The Bush Administration has egg on its face with Sami Al Hajj’s release from the US-run gulag called Guantanamo Bay and his high-profile welcome in Khartoum. (President Omar Hasan Ahmad Al Bashir went to see him). That Washington held Al-Jazeera lensman for over six years without putting him on a trial or bringing charges against him speaks volumes about the self-styled world policeman’s unfair policies.
The US has the audacity to issue an annual human rights report in which it disses countries one by one for their “poor record”, but never turns the searchlight inwards. Neocon hawks have never expressed regrets over the unspeakable crimes brazenly committed in the prison camp and for which no guard has till date been suitably punished.
Public memory is not too short to forget how practising religious inmates were mentally tortured there. If the horror recounted by the lucky souls who were sent home is to be believed, inmates were denied water for ablution, deprived of sleep for long hours, lampooned for their religious beliefs and threatened with dire consequences if they did not comply. Pages from the Holy Book were flushed down the toilet to deal a psychological blow to them and flesh-showing female guards were used to distract men in prayers. Inmates were also subjected to solitary confinement and water boarding and those who resisted the organised barbarity were savagely beaten up. And all this happened under the nose (and with the approval) of the Bush Administration.
Al Hajj’s only crime was that he was working for a TV channel, which refused to report the coalition’s atrocities in Afghanistan and Iraq from the US perspective. Al-Jazeera’s office was deliberately bombed by US jets in Kabul, and Donald Rumsfeld regularly blasted the channel for showing the other side of the story. They went to the extent of calling it the mouthpiece of militants, but could never offer evidence to support their claim. Al-Jazeera continues to be as popular as ever and one can decipher the difference between its coverage and that of Fox or the CNN.
It is indeed a grave injustice that the Sudanese photojournalist was treated as an “enemy combatant” but the US could not even start the most basic due process against him. Washington couldn’t prove that he had been involved in criminal activities. The journalist fraternity deems it a threat to the free media working in war zones. A strong voice should be raised against those who tried to crush the independent media. Al Hajj’s condition shows he underwent a great deal of trauma and torture. Grimacing in pain, he was unable to walk as he alighted from the US military aircraft and was stretchered to the intensive care unit. He looked remarkably thin because he went on a hunger strike to protest against planned excesses.
Al Hajj’s statement that “rats are treated with more humanity than the inmates whose dignity is violated” in the camp suggests that bloodcurdling conditions persist there and there is little hope for 275 inmates still languishing in Gitmo. Al Hajj said there are “people from more than 50 countries that are completely deprived of all rights and privileges.” He added: “Conditions in Guantanamo are very, very bad and they get worse by the day. They will not give them the rights that they give animals.” Commenting on the US-sponsored terrorism in the camp, he said: “The American administration went beyond all human values, all moral values, all religious values.”
It is shocking to know that the treatment Al Hajj received was more horrific than most and that there was an element of racism in the way he was treated. David Remes, a lawyer for 17 detainees, says the cameraman had been “psychologically damaged”. According to him, European detainees were not treated with this brutality and they had all been returned to their countries. Now all the remaining 275 detainees are either Arabs or Asians.
The Bush Administration did not release Al Hajj as a goodwill gesture. It was compelled to do so as it came under sharp criticism. Once the Supreme Court said the men could have lawyers, the pressure increased on Washington and the worldwide condemnation of the ill treatment meted out to untried prisoners isolated the Bush Administration. Gitmo became America’s shame.
The reason why the Americans in general do not have qualms of conscience about the systematic torture at Gitmo is that their government has spent millions on portraying the detainees as the worst of the worst. Therefore, it does not come as a surprise that for more than seven years detainees have not got a chance to be brought before a civil court. It seems that the Geneva Convention does not mean anything to the Americans. No one knows who has given them the licence to abuse abducted men called “enemy combatants”.
It is revolting to note that instead of offering Al Hajj an unconditional public apology, the US military, before his release, urged him to spy on his employers. Although nothing under the sun can be offered to Al Hajj to compensate for the six years of his lost youth, the least George Bush can do now to save his face is say sorry to his family and reward him with an international prize for preserving the freedom of the Press.
[The writer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org]