- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 24, 2007

NAVAL BASE GUANTANAMO BAY, Cuba — A TV cameraman is getting an inside view of life at Guantanamo Bay prison, only he is unable to get out and tell the story.

Sami al-Hajj, of the Al Jazeera TV network, was stopped at the Afghanistan border by Pakistani authorities in December 2001, turned over to U.S. forces and hauled in chains six months later to Guantanamo, where about 390 men are held on suspicion of links to al Qaeda or the Taliban.

Mr. al-Hajj, a 38-year-old native of Sudan, has been held in this U.S. military prison ever since.

He is believed to be the only journalist from a major international news organization held at Guantanamo.

Colleagues from Mr. al-Hajj’s Qatar-based network and the Sudanese government want to know why he is being held, but the U.S. government is saying little. The military did not even publicly acknowledge holding Mr. al-Hajj until last April, when it released a list of Guantanamo detainees in response to a Freedom of Information Act request filed by the Associated Press.

But military documents sketch at least a partial outline of Mr. al-Hajj’s experiences at Guantanamo and the U.S. grounds for holding him — that he transported money between 1996 and 2000 for a defunct charity that purportedly provided money to militant groups, and that he met a “senior al Qaeda lieutenant.”

When he appeared before a military review panel at this remote U.S. military base in August 2005, Mr. al-Hajj, citing the advice of his attorney, declined to respond to questions. But he denied any connection to terrorism.

“With all due respect, a mistake has been made because I have never been a member of any terrorist group,” he said, according to a transcript released the following year. “I can say without hesitation that I am not a threat to the United States.”

During the hearing, aimed at determining whether Mr. al-Hajj posed a threat to the United States or possessed intelligence value, Mr. al-Hajj wore a white jumpsuit reserved for the “most compliant” detainees. An officer told the tribunal that Mr. al-Hajj was leading Islamic prayer sessions and teaching other prisoners English.

His colleagues at Al Jazeera claim his detention is American harassment of an Arabic TV network whose coverage has long angered U.S. officials. Near the entrance to the network’s Khartoum, Sudan, bureau a banner saying “Free Sami al-Hajj” hangs alongside his photo.

“He’s our colleague, so we’re very worried,” said Nassef Salah Eldin, an Al Jazeera producer in the Sudanese capital. “We feel it could happen to any of us.”

Lamis Andoni, a Middle East analyst for the network who helped organize a campaign for Mr. al-Hajj’s release, noted the network’s sour relationship with the American government. In April 2003, an Al Jazeera journalist was killed when the network’s Baghdad bureau was struck during a U.S. bombing campaign. In November 2001, a U.S. missile destroyed Al Jazeera’s office in Kabul, Afghanistan. The U.S. claims both attacks were mistakes.

“When you are targeted once, it could be a mistake,” Mr. Andoni said in an interview from Amman, Jordan. “But when you are bombed twice, it’s something else.”

In an interview in Khartoum, Sudanese Justice Minister Mohammed Ali al-Mardi said the holding of the cameraman without charge “is repugnant to all the conventions and principles of international law.”

Washington has given Sudan no information about Mr. al-Hajj, Mr. al-Mardi said. U.S. relations with Sudan are strained over the Darfur conflict in western Sudan.

“I consider the information that we obtained from him to be useful,” Paul Rester, director of the Joint Intelligence Group at the prison, said in an interview at Guantanamo Bay. Mr. Rester refused to elaborate or even to comment on the charges aired at the 2005 hearing.

The U.S. military says that in the 1990s, Mr. al-Hajj was an executive assistant at a Qatar-based beverage company that provided support to Muslim fighters in Bosnia and Chechnya.

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