Even when they were about to release him, the US military was unwilling to treat Sami al-Haj with dignity - Press Gazette

Even when they were about to release him, the US military was unwilling to treat Sami al-Haj with dignity

The final days in Guantanamo Bay were very hard on Sami. There have been so many false promises that he was still uncertain whether he was going to leave, and for the past 15 days he stopped drinking water, in addition to refusing food. Only the food and liquid forced into him kept him alive.

The Admiral came himself to process Sami out. He brought a paper and read it out before telling him to sign it. The paper said that Sami recognised the US’s right to take him as a prisoner again if he did anything wrong. Sami refused. He explained that I, as his lawyer, had told him not to sign any such document.

An American official was saying that Sami refused to change his clothes from orange to white, which they would interpret as a decision that he would not go. This was false.

‘I will wear anything if it means being free,’said Sami. ‘I will even go naked, no problem. I want to get my freedom.’

At around 7pm on Wednesday night Sami was taken from his cell in Camp One. An hour later, the bus started its trip to the airport. The drive took one hour, although it is not very far. There were black plastic bin bags all around the bus windows, so that Sami could not see anything. I have been along that road many times, and it is hard to see what anyone was afraid that he might see – McDonald’s, perhaps, or the Guantanamo Golf Course.

When they reached the airport the aircraft waiting was similar to the one that originally brought Sami from Afghanistan. There were nine other prisoners on the plane and like each, Sami had his eyes covered, muffs on his ears, and shackles on both his hands and legs. The plane took off about 10.30pm on the first leg of the journey, 15 hours to Bagdad, Iraq.

‘When I first requested the toilet they said it was not allowed,’said Sami. ‘So I said I would do it in the chair.’They then took him to the toilet, but they would not close the door. They would not unshackle his hands, or take off the eye cover. They said they would pull his trousers down and sit him down. They said that he would not be allowed to use the tap to wash afterwards.

Eventually, after much argument about how this was senseless and uncivilised, Sami said he could not use the toilet at all under these circumstances.

There was no sleep to be had for all that time. When Sami tried to lean slightly one way so he could rest, he was told that this was not permitted.

Sami ate nothing on the flight. In truth, he never intended to, as he has vowed to himself he would remain on hunger strike until he was safely in Sudan.

Neither did Sami drink, partly because of his on-going protest, but more because he knew he had to survive without a toilet all those hours

Bagdad was only a stop over and everyone had to change planes. On the second leg of the flight, it was another four hours to Khartoum, a total of 20 in all. By the end, Sami was far weaker than when he left the prison in Cuba.

Even then, the American soldiers were not content to set him free. Before turning him over to the Sudanese authorities, they took off the metal cuffs, but replaced them with plastic restraints.

On arrival at the Khatoum hospital Sami had been almost unconscious, and his life signs had dropped to dangerously weak levels. For a while, it seemed that he had only come home to die.

But fortunately this story turned out happily. While I was with him, the President’s wife came to pay her respects. President Bashir himself had come before her. Now Sami was smiling at his visitors, gently instructing his seven-year-old son Mohammed to pass around the tin of sweets.

Clive Stafford Smith is the director of Reprieve, the UK legal action charity that uses the law to enforce the human rights of prisoners, from death row to Guantanamo Bay. www.reprieve.org.uk.