Al-Jazeera cameraman released from Gitmo [Archives:2008/1152/Local News]

May 5 2008

Sarah Wolff
SANA'A, May 4 ) Al-Jazeera cameraman Sami Al-Hajj returned to his home in Sudan this past weekend after being released from the American military prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, though more than 200 other inmates languish without trial in the facility.

Al-Hajj, who was accompanied home by three other detainees, two Sudanese and one Moroccan, spoke out publicly against the conditions of the prison facility, which he called “very bad” and said it was getting worse by the day. Five Afghan detainees were also repatriated, according to the U.S. Department of Defense.

Al-Hajj, who was detained for over six years without formal charges, has been on a hunger strike since January 2007 and was rushed to the hospital in Khartoum as soon as he exited the American military plane he arrived in. The U.S. declared Al-Hajj an “enemy combatant” during a hearing after his arrest.

Of the approximately 275 inmates still held at the facility, over a third are Yemeni men. Yemenis now make up the largest nationality group currently in detention at Guantanamo Bay.

Reports vary about the status of the Yemeni detainees. Government authorities announced as late as last May that they had agreed to repatriate prisoners held at the facility; however, very few have returned since then and the pressure on both the U.S. and Yemeni governments to return the prisoners continues to grow.

The hold-up on Yemeni returnees continues

Countries such as Jordan and Saudi Arabia have already received their nationals back home, but Yemen has only been able to repatriate a few of the men held at the facility over the last seven years.

Earlier this year in February, protesters including families and friends of inmates gathered in front of Parliament and demanded their loved ones' return. In response to the protest, Parliament convened the committee for foreign affairs to work on repatriation negotiations, though it is unclear how much progress the committee has made.

Around the same time, President Ali Abdullah Saleh made a formal demand to American ambassador to Yemen Stephen Seche asking for the return of Yemeni inmates.

Both governments blame the other for repatriation delay

Lawyer Marc Falkoff, who represents a number of Yemeni Gitmo detainees, said that some Yemeni prisoners have been cleared for release for years. However, the Yemeni and U.S. governments disagree about what to do with the former prisoners once they return home.

Various Parliament members, like Abdul Rahman Bafadel of the Islah Party, blame the U.S. government for failing to return the prisoners. However, the sticking point between the two countries is purportedly the arrangements Yemen makes when dealing with the former inmates. The Yemeni government requires returned prisoners to sign a document, backed by their families and tribes, stating that they will no longer pursue violent jihad. The U.S. has expressed concern over the limits of these documents, worrying that they cannot sufficiently prevent further attacks.

The U.S. announced in February that it will put a number of high-profile prisoners on trial in the coming months. These high profile prisoners, including Yemeni Ramzi Bin Al-Shaibah (also written Bin Al-Shibh), who was lead attacker Mohammed Atta's roommate and is said to have helped organize the 9/11 attacks on the United States, will be tried in military tribunals instead of criminal or civil courts. Human rights groups, including Yemen's National Organization for Defending Rights and Freedoms, have denounced these military tribunals as biased and unfair.

Al-Hajj denounces inhumane treatment of prisoners

In the meantime, the cameraman was reunited with his family, but his happiness was marred by the thoughts of other prisoners. “Our joy is not going to be complete until our brothers in Guantanamo Bay are freed,” he said to the Associated Press.

Al-Jazeera said that they will continue to employ Al-Hajj and the director-general of the media outlet, Wadah Khanfar, was in Khartoum to welcome him back home. Al-Hajj was arrested near the Pakistan-Afghanistan border in 2001 by Pakistani police and then transferred to U.S. custody in 2002. Al-Hajj had permission to film in Pakistan and Afghanistan at the time of his arrest and was employed by the Al-Jazeera network since 2000. Some of his supporters claimed that American forces detained Al-Hajj in retaliation to his network's coverage of human rights abuses in Afghanistan and the prominence that it gives Al-Qaeda press releases. The U.S. accused Al-Hajj of having helped transfer funds to Muslim armed groups in Bosnia and Chechnya, though his lawyers have consistently denied it.

Al-Hajj spoke about the lack of respect he and his fellow prisoners in Guantanamo received, saying that even rats were treated better than the inmates. “Our human dignity was violated,” he said.

While speaking to the media upon his arrival in Sudan, Al-Hajj accused the Guantanamo facility of preventing its inmates from practicing their religion. However, the U.S. military staff which administers the prison maintains that it gives prisoners copies of the Qur'an and makes sure that prison guards are quiet during the five daily calls to prayer.

Most of the prisoners, Al-Hajj included, were not formally charged and many still remain behind bars without trial. Meanwhile, as the two governments continue their disagreement over prisoner repatriation, the Yemenis held at Guantanamo will have to keep on waiting.