After four and a half months of inexplicable inertia, the US administration has finally seen fit to release another group of prisoners from Guantánamo, including the Sudanese al-Jazeera cameraman and journalist Sami al-Haj. Despite claims from within the administration that it was hoping to scale down the operation at Guantánamo, no prisoners have been released since December 2007, when two other Sudanese prisoners, 13 Afghans, ten Saudis and three British residents were released.
Instead, one prisoner died -- of cancer -- and another prisoner was actually transferred into Guantánamo from a secret prison run by the CIA. My suspicion, which I have spoken about, but not to date written about, was that, having announced in February that six prisoners allegedly connected with the 9/11 attacks were to face a trial by Military Commission at Guantánamo, the administration was happy to drag its heels over the fate of the roughly 200 prisoners (out of the remaining 272) who are unlikely ever to face a trial, in the probably mistaken belief that the 9/11 trials -- which will, inevitably, be wracked with allegations of torture -- will secure the legacy of the Bush administration and divert attention from these other men.
The most celebrated Guantánamo prisoner in the Middle East -- if not in the West -- Sami, whose story I reported at length here, just a few weeks ago, was seized by Pakistani forces on December 15, 2001, apparently at the behest of the US authorities, who suspected that he had conducted an interview with Osama bin Laden. As with much of their supposed intelligence, this turned out to be false, but as his lawyer, Clive Stafford Smith, the Director of the legal action charity Reprieve (which represents Sami and 34 other Guantánamo prisoners), explained last year, "name me a journalist who would turn down a bin Laden scoop."
As a trained journalist, Sami's insights into the horrors of Guantánamo have been unparalleled. Subjected to clearance by the Pentagon's censors, his letters and his conversations with his lawyers at Reprieve have shed light on the abuse of the Koran, suicide attempts, hunger strikes and the number of juveniles held at the prison.
For the last 16 months of his imprisonment, Sami was himself a hunger striker. Although the ethics of the medical profession stipulate that a mentally competent hunger striker cannot be force-fed, the US authorities disagreed. Twice a day, for the last 480 days, Sami was strapped into a restraint chair, secured with 16 separate straps, and force-fed against his will via a tube inserted into his stomach through his nose.
Greeting the news of his release, Clive Stafford Smith said, "This is wonderful news, and long overdue. The US administration has never had any reason for holding Mr. al-Haj, and has, instead, spent six years shamelessly attempting to turn him against his employers at al-Jazeera. We at Reprieve send him our best wishes as he is reunited with his wife and his seven-year old son Mohammed, whom he has not seen since Mohammed was a baby."
Also released -- subject to final confirmation -- were two other Sudanese prisoners, a Moroccan and six Afghans, whose stories I'll report on in the following days.
Andy is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America's Illegal Prison.