My youngest one is as old as the young son of Sami Al Hajj, the Al Jazeera cameraman who was carried home to freedom on a stretcher last week, after seven years in the Guantanamo Bay.
Watching a shockingly emaciated Al Hajj shower kisses on his son at a Khartoum hospital, where he has been admitted after freedom from the high security prison in Cuba, I couldn’t help think about my own kids.
I put myself in Hajj’s shoes and wonder how I would fare if I ended up in Bush’s gulag. What would happen to my own children and loved ones? And what chance would I have at freedom, if I got picked up by America’s friends and allies and ended up in the Bay, just as Al Hajj had been?
You might think I don’t have to end up in the Bay. I am not a terrorist. And I haven’t done anything except hold a mirror to the US and other big powers once in a while. But then Al Hajj is not a terrorist either. He did not fly any planes into the symbols of America’s might. He did not try to blow himself up near the White House or Pentagon. The only crime he ever committed was work for Al Jazeera, the television channel the Americans seem to think is run by Osama Bin Laden.
Al Hajj was on his way to Afghanistan to report for Al Jazeera when he was picked up by the authorities in Pakistan in 2001 and handed over to the US. Despite holding a valid visa to work as a journalist in Afghanistan, he was bundled off as an ‘enemy combatant’ to Gitmo.
Today, reunited with his family in Khartoum, Al Hajj is understandably emotional. Articulating his happiness at finding himself among his loved ones and sense of outrage at what he has been through at the same time is almost overwhelming for him. And more than the relief at his freedom, it is the thought of those left behind that torments him.
Watching the homecoming of Hajj, shown live on Al Jazeera for hours and watched by an outraged Arab world, a senior colleague comments: “I find it hard to believe this can happen in our age and time. And that too by the world’s greatest democracy and champion of human rights! I mean, how could you lock up a guy for years without a trial and charges and get away with it!”
Exactly. How could they do this to an individual in this age? Especially doing this to a journalist, working for a prominent media organisation as Al Jazeera, is a little hard to stomach. Yet that’s precisely what happened to Hajj. Repeated appeals and campaigning by human rights agencies and media groups failed to persuade the US authorities to let Al Jazeera man go.
This is what Sami Al Hajj was trying to point out after his release. Fearing for those left behind, Al Hajj repeatedly appealed to the world’s conscience – if there’s such a thing as the world’s conscience – calling for justice and urgent efforts by the international community for freeing those still held at the Bay in most horrific conditions, without a trial, without a charge and without the so-called due process.
I don’t know how many people paid attention to what this distraught man was saying. But this is something that no human being with any belief in humanity and human dignity can ignore.
“Conditions in Guantanamo are very, very bad and they get worse by the day,” Al Hajj told the media from his hospital bed. “Our human dignity was violated and the US administration went beyond all human values, moral values, religious values. There are people from more than 50 countries who are completely deprived of all rights and privileges. They will not give them the rights that they give their animals.”
Strong words! And a damning indictment of the US and all that it stands for. But there’s no reason to doubt Al Hajj’s claim. The journalist himself is a walking proof of all that is wrong with the Gitmo. The Al Jazeera man was in his early 30s when he was captured. Today he’s in his late 30s but looks like a man in 80s. So much so his own brother Asim couldn’t recognise him when he was brought out of the aircraft.
It’s believed that by targeting Al Hajj, the US was trying to punish Al Jazeera for trying to show the alternate reality of the war on terror that the US media can’t or dare not. Al Jazeera, with its refreshingly bold approach and daredevil team of reporters, offers you the perspective you won’t find on CNN.
David Remes, a lawyer fighting for the Bay detainees, says there was also an element of racism in the way Al Hajj was treated and abused at the Bay. “The Europeans would never receive this sort of treatment,” Remes points out. As a result, Al Hajj is today “psychologically damaged” and might never recover from the trauma he underwent over the past seven years.
You would think those responsible for this would at least be repentant, if not offer a sincere apology to Al Hajj and his family. But as if responding to the outrage in the Muslim world over Al Hajj episode, a US spokesperson says Al Jazeera man was PRETENDING to be ill when the aircraft carrying him landed in Khartoum. The official told ABC News Hajj was a ‘manipulator and a propagandist’ and was “faking illness” on his homecoming.
Al Hajj was in such a bad shape that the Sudanese and US officials accompanying him were alarmed. Sudanese minister Kamal Obeid says that “Hajj was exhausted, with very slow heart beats and low blood pressure.” Only after he was drip-fed that the journalist was able to regain strength.
And there are still hundreds of Sami al Hajjs out there languishing in the biggest gulag of our time, waiting for their turn and waiting for freedom and justice. Contrary to the US claims, most of those individuals are innocent people who happened to be at the wrong place at a wrong time. Except for an odd militant or two, most of them are ordinary men like you and me.
This has been repeatedly argued by rights groups like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch and several courageous lawyers and activists in the US. The Washington Post ran a whole series proving why most of the Bay detainees are innocent people picked up by booty hunters in Afghanistan and Pakistan who were turned over as ‘terrorists’ to the US for a cash price.
And the world has forgotten these innocent men. After all, it has enough of its own existing problems, from shooting oil prices to worsening food crisis. Who cares for nearly 300 faceless individuals, especially if they happen to be Arab or Muslim? There’s not a greater sin than being a Muslim in the time of terror war.
When will the US and the world wake up to the shame of Guantánamo Bay? Because this gulag and all that goes on in there fly in the face of all that America and the civilized world believe in. Freedom, justice, democracy, the rule of law and human rights; everything is at stake in the Guantanamo Bay.
Nicolas D Kristof of New York Times says, “It would take an exceptional enemy to damage America’s image and interests as much as Bush and Cheney already have with Guantánamo.”
They certainly have. The Guantánamo Bay violates everything that the US once celebrated and epitomised. And it’s not the terrorists and so-called enemy combatants who are incarcerated there. It’s America’s ideals that are imprisoned in the Guantanamo Bay. Free them, Mr Bush!
[Aijaz Zaka Syed is a Dubai-based journalist and commentator. Write to him at Aijaz.Syed@hotmail.com]