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Prisoner 345 is free! Why was he ever detained? by underground

Sami al-Hajj’s release from Guantanamo Bay throws the controversial detention centre back into the spotlight. Sami’s plight was common, but also exceptional. Here we have an al Jazeera cameraman in Afghanistan, working with a legitimate visa. Captured by Pakistani intelligence officers in December 2001, he has handed over to the US military in January 2002, and ship off to the notorious detention centre in southeast Cuba, where has remained until last Thursday. He went on hunger strike in January of last year in protest of his detention, and his health has suffered as a result. He is the only reporter to have been detained at Guantanamo. And now, he is free.

Many supporters suspect, rightly in my opinion, that Sami was punished not for anything he may have done, but what his station al Jazeera had done. Al Jazeera’s coverage of the American invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, coupled with the networks willingness to air Osama bin Laden’s propaganda videos has in the past led to the station receiving harsh criticism from the Bush administration. Sami al-Hajj is not the first al-Jazeera journalist to have suffered from the stations dedication to the truth; in 2003 al Jazeera journalists in the Palestine Hotel in Baghdad were fired upon by US soldiers, although as this article says, many journalists from other networks have also been targeted.

In my mind the man was clearly innocent. He never received a trial, in fact he was never charged. He spent 2139 days in Guantanamo Bay in what he says were inhumane conditions. Now, all of a sudden, he is free to walk the streets in Khartoum, and spent time with his wife and small child. Why has the United States sent an “enemy combatant” back to his native Sudan?

Washington claims that he has not been released, but has been “transferred to the Sudanese government”. Yet the Sudanese minister of justice says that al-Hajj is a “free man”. The US had claimed that he was the executive assistant in a Qatar-based beverage company, that the Americans allege supported militants in Chechnya and Bosnia. It also says al-Hajj traveled to Azerbaijan at least eight times carrying money for a now defunct “terror” organisation, al-Haramain Islamic Foundation. These claims were never tested in court, and in my mind are unfounded, or else to US would not willingly hand him over to the Sudanese government.

Guantanamo Bay has become a PR disaster for the Bush administration and it appears as though it will be closed sooner rather than later. The detention centre has been one of many recent issues (in particular Abu Graib and the Iraq war) that have turned world opinion against the United States. American tourists pretend to be Canadian when they go abroad (Australians apparently pretend to be Kiwis!). But is this fair? Are there not scores of other countries whose human rights abuses rival those of the Americans? Why does the United States receive more criticism and disapproval than China, Saudi Arabia or Russia? Is this a sign of rampant anti-Americanism in politics and the media?

No. America does deserve all the scrutiny it gets, if not more. This is the country whose president claimed was the brightest beacon of freedom and democracy in the world. A nation who believe they forever inhabit the moral high ground, particularly in the wake of September the 11th 2001. A patriot nation of a people proud of the things the country stands for, but does not represent in reality. A religious people with Christian values, whose religious right government hold themselves on a pedestal as being morally superior. A nation that has positioned itself as the sole global superpower. Fair enough. Unfortunately it appears that its leaders have forgotten that this position carries not just rights, but responsibilities. The country acts in its own best interests, which is understandable, but these interests frequently run contrary to the interests of other sovereign nations. America talks a good game, but doesn’t play fair.

As far as Guantanamo Bay and the other detention centres American uses, these defy everything the country stands for. International laws are circumvented with tactful semantics. Notions enshrined in their constitution are bypassed in the pursuit of winning an unwinnable war. Because for every unjust crime America commits, another terrorist is born. Sami al-Hajj and his family, and those of any other innocent men incarcerated at Guantanamo, have every reason to hate America. America, the land of the free, stole the freedom from these men, and has no defence for this charge. Unfortunately, like these men, we are unlikely to see the perpetrators of this crime before a court.

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