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Sami El Haj creates the Guantánamo Justice Center

On 29 July 2009, we had the privilege of meeting with Sami al-Haj, an Al Jazeera journalist and cameraman who was imprisoned in Guantánamo for more than 6 years and who was passing through Geneva. On that occasion he told us about the foundation of the London-based humanitarian organization « Guantánamo Justice Center" which he chairs, as he will formally announce at the press conference taking place in that capital on 30 July 2009. This NGO will be steered by the former British prisoner, Moazzam Begg, in his capacity as Secretary-General and will have branches in Geneva and Paris.

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Sami El Haj

What is the purpose of this new NGO ?

The aim of the Guantánamo Justice Centre is to obtain the closure of Guantánamo, the liberation of those prisoners who are still being held there, plus the recognition of their innocence and of the abuses they were subjected to by the United States Administration. An additional objective is to obtain reparation for the financial and moral damages inflicted on ex-prisoners and to provide them with psychological support.

At the same time, this NGO, together with former Guantánamo prisoners, is getting ready to take « joint legal action » against former President George Bush and other members of his administration for the illegal detentions and the abuses inflicted.

In this connection, Sami El Haj [1] points out that : « The goal of our organization is to initiate legal action against the Bush administration. We are in the process of collecting all the available information, in particular medical attestations. It is a very time-consuming task.»

Right now, according to Sami El Haj, there is an immediate need to provide material assistance and moral support to all the victims who have been left without a solution, who believed in the promises made by Obama in January and hoped that their fate would improve:

«Obama had promised to abolish the military commissions, but he reneged saying that the military commissions would be maintained with a few modifications. He had promised to render public the photos of the torture inflicted on the prisoners of the two ongoing wars, in Iraq and in Afghanistan, but he backtracked saying that it would be detrimental to the image of the United States. He said that he would prosecute those who were guilty of committing acts of torture, but here again he went back on his word.

We now have proof that torture never ceased in Guantánamo (banging heads against a wall, lack of food and sleep deprivation, waterboarding and other techniques referred to as «enhanced interrogation», nda.) [2]

Obama did not keep his promises. We demand that he at least keep the one to close down Guantánamo. We believe he will do it. But the issue is not simply to close it down. The most diffcult problem is still ahead of us.

There were approximately 256 prisonners in Guantánamo when Obama took office. Today, more than six months after he promised he would shut it down within one year, there are still 229 prisoners remaining. In other words, in a period of six months only 27 prisoners were released. Such a small number is of grave concern to us.

Will the US administration release the 229 detainees who are still in Guantánamo? I doubt it. Because we have reliable information from people who live on the spot, to the effect that the United States are in the process of building a prisoner camp in Bagram, in Afghanistan. This camp will be used to lock up the prisoners transferred from Guantánamo.

That means that the problem will not be resolved by simply closing Guantánamo; it will not be resolved until such time as the released prisoners will have recovered their full liberty. It is towards the objective of helping these detainees that our organisation named « Guantánamo Justice Centre » is going to work.

The Obama administration affirms that «no one is cooperating with us, no one is helping us to close Guantánamo”. I don’t believe that corresponds to the facts. This being said, the release of prisoners implies they should receive assistance when they come out. For example, among the 229 prisoners who are still in Guantánamo, many come from Yemen and, until now, Yemen has made no arrangements with the United States to take their nationals back.

As far as the 500 detainees who have already been released, their suffering is hardly over after returning home. They face reinsertion problems because they have been labelled as “terrorists »; they receive no assistance despite having been severely traumatised and in need of psychological support.

For all these reasons, we have created this humanitarian association in order to call world attention to the fact that these Guantánamo prisoners are innocent and that it is imperative to help them, that Guantánomo was a mistake on the part of the United States and that it is incumbent on them to resolve this serious problem.

[1] Sami El Haj, Al Jazeera journalist, tells his story, by Silvia Cattori, Voltaire Network; 30 July 2008. In his presence, it is unimaginable to think that someone as decent as Sami El Haj could have been associated with "terrorism", locked up in a cage and subjected to horrendous treatment, on the pretext that he represented a threat to our society.

[2] The Torture Issue that Won’t Go Away, Voltaire Network; 26 April 2009.

Silvia Cattori

Silvia Cattori Swiss journalist. After having extensively written about diplomacy in South-East Asia and the Indian Ocean, she was witness to operation « Protective shield », launched by the Tsahal against the Palestinians. Ever since, she has devoted her work to raising global awareness of the conditions endured by the Palestinian people under Israeli occupation.

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