At first, his wife Asma told me, al-Haj’s letters contained a lot of poetry. He wrote one poem called “On the meaning of the Statue of Liberty” that reads, in part: “Sadly, the flame in her hand is sputtering in the storm. Will, first, the light go out on the world, and then the statue crumble?” At other times, he seems determined to act as a reporter inside Guantánamo. Once, he detailed twelve incidents of abuse or mistreatment he had heard about from other detainees. A number of these incidents are confirmed by official investigations and press accounts, such as a female interrogator’s wiping what she said was menstrual blood on a detainee, prolonged use of stress positions, the use of dogs, careless or offensive handling of the Koran by prison guards, and the wrapping of a detainee in an Israeli flag during an interrogation. On another occasion, al-Haj gathered information on a hunger strike that Stafford Smith used to encourage media coverage. “It took me a visit to work out what a gold mine Sami is,” Stafford Smith said. Kiyemba remarked to me that al-Haj “had that journalist attitude.”
Despite the novelty of al-Haj’s status as the only journalist inside Guantánamo, it was a long time before he attracted much media attention. At first, even Al Jazeera was reluctant to cover his story. “Up until around 2003, the air was very tense. You didn’t really want to investigate it too much,” said Ahmad Ibrahim, an Al Jazeera producer who has researched al-Haj’s case. “At least to a lot of people around the world, holding people was probably justifiable due to the enormity of 9/11. And in the Arab world, the situation at Guantánamo was difficult to comprehend or believe, even—that any kind of torture would be perpetrated by the U.S. A lot of people didn’t comprehend what Guantánamo stood for, and the legal arguments that were used to justify it.” In 2005, Ibrahim invited Stafford Smith to Al Jazeera’s headquarters in Doha. “That’s when the big interest in Sami and his plight started.”
Since then, al-Haj has become a cause célèbre in the Arab world. Ibrahim made a forty-five-minute documentary about him, Prisoner 345, and Al Jazeera regularly reports on his case. Al-Haj has also been featured in several stories in the British press. But despite repeated efforts by Ibrahim and Stafford Smith, there was until very recently almost no coverage of al-Haj in the U.S., apart from a New York Times column last October by Nicholas Kristof. Al Jazeera “is still perceived in a very negative way” in the U.S., said Joel Campagna of the Committee to Protect Journalists. “I think that has made people pause when looking at this case.”
But while some journalists may distrust Al Jazeera, or may have believed Donald Rumsfeld’s discredited claim that the inmates represented the “worst of the worst,” others may have avoided writing about detainees like al-Haj because of a more mundane bias: the simple difficulty of reporting about Guantánamo. It’s often been noted that the lopsided legal process fashioned by the Bush administration makes it virtually impossible for detainees to defend themselves. A lesser noticed consequence is that the withholding of evidence makes it impossible for journalists to write a conventionally “balanced” story about individual detainees—and hence, they are less likely to write about them at all. While researching this piece, for instance, I’ve had plenty of access to al-Haj’s lawyer and to Al Jazeera, but none to the Department of Defense or al-Haj himself. This imbalance is uncomfortable, but to be deterred by it would be to miss the point. The central question underlying the case of al-Haj and the other detainees is not their guilt or innocence, but why they have been held at Guantánamo for six years without a mechanism to fairly determine whether they belong there.