The Silent World of Sami

By Smith, Clive ord | New Statesman (1996), June 12, 2006 | Go to article overview
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The Silent World of Sami


Smith, Clive ord, New Statesman (1996)


I write this from Guantanamo Bay. Today, I saw my client Sami al-Hajj, a cameraman for al-Jazeera who has been locked up here for more than four years. Under the rules, which I have no choice but to obey, I cannot tell you a word of what he said. Everything is censored. My notes are sent by snail mail to Washington. A month later, I get back those parts that the government allows.

If, hypothetically, my client tells me about an abuse committed by a member of the US forces--some kind of torture--there is little chance that the perpetrator will face charges, but I face 40 years in prison if I reveal the crime. The military may dissemble for weeks, and I am forbidden to tell the truth.

Last week, the military reported that the prisoners went on a rampage in a premeditated attack against the soldiers. They say that various scheming terrorists attempted suicide by swallowing their hoarded medicines, to lure the guards into the cells. The disturbance had to be quelled with tear gas and rubber bullets. You are the judge. You hear one side of the story, carefully tooled by military public relations. Do you buy it?

War on free speech

Naturally, Sami was an eyewitness to the truth. Under the normal course of events, as a journalist, he could describe his version. But because the military makes up the rules, he is gagged. Sami and I talked for several hours today, and in a free society I could tell you what he said. But I don't have the right to free speech either.

In 1789, the US cobbled together a document that has defined and preserved rights more effectively than anything Europe achieved in the two centuries that followed. The First Amendment, enshrining freedom of speech and religion, was perhaps the most significant jewel in the Bill of Rights.

It is particularly tragic that the Bush administration has declared a war on free speech when it comes to Sami al-Hajj and al-Jazeera. Many of the station's journalists previously worked for the BBC, but were made redundant in 1996 when Saudi Arabia ended the BBC's Arabic-language TV service. Prior to 11 September 2001, the US lauded al-Jazeera as the only beacon of free speech in the Middle East.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

It has been attacked from all sides, from Kuwait complaining about pro-Iraq bias, to Saddam Hussein condemning a report on his lavish birthday celebrations.

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