a journalist, because they would say then that the Americans will make big voice, big loud voice about it, and they will condemn us. So they would respect a little bit of freedom of expression for us to act, because they don’t want to make big issue from the American civil society and organizations. Now, we have someone who is spending more than three years in jail, and we cannot even get any real explanation why he is there and what is the crime of Sami al-Hajj to be held in Guantanamo.

AMY GOODMAN: I’m looking at the pamphlet that says Sami’s first interrogation at Guantanamo came after two days of sleep deprivation. Agents from the Pentagon, CIA, FBI were present, but as much as they wanted to extract incriminating evidence from Sami, they were as interested in gaining inside information about Al Jazeera and recruiting him as a spy both in Guantanamo and in the event of his release.

WADAH KHANFAR: How could we explain this? I mean, I have read this in the newspaper. The lawyer — I mean, the reporter who received that from the lawyer confirms this particular incident. He has been asked to spy on us. He has been asked to give information about the relation — the assumed relationship between Al Jazeera and al-Qaeda, during his coverage in Afghanistan. And the man is still in jail, and he did not give any information. And unfortunately, even they have, according to the reports that we received, he was told that if he gives this kind of information, he would be immediately discharged.

AMY GOODMAN: Wadah Khanfar, who is the managing director of Al Jazeera, speaking to us when we went to Doha to the headquarters of Al Jazeera. Rachel Morris, the condition of Sami al-Hajj now, the hunger strikes he has engaged in?

RACHEL MORRIS: Well, I think, you know, the most sort of recent information that I have and the most sort of recent contact or, you know, intelligence that I’ve had through his lawyer is that, you know, obviously he’s been on hunger strike since January the 10th of this year. And, you know, that would severely weaken a person. Of course, once you lose a certain amount of weight, you start to be force-fed at Guantanamo, and he has undergone that process, you know, I’m not sure how many times. But he’s described it quite vividly and later to his lawyer and, you know, describes it as being something very sort of painful and distressing to go through.

But he also has other health problems, in addition to, you know, the sort of physical weaknesses brought on by not eating for, you know, several months, which include, I think — when he was first brought to Bagram in Afghanistan, he somehow managed to get a knee injury, which I think he said was from being left out in the cold for quite some time by American forces. And he has sort of other health problems that have grown worse in the years that he’s been in Guantanamo.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And, Scott Horton, obviously Al Jazeera has borne the brunt of a lot of these American attacks on the media. Could you talk about Al Jazeera, specifically, what it’s undergone?

SCOTT HORTON: Well, that’s right. I mean, of course, one of the Downing Street papers that came out was a minute of a meeting that occurred at Blair House between Prime Minister Blair and President Bush, at which Bush proposed to him that they bomb the headquarters of Al Jazeera. In fact, at that point Donald Rumsfeld, one day earlier, had given a speech in which he had attacked Al Jazeera. Frank Gaffney and other leading neocons had openly in publications advocated bombing and attacks on Al Jazeera. At around this time, although Blair talked Bush out of the assault on the Al Jazeera headquarters, there were a number of bombings and shootings directed at Al Jazeera personnel. So people were killed, and this is a result of, you know, decisions taken in the White House by the president to get Al Jazeera.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to talk about the spike in killings in the last week. An Iraqi reporter working for The New York Times named Khalid Hassan shot dead on Friday. Gunmen also killed an Iraqi translator working for the Reuters news agency. Rachel is speaking to us from the Reuters newsroom in Washington, D.C. A total of three Reuters staffers have been killed in Iraq in the past week. Last Thursday, Reuters photographer Namir Noor-Eldeen and driver Saeed Chmagh were killed in what witnesses said was a U.S. helicopter attack. Reuters news agency is now calling for a thorough investigation. We have just a few seconds, Scott Horton. Can you talk about the significance of this, as well? Reuters very heavily hit.

SCOTT HORTON: Very heavily hit. I think we’re in a situation now where journalists are specific targets in this war, and they are viewed by the insurgents as being associated with the West, with the occupiers, with the Americans, and they’re viewed by the Americans with this suspicion as being associated with the insurgents. It’s a hopeless predicament for them.

AMY GOODMAN: Scott Horton, I want to thank you very much for being with us, a New York attorney who specializes in international law and human rights, and Rachel Morris, as well, an editor at The Washington Monthly, cover story of The Columbia Journalism Review on Sami al-Hajj. And thank you also, Scott, for talking about Bilal Hussein.

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