CAIRO, Egypt – An Al-Jazeera cameraman was released from U.S. custody at Guantanamo Bay and returned home to Sudan early Friday after six years of imprisonment that drew worldwide protests.
Sami al-Haj, who had been on a hunger strike for 16 months, grimaced as he was carried off a U.S. military plane by American personnel in Sudan's capital, Khartoum. He was put on a stretcher and taken straight to a hospital.
Al-Jazeera showed footage of al-Haj being carried into the hospital, looking feeble and with his eyes closed, but smiling. Some of the men surrounding his stretcher were kissing him on the cheek.
"Thank God ... for being free again," he told Al-Jazeera from his hospital bed. "Our eyes have the right to shed tears after we have spent all those years in prison. ... But our joy is not going to be complete until our brothers in Guantanamo Bay are freed," he added.
"The situation is very bad and getting worse day after day," he said of conditions in Guantanamo. He claimed guards prevent Muslims from practicing their religion and reading the Quran.
"Some of our brothers live without clothing," he said.
The U.S. military says it goes to great lengths to respect the religion of detainees, issuing them Qurans, enforcing quiet among guard staff during prayer calls throughout the day. All cells in
Guantanamo have an arrow that points toward the holy city of Mecca.
Al-Haj was released along with two other Sudanese from Guantanamo Thursday. He was the only journalist from a major international news organization held at Guantanamo and many of his supporters saw his detention as punishment for a network whose broadcasts angered U.S. officials.
The military alleged he was a courier for a militant Muslim organization, an allegation his lawyers denied.
Al-Haj said he believed he was arrested because of U.S. hostility toward Al-Jazeera and because the media was reporting on U.S. rights violations in Afghanistan.
Al-Haj was detained in December 2001 by Pakistani authorities as he tried to enter Afghanistan to cover the U.S.-led invasion. He was turned over to the U.S. military and taken in January 2002 to Guantanamo Bay, where the United States holds some 275 men suspected of links to Al Qaeda and the Taliban, most of them without charges.
Reprieve, the British human rights group that represents 35 Guantanamo prisoners including al-Haj, said Pakistani forces apparently seized al-Haj at the behest of the U.S. authorities who suspected he had interviewed Usama bin Laden.
But that "supposed intelligence" turned out to be false, Reprieve said in a news release.
"This is wonderful news, and long overdue," said Clive Stafford Smith, Reprieve's director, who has represented al-Haj since 2005. "The U.S. 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."
Sudanese officials said al-Haj would not face any charges.
The U.S. Embassy in Khartoum issued a brief statement confirming the detainee transfer with Sudan and saying it appreciated Sudan's cooperation.
Al-Haj's lawyers said the 38-year-old has been on hunger strike since January 2007 to protest conditions and indefinite confinement at the prison.
Attorney Zachary Katznelson of Reprieve, who met al-Haj at Guantanamo on April 11, said he was "emaciated" because of his hunger strike. and had recently been having problems with his liver and kidneys and had blood in his urine.
"Sami is a poster child for everything that is wrong about Guantanamo Bay: No charges, no trial, constantly shifting allegations, brutal treatment, no visits with family, not even a phone call home," Katznelson said Thursday.
"Sami was never alleged to have hurt a soul, and was never proven to have committed any crimes. Yet, he had fewer rights than convicted mass murderers or rapists. What has happened to American justice?"
Al-Jazeera is based in Qatar and is funded by the royal family of the Persian Gulf nation. Its Arabic channel has been excoriated by the Bush administration as a mouthpiece for terrorists including Osama bin Laden.
Wadah Khanfar, managing director of Al-Jazeera Arabic, said of al-Haj's release: "We are overwhelmed with joy."
Al-Haj was never prosecuted at Guantanamo so the U.S did not make public its full allegations against him. But in a hearing that determined that he was an enemy combatant, U.S. officials alleged that in the 1990s, al-Haj was an executive assistant at a Qatar-based beverage company that provided support to Muslim fighters in Bosnia and Chechnya.
The U.S. claimed he also traveled to Azerbaijan at least eight times to carry money on behalf of his employer to the Al-Haramain Islamic Foundation, a now defunct charity that U.S. authorities say funded militant groups.
The officials said during this period that he met Mamdouh Mahmud Salim, a senior lieutenant to Osama bin Laden who was arrested in Germany in 1998 and extradited to the United States. Officials did not provide details.
Reprieve identified the two other Sudanese Guantanamo detainees who were released as Amir Yacoub Al Amir and Walid Ali.
Reprieve also said Moroccan detainee Said Boujaadia, 39, was also released. He was flown home on the same plane as al-Haj, which made a stop in Morocco. The group said he was taken into custody in Morocco.