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Reflection on Sami al-Haj
Susan Crane, a member of the Jonah House community, offers this reflection of acting on behalf of Sam al Haj, a journalist recently released from Guantanamo. Crane is one of 35 people on trial after a demonstration on January 11 calling for the closing of Guantanamo. For the group's statement, go here.
Sami al-Haj is a native of the Sudan -- a journalist. In December 2001, he was on assignment as a cameraman for Al Jazeera covering the war in Afghanistan. He was arrested on the Pakistan border. He was among the first "enemy combatants" brought to Guantanamo who have made that name synonymous with torture, indefinite detention and shame-filled lawlessness, He was held (and tortured) for six years without charges, without semblance of due process, all that time being told he will never leave, he will never again see his family, all that time seeing his companions in torment and despair.
And Sami al-Haj is a family man; he has an eight year old son, Mohammed, whom he had not seen for 6 years. What does one do imprisoned in such extremes? Like many before him, like many with him, Sami began a hunger strike. It went on and on; it went on for more than a year. All the while, to forestall even his "escape" into death, he was strapped to a restraint chair, and a feeding tube was forced through his nose, a tube covered with bodily fluids from another prisoner also fasting, also being force fed.
I feel a deep bond with Sami. As one of twenty-five Christians, I walked from Santiago, Cuba to Guantanamo to protest the prison and its policies. It was a pilgrimage of repentance for the crimes of our government. During it, we joined our prayers with the prayers of the Guantanamo prisoners. Our prayers went up to the heavens, one with those of the prisoners and their families to ask for justice and release. We shared the belief that God is on the side of the oppressed, on the side of the poor, on the side of those detained unjustly in this camp.
Returning to the states, we were led to an act of resistance at the Federal court on January 11, 2007, and at the Supreme Court on Jan 11, 2008. (Jan 11 is the day of infamy on which the prison was opened in 2002.) In these actions, each of us took the name of a person detained in Guantanamo and either occupied the building or stood on the steps, and were soon arrested. We acted without our IDs, in order to force the US government to write the names of those detained, and to bring them into court so that they could be released.
On both occasions, I acted and was arrested as Sami al-Haj; on both occasions, and almost constantly, I have sought to walk with him in my heart. I find it easy to identify with him as a parent, I can only begin to imagine what it would be like to be separated from my child and life partner, and wonder if I would ever see them again. Having spent more than five years in prison myself, I have an idea of what incarceration is. But I can only try to imagine what it would be like to live under the conditions endured by Sami and other Guantanamo prisoners. In my effort to try to "walk in his shoes," I have read everything I could find about Sami and the other prisoners. One poem especially moved me, and so I read it during our community Thanksgiving gathering. Sami wrote:
America, you ride on the backs of orphans, And terrorize them daily. ...To Allah I direct my grievance and my tears. I am homesick and oppressed. Mohammad, do not forget me. Support the cause of your father, a God-fearing man.
...I am a captive, but the crimes are my captors'. I am overwhelmed with apprehension. Lord, unite me with my son Mohammad. Lord, grant success to the righteous.
On May 27th, with 34 others, I face trial for attempting to bring to public scrutiny the issues of indefinite detention and torture and the lack of Geneva Convention protections and of habeas corpus for the prisoners. Some of us have decided to be silent during the trial and not offer any defense-a gesture of solidarity with the Guantanamo prisoners, like Sami, who are not allowed to defend themselves in court, who are not permitted to see the evidence against them and are convicted before the "trial" begins. Clive Stafford Smith, who represented Sami al-Haj and worked hard for his release, was not allowed to attend hearings concerning Sami.
It will be a challenge to sit silently in a courtroom, knowing that truth matters little. It will be hard because we know that, despite the rhetoric, we are seen as guilty because we were arrested -- regardless of what we did or didn't do, just as the Guantanamo men are seen as guilty regardless of what they did or didn't do.
Every time I appear before a judge, every time I speak in the jails, I tell the story of Sami al-Haj. I tell everyone who will listen that our government is detaining people without benefit of the Geneva Conventions and without any due process. We, as a nation, are allowing others to torture in our name.
Walking with him these many months, I have come to understand that Sami al-Haj is just like me. He is a parent, a worker, a journalist, trying to live life according to his faith. Through these actions, through the jail and court, through my daily duties, my prayer is that we release all the prisoners, and learn to love one another.
Sami al-Haj was released from Guantanamo in May of 2008. Weakened from fasting, he was reunited with his family and taken to a hospital to recover, where he continued to speak out for the release of the prisoners he left behind.
To learn more about the trial, the defendants and the movement to shut down Guantánamo, visit www.witnesstorture.org.