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The journey from Guantánamo

9:05 am - May 9th 2008

by Andy Worthington    

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Last weekend, Clive Stafford Smith, the Director of the legal action charity Reprieve, travelled to Sudan to meet the recently released al-Jazeera cameraman Sami al-Haj. He had been represented by Reprieve since 2005 and was now a free man. This is an edited version of Clive’s report, which includes a passage specifically refuting Pentagon claims that Mr al-Haj, who had been on a hunger strike for 16 months prior to his release, and was taken to a hospital on his arrival in Sudan, “seemed like a healthy individual” as he departed from Guantánamo.

by Clive Stafford-Smith

Even when they were about to release him, the US military was unwilling to treat Sami al-Haj with dignity.

The final days in Guantánamo Bay were very hard. There had been so many false promises that Sami was still uncertain whether he was going to leave, and for the last 15 days he stopped drinking water, in addition to refusing food. Only the food and liquid forced into him kept him alive.

The Admiral came himself to process Sami out. He brought a paper and read it out before telling Sami to sign it. The paper said that Sami recognized the right of the United States to take him as a prisoner again if he did anything wrong. Sami refused. He explained that I, as his lawyer, had told him not to sign any such document.

At around 7 pm on April 30, Sami was taken to the airport. The aircraft waiting was similar to the one that had originally brought him from Afghanistan. Sami and the eight prisoners released with him had to enter through the rear of the plane. Like each man, Sami had his eyes covered, muffs on his ears, and shackles on both his hands and legs. The plane took off at about 10.30pm that night on the first leg of the journey, a 15-hour flight to Baghdad, Iraq.

“When I first requested the toilet the guards said it was not allowed,” Sami said. “So I said I would do it in the chair.” The guards then took him to the toilet, but they would not close the door, unshackle his hands, or take off the eye cover.

They said that they would pull his trousers down and sit him down, and added that he would not be allowed to use the tap to wash afterwards. Eventually, after much argument about how this was senseless and uncivilized, Sami said that he could not use the toilet at all under these circumstances.

Sami ate nothing on the flight. In truth, he never intended to, as he had vowed to himself that he would remain on hunger strike until he was safely in Sudan. He had resolved that he would only break his protest by asking his wife to feed him – his first normal food for 16 months.

Baghdad was only a stopover. Everyone had to change planes. On the second leg of the flight, it was another four hours to Khartoum, a total of twenty in all. By the end, Sami was weak, far weaker than when he left the prison in Cuba.

Even then, the American soldiers were not content to set him free. Before turning him over to the Sudanese authorities, they took off the metal cuffs, but replaced them with plastic restraints, so tight that they cut into his wrists.

“After the plane, the first thing I knew, I was here in the hospital,” Sami told me. Earlier, a member of the medical staff had taken me aside to describe how they had feared for him when he had been transferred from the American soldiers onto a hospital gurney. He had been almost unconscious, and his life signs had dropped to dangerously weak levels. For a while, it seemed that Sami had only come home to die.

It was a strange contrast to Guantánamo, where I recently met a shackled Sami in Camp Iguana. Now we were talking in the VIP room of the Khartoum hospital, with Sami wearing the white traditional robe of a Sudanese, smiling at those around him, and gently instructing his seven-year old son Mohammed to pass around the tin of sweets.

Edited down by Andy Worthington. The full version of this article is here.

The Media Guardian this week also published a longer story on the story of Sami al-Haj.

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About the author
This is a guest post. Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison. Blogging at
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Story Filed Under: Blog ,Civil liberties ,Foreign affairs ,Realpolitik ,United States

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  1. The journey from Guantánamo: One final indignity for Sami al-Haj | Andy Worthington

    […] An edited version of this article was published on the British website Liberal Conspiracy. […]

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