Sami al-Haj walks with pain on his steel crutch; almost six years in the nightmare of
The TV cameraman, 38, was never charged with any crime, nor was he put on trial; his testimony makes it clear that he was held in three prisons for six-and-a-half years – repeatedly beaten and force-fed – not because he was a suspected "terrorist" but because he refused to become an American spy. From the moment Sami al-Haj arrived at
"We know you are innocent, you are here by mistake," he says he was told in more than 200 interrogations. "All they wanted was for me to be a spy for them. They said they would give me
The grotesque saga began for al-Haj on 15 December, 2001, when he was on his way from the Pakistani capital
Sami al-Haj speaks slowly and with care, each detail of his suffering and of others’ suffering of equal importance to him. He still cannot believe that he is free, able to attend a conference in Norway, to return to his new job as news producer at Al Jazeera, to live once more with his Azeri wife Asma and their eight-year old son Mohamed; when Sami al-Haj disappeared down the black hole of
Al-Haj’s story has a familiar ring to anyone who has investigated the rendition of prisoners from
"We arrived in the early hours of the morning and they took the shackles off our feet and pushed us out of the plane. They hit me and pushed me down on the asphalt. We heard screams and dogs barking. I collapsed with my right leg under me, and I felt the ligaments tearing. When I fell, the soldiers started treading on me. First, they walked on my back, then – when they saw me looking at my leg – they started kicking my leg. One soldier shouted at me: ‘Why did you come to fight Americans?’ I had a number – I was No 35 and this is how they addressed me, as a number – and the first American shouted at me: ‘You filmed Bin Laden.’ I said I did not film Bin Laden but that I was a journalist. I again gave my name, my age, my nationality."
After 16 days at Bagram, another aircraft took him to the
The same dreary round of interrogations recommenced – he was now "Prisoner No 448" – and yet again, al-Haj says he was told he was being held by mistake. "Then another man – he was in civilian clothes and I think he was from Egyptian intelligence – wanted to know who was the "leader" of the detainees who was with me. The Americans asked: ‘Who is the most respected of the prisoners? Who killed [Ahmed Shah] Massoud ([the leader of the anti-Taliban Northern
On 13 June, al-Haj was put on board a jet aircraft. He was given yet another prison number – No 345 – and once more his head was covered with a black bag. He was forced to take two tablets before he was gagged and his bag replaced by goggles with the eye-pieces painted black. The flight to
"They took us on a boat from the
"Then after two months, two more British men came to see me. They said they were from
By the summer of 2003, al-Haj was receiving other strange visitors. "Two Canadian intelligence officers came and they showed me lots of photos of people and wanted to know if I recognised them. I knew none of them."
In more than 200 interrogations, al-Haj was asked about his employers the Al Jazeera television channel in
"I said: ‘I will not do this – first of all because I’m a journalist and this is not my job. Also because I fear for my life and my family.’"
Many beatings followed – not from the interrogators but from other
In January of last year, Sami al-Haj started a hunger strike – and began the worst months of his imprisonment. "I wanted my rights in the civil courts. The US Supreme Court said I should have my rights. I wanted the right to worship properly. They let me go 30 days without food – then I was tied to a chair with metal shackles and they force-fed me. They would insert a tube through my nose into my stomach. They chose large tubes so that it hurt and sometimes it went into the lung. They used the same tube they had used on other prisoners with muck still on it and then they pumped more food into me than it was possible to absorb. They told us the people administering this were doctors – but they were torturers, not doctors. They forced 24 cans of food into us so we threw up and then gave us laxatives to defecate. My pancreas was affected and I had stomach problems. Then they would forbid us from drinking water."
Al-Haj says he completed 480 days of hunger strike by which time his medical condition had deteriorated and he was bleeding from his anus. That was the moment his interrogators decided to release him.
"There were new interrogators now, but they tried once more with me. ‘Will you work with us?’ they asked me again. I said ‘no’ again – but I thanked them for their years of hospitality and for giving me the chance to live among them as a journalist. I said this way I could get the truth to the outside world, that I was not in a hurry to get out because there were a lot more reporters’ stories in there." They said: ‘You think we did you a favour?’ I said: ‘You turned me from zero into a hero.’ They said: ‘We are 100 per cent sure that Bin Laden will be in touch with you…’ That night, I was taken to the plane. The interrogators were watching me, hiding behind a tennis net. I waved at them, those four pairs of eyes."
The British authorities have never admitted talking to Sami al-Haj. Nor have the Canadians. Al Jazeera, whose headquarters George Bush wanted to bomb after the invasion of