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THE JOURNALIST HELD AT GUANTANAMO: I KNOW PRISONER #345

Afew days ago, I clicked on a computer photo of an "enemy combatant" at the detention center at Guantanamo, and I was shocked. It was someone I knew, a journalist named Sami al-Haj. - I'd met Sami at the Marriott in Islamabad in early December 2001. Like most of us there, he was a journalist going in and out of Afghanistan to cover the U.S. invasion after 9/11. - A tall African man in a white shalwar kameez (the traditional billowy knee-length shirt and pants of Afghanistan), he stood out as he floated across the beige marble lobby of the hotel. His U.S. pals would see him coming, and yell, "It's the al-Qaida reporter!" - At the time, everyone, including him, laughed at the silliness of the comment. But it ceased to be funny when he fell off the planet.

I'd read about the U.S. military base in Guantanamo, where 770 men, believed by the Pentagon to be terrorists from all over the world, were kept for years without due process. I'd read about their well-documented torture - though some won't call it that - and extreme sensory deprivation. Their sad attempts at protest through suicide and hunger strikes. Their "passive suicides," a clinical term that came out of the Holocaust in World War II for people so stripped of dignity, purpose and hope that they do nothing but wait to die.

I'd also read about U.S. military officers who risked their careers to get the word out and improve conditions there.

And I knew that charges against hundreds of the prisoners have proven false and they are slowly being released. But not Sami al-Haj and more than 200 others who are held on the basis of secret evidence.

I was prompted to look at al-Haj's photo last week because of a letter he'd sent out with his lawyer in late December, which was published in a recent AP story.

This is how al-Haj, who majored in English at a university in India, began his last letter from Guantanamo:

As for our news, we remain here for more than six years, and we still seek to proclaim truth, freedom and world peace. All of this takes place in a world which knows what is happening but remains silent and does little more than watch this sorry theater.

By now, surely everyone knows the truth. The U.S. was the country that prided itself by bringing peace; now, sadly, instead it rains down violence and discord. Guantanamo is the most obvious example of this. We prisoners entered Guantanamo alive, many have left it alive, and some of us remain in it, seemingly alive ourselves. However, those who remain die every second of every day that we are here. All of this happens and the world remains silent.

When I read the letter and saw the photo, I had a dawning realization. I thought I knew him. To be sure, I immediately called my colleagues who were in Afghanistan with me. One in particular remembered Sami going in and out of Afghanistan when we were there. I then tried to find Sami's colleagues from al-Jazeera - the Arabic-language TV news network - to nail down when we met. I found two of his al-Jazeera colleagues in Doha, Qatar, who were with him in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

"We were in Islamabad at the Marriott when you were there," said al-Jazeera program editor Yousifal-Sholiy.

Establishing that, I made more calls and began gathering documents to figure out who Sami al-Haj was, how he had landed in Guantanamo as an accused terrorist and why he remained there.

The oldest son

Sami al-Haj was born in Khartoum, Sudan, in 1969. His father had a small neighborhood store. His mother took care of him and his four brothers and sisters. As the oldest son, Sami was charged with the welfare of the family. He was the one sent abroad to university. He was the one expected to get a good job and send money home. And he delivered.

"My oldest brother was our strength and our pride until Guantanamo," 24-year-old Yasser al-Haj told me from the family home in Khartoum. An Arabic-English speaker translated our three-way call.

After finishing college in the mid 1990s, Sami got a job as an office manager for Union Beverage Co. in Doha, Qatar. In early 1999, he married a woman from Azerbaijan. They had a son in 2001. While in Doha, he went to school to become a cameraman and got a job at al-Jazeera TV. The Afghan tour in October 2001 was his second assignment.

"We used to kid him that he was too much in love with his wife and child to leave home and cover a war," said al-Sholiy. "He wouldn't shut up about them."

Because al-Jazeera was the first TV network allowed in Afghanistan after 9/11, CNN hooked up with it for footage. Most of what al-Haj shot, which was U.S. bombings on the road to Kandahar and Taliban ministers giving swan song speeches, was aired on both al-Jazeera and CNN.

In December 2001, al-Haj and al-Jazeera reporter Abdelhaq Sadah were in Pakistan to extend their visas. Al-Sholiy, part of the team, had been sick in Islamabad and remembered staying a few days at the Marriott with Sami around that time. Sadah and al-Haj then returned to the Afghan border at Chaman, Pakistan, to cross into Afghanistan in their Toyota and continue coverage.

Pakistani border guards told al-Haj he had a "passport problem" and was not allowed to cross.

"We were astonished," Sadah, now an assignment editor for al-Jazeera, told me. "Sami had a current visa. We had gone back and forth with no problem. We couldn't understand why Sami was suddenly singled out."

The border guards said it was probably a mistake and would be cleared up, but al-Haj had to remain at the crossing overnight. Meanwhile, Sadah went into Chaman and returned with hot grilled chicken and oranges for the guards, Sami and himself. "It was very pleasant with the border patrol, and we weren't worried," Sadah recalled.

When Sadah returned the next day to cross the border with Sami al-Haj, a new intelligence officer showed up and said he had to take al-Haj with him as a formality and would return in an hour. "I waited and waited and never saw him again," said Sadah.

It would be seven months before the Pentagon allowed the International Committee of the Red Cross to send a letter out from Sami to his al-Jazeera colleagues and his family. It began, "I am in Guantanamo. I don't know why."

After his arrest, Amnesty International documents and Sami's London lawyer, Clive Stafford Smith, give this narrative of what happened next.

Al-Haj was taken to the U.S. military base in Bagram, near Kabul, and then to a prison in Kandahar. At first, he was held in freezing temperatures in a cage in a dark airplane hangar. Dogs attacked him, and he was fed tiny portions of frozen food. Then, in Kandahar, U.S. soldiers threatened him with sodomy, forced him to kneel on concrete floors for hours and plucked out every hair in his beard, one by one.

In June 2002, he arrived at Guantanamo in shackles, an orange jumpsuit, a hood, goggles and earphones. He was put in an isolation cell and labeled "Prisoner 345." Two years later, he would first learn the charges against him - that there were "inconsistencies in his travel documents" having to do with a passport he'd reported lost years before, that he'd "traveled extensively through the Middle East, Balkans and USSR" and that he was peddling Stinger missiles between Afghanistan and Chechnya. These charges were dropped by 2005. But new ones appeared, only to be dropped by 2006.

The latest charges from his November 2007 Administrative Review center on his job as an al-Jazeera journalist in Afghanistan in 2001 after Sept. 11 and numerous trips to Azerbaijan between 1996 and 1999 to deliver over $100,000 to the charity al-Haramayn, which was shut down in 2004 because of suspicions of terrorist links. The military review says: "He went to work for al-Jazeera, learning to operate a video camera." It also says that between 1996 and 1999 he "assisted with three shipments of humanitarian goods to Baku, Azerbaijan." And it said: "A former head of (the charity) al-Haramayn had connections with al-Qaida."

Al-Haj's London attorney wondered about the charges: "What does working for a legitimate television station have to do with a 'commitment to terrorism?'"

And the lawyer adds that al-Haramayn was a legal charity in U.S. eyes until May 6, 2004. "That's two years, five months and 22 days after Mr. al-Haj was incarcerated."

Hunger strike

A year ago Sami al-Haj began a hunger strike in Guantanamo.

"It's all he has," says his brother. "Everything else has been taken away from him but the right to protest his life."

Al-Haj has refused to eat for more than a year now. But twice a day a tube the size of a man's index finger is forced through his nose and down his throat, and two cans of Ensure are poured in.

His London lawyer visited him recently and says he is "painfully thin and deteriorating rapidly."

"He thinks he will be the next prisoner to die," he said.

Al-Haj's wife, Asma, and 6-year-old son, Mohammed, live in Doha, but have been visiting Sami's family in Khartoum for some weeks. Yasser, Sami's brother, told me Tuesday that being together helps - it makes them "feel Sami's presence more."

Yasser said he had just taken Mohammed to visit a 2-year-old cousin named after Sami. When Sami's son saw the toddler, he hugged him and called him "father." Surprised, Yasser asked his nephew why he thought this infant was his father. "Guantanamo makes people smaller and smaller," said Mohammed.

In the letter that al-Haj sent out in late December, he found a gentle way to say that he and many of the other prisoners can't hold on much longer:

I am alive and will listen if you call. But there will soon be no life for us who you call. And if you blew at the embers now they would light up. But wait and you will find that you blow into ashes.

Al-Haj is no longer charged with doing anything illegal. But neither is he being freed. Jeffrey Gordon, spokesman for the defense secretary, said that detention at Guantanamo is not about what's legal or illegal. "It's based on the law of war construct," he said. Translation: Authorities are keeping him in custody because they can.

On Tuesday, when I was talking to Yasser al-Haj, he asked me to relay this message "to the American people": "Even though there has been great injustice, we have faith in you. Please act quickly."

Meg Laughlin can be reached at mlaughlin@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8068.

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