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Al-Jazeera cameraman returns from Guantánamo

A Sudanese cameraman with the Arab satellite news channel al-Jazeera on Friday accused US authorities of insulting Islamic symbols on his return home after six years of detention at Guantánamo Bay.

There were ”many violations — [we were] deprived from praying and there were … deliberate insults to God’s holy book” the Qur’an at the US military prison in Guantánamo, Sami al-Haj said from his hospital bed in Khartoum.

Haj, whose overnight homecoming was broadcast live on al-Jazeera, was taken from the US military aircraft that flew him into the Sudanese capital with two other Sudanese former Guantánamo inmates to a hospital for medical checks.

The US air force plane landed at a state security terminal in Khartoum, where Haj was greeted by his family before being whisked away to the hospital, an Agence France-Presse photographer said.

Haj was detained by the Pakistani army on the Afghan border in December 2001 while covering the US war in Afghanistan, and had been held without charge since June 2002 at the US naval base in Cuba.

His case was championed by many human rights and media watchdogs.

”We are entitled to shed tears of joy after these difficult seven years of humiliation, persecution and injustice which we went through for no reason other than that we believe in the one almighty God,” said Haj, who was shown by al-Jazeera speaking on a cellphone.

”We hope governments will speed up attempts to repatriate their nationals because they live in extremely bad conditions” at Guantánamo, he said.

Haj (39) said he believes one reason he was detained was an attempt by the United States ”to abort free media reporting” in the Middle East.

He cited ”the bombing of al-Jazeera’s offices” in Kabul and Baghdad in 2003 as evidence.

An al-Jazeera journalist, Jordanian Tariq Ayub, was killed by a missile which hit the channel’s office in Baghdad during the US-led invasion of Iraq.

News of Haj’s release broke late on Thursday.

There was no comment from the Pentagon several hours later, but press freedom watchdog Reporters Without Borders, which has campaigned for Haj to be freed, expressed relief.

”Sami al-Haj should never have been held so long,” said secretary general Robert Menard in a statement released in Washington.

”US authorities never proved that he had been involved in any kind of criminal activity. This case is yet another example of the injustice reigning in Guantánamo. The base should be closed as quickly as possible.”

Reporters sans Frontières said Haj had been tortured and subjected to about 200 interrogation sessions. In January 2007 he launched a hunger strike and was force-fed on several occasions, the group said in a statement.

According to his lawyer, Clive Stafford-Smith, Haj has lost about 18kg, and was suffering from intestinal problems and subject to bouts of paranoia, the organisation added.

Haj’s brother, Issam, called for the cameraman to be examined by an international medical team, saying he suffers from back and knee aches and his sight has deteriorated.

”We want to be reassured about his health. We call on humanitarian organisations and the International Red Cross to send a team of trustworthy specialists to Khartoum to conduct the necessary tests,” Issam said by telephone.

Qatar-based al-Jazeera had lobbied hard for Haj’s release, inviting viewers to join a campaign of solidarity with him. The channel’s director general, Waddah Khanfar, was on hand in Khartoum to greet him.

Al-Jazeera, which has often angered the US government for its reporting of the Afghan and Iraq wars and airing interviews with al-Qaeda leaders, broadcast footage of rallies held in several countries in recent years to demand Haj’s release.

The channel also showed Haj’s emotional reunion with his only son, a seven-year-old he had last seen as a toddler.

The controversial Guantánamo camp was established after the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States to house ”war on terror” suspects seized in Afghanistan and elsewhere.

Around 800 detainees have passed through the camp since it opened, and about 275 ”terror” suspects are still held there. – Sapa-AFP

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