Each month, the HRC Blog will feature a significant figure, or team from the Human Rights community to go under the Spotlight, answering questions put by students from Essex University. This month, we feature Sami Al Haj.
Sami Al Haj is the Director of the Centre for Public Liberties & Human Rights at the Al Jazeera Media Network (AJMN) in Doha, Qatar. He was born in Sudan and started working for Al Jazeera as a cameraman in 2001. Shortly after the events of 9/11, he was sent to cover the US invasion of Afghanistan in October 2001, an assignment that would change his life forever. After two months, while crossing from Kandahar across the border into Pakistan, Sami was arrested and detained by Pakistani Intelligence on 15th December 2001 and subsequently handed over to the Americans. Nothing could have prepared Sami for the horrors that were to come and the course that his life would take as a result. After some time at the infamous Bagram detention facility, where he experienced harsh and humiliating treatment, he was transferred to a facility in Kandahar and then on to Guantanamo Bay, where he remained as Prisoner 345 for 6 years, without charge.
While there, according to Sami’s lawyer and founder of Reprieve, Clive Stafford Smith, “Sami endured horrendous cruelty – sexual abuse and religious persecution”. He was beaten, deprived of sleep and force-fed after going on hunger strike.
On 1st May 2008, Sami was released without charge. He said that he was glad to be free but sad that his ‘brothers’ remained in the hands of “people that claim to be champions of peace and protectors of rights and freedoms. But a true just peace doesn’t come from military force or threats to use…bombs or economic sanctions. Justice comes from lifting oppression and guaranteeing rights and freedoms and respecting the will of the people…”
Shortly after his release, and his long awaited reunion with his wife and son, Sami returned to Al Jazeera, where he created a new team dedicated to the field of human rights and civil liberties.
Students’ Questions Answered
Sami was gracious enough to allow the students at Essex an opportunity to send him and his team some questions about his experiences and ongoing work in the field of human rights:
Q: It is almost 20 years since 9/11 – What are the biggest changes faced by journalists and humanitarian aid workers operating on the ground in war zones, and have the policies of the war on terror had a ‘chilling effect’ on journalists’ ability to hold truth to power?
A: Regrettably, journalists are now facing a far worse reality with regard to field coverage. Authorities, militias, and armed groups all endeavour to suppress the voice of truth. Counter- terrorism policies went to the extent to limit the range of ethical journalism and criminalize journalists. Press freedom has been compromised all over the world.
Q: To what extent do you believe that the CIA Enhance Interrogation Program at Abu Ghraib and other so called ‘black sites’ emboldened repressive regimes in their own torture practices?
A: Tyrants and dictators felt at ease seeing the free world legitimizing water-boarding and torture, we can see that in the Middle East and elsewhere.
Q: After your experiences at Guantanamo, do you believe in the universality of human rights both as a concept and in practice?
A: Indeed. My personal experience has provided me with a more humane universal vision and understanding. I believe human rights should be granted to all individuals regardless of their race, religion or nationality. Human Rights mechanisms and intentions are good. However, unfortunately, in practice, things are quite different.
Q: Were you told why you were being detained in Guantanamo? And what gave you the strength to endure your detention?
A: My guards told me that I was being brought to Guantanamo and I would never leave alive. No information was given except that YOU ARE GUILTY, YOU ARE A TERRORIST!! I endured due to my strong belief in Allah, the Most Gracious, the Most Merciful. Throughout my tormenting experience, I believed that I would go out and support my family.
Q: To what extent do we see a repetition of the policies of exceptionalism that we saw immediately after 9/11 playing out now in Syria, and how can we ensure a fair judicial process to those accused of involvement with ISIL?
A: Unfortunately, all Middle Eastern regimes do not believe in an independent judiciary system, and the British and Americans do not want the defendants to stand trial in London nor in Washington DC.
Q: How can journalists, humanitarian workers and human rights practitioners maintain their safety in hostile environments?
A: They should adhere to safety guidelines, and subject themselves to strict professional training. At our Centre at Al Jazeera, for example, we have a Safety Section, and we provide journalists in the Middle East and elsewhere with workshops on the necessity of safety.
Q: Can you tell us more about your team and objectives at Al Jazeera?
A: The Public Liberties and Human Rights Centre first started as a specialised desk within the Al Jazeera Arabic newsroom in 2008 and expanded to become a Centre in 2015. The Centre now has a team of 14, all based at Al Jazeera’s headquarters in Doha, spread between the Arabic and English newsrooms and online, writing articles and doing research. Our aim is to ensure human rights content across all AJMN platforms, to raise awareness and competence of international humanitarian law with journalists in the field, and inform the public about human rights issues and legislation. In addition, we endeavour to build and develop strategic partnerships with international, regional and local organisations to identify human rights violations and contribute to the promotion of freedom of expression and the press.
Q: How does Human Rights fit with Al Jazeera’s core business?
A: Human Rights issues are no longer fleeting news, but at the core of what the Al Jazeera Media Network does. Al Jazeera’s interest in human rights has clearly emerged as a key element during analysis and discussion both in general and more particularly in the area of press freedom and the detention of journalists.
Q: What achievements you are most proud of in the work that you have done over the last 12 years?
A: I believe, over the last 12 years, we have done very well with regard to spreading the culture of human rights in the Middle East and North Africa. We are now an effective partner of UNESCO, specifically with respect to Press Freedom and we work closely with the International Press Institution. Our editorial section has contributed over 5,000 pieces and 6 full length documentaries and our partnership section has held more than 60 workshops with international experts from the UN and other global institutions benefitting over 1000 journalists from Al Jazeera and other media organisations. We are also very proud of our Global Solidarity Initiatives, working in partnership with other media organisations in the areas of press freedom, anti-hate speech, protection of journalists and humanitarian workers, safeguarding displaced persons, rights of prisoners and detainees, and consolidation of transitional justice and the rule of law.
Q: What do you see as the biggest challenges and the top 3 priorities for human rights advocates around the world?
A: The biggest challenge right now is the rise of the far right all over the globe. The top 3 priorities are Right to Religion, Right to Health and Press Freedom.
Q: What one piece of advice would you give to a human rights student just starting out on their career?
A: Never compromise.
My thanks to Sami and his team for engaging so generously with the questions from our students. The HRC Blog Editorial team will be publishing further Spotlights in the coming weeks and months and welcome suggestions from students, staff and alumni for subjects they’d like to see featured.