The silent world of Sami

He is no terrorist. They did not ask him about the charges. They wanted only to turn him into an inf

I write this from Guantanamo Bay. Today, I saw my client Sami al-Hajj, a cameraman for al-Jazeera who has been locked up here for more than four years. Under the rules, which I have no choice but to obey, I cannot tell you a word of what he said. Everything is censored. My notes are sent by snail mail to Washington. A month later, I get back those parts that the government allows.

If, hypothetically, my client tells me about an abuse committed by a member of the US forces - some kind of torture - there is little chance that the perpetrator will face charges, but I face 40 years in prison if I reveal the crime. The military may dissemble for weeks, and I am forbidden to tell the truth.

Last week, the military reported that the prisoners went on a rampage in a premeditated attack against the soldiers. They say that various scheming terrorists attempted suicide by swallowing their hoarded medicines, to lure the guards into the cells. The disturbance had to be quelled with tear gas and rubber bullets. You are the judge. You hear one side of the story, carefully tooled by military public relations. Do you buy it?

War on free speech

Naturally, Sami was an eyewitness to the truth. Under the normal course of events, as a journalist, he could describe his version. But because the military makes up the rules, he is gagged. Sami and I talked for several hours today, and in a free society I could tell you what he said. But I don't have the right to free speech either.

In 1789, the US cobbled together a document that has defined and preserved rights more effectively than anything Europe achieved in the two centuries that followed. The First Amendment, enshrining freedom of speech and religion, was perhaps the most significant jewel in the Bill of Rights.

It is particularly tragic that the Bush administration has declared a war on free speech when it comes to Sami al-Hajj and al-Jazeera. Many of the station's journalists previously worked for the BBC, but were made redundant in 1996 when Saudi Arabia ended the BBC's Arabic-language TV service. Prior to 11 September 2001, the US lauded al-Jazeera as the only beacon of free speech in the Middle East.

It has been attacked from all sides, from Kuwait complaining about pro-Iraq bias, to Saddam Hussein condemning a report on his lavish birthday celebrations. Six years on, Bahrain has banned al-Jazeera for "suspicious" links with Israel, and the station's offices have been shut in Algeria, Jordan, Iran, Kuwait, Iraq, Palestine and Sudan.

President Bush has allied himself with these voices. His most celebrated excess came in his chat with Tony Blair where he mooted the idea of bombing the station's headquarters. Bush's spin-doctors said he was only joking. Four times the US authorities have had the al-Jazeera offices searched, or the website hacked, because of its criticism of the Iraq war. Three al-Jazeera journalists have been arrested by US forces. Worst of all, al-Jazeera's offices in Afghanistan and Iraq have both been bombed.

CIA target

Meanwhile, Sami al-Hajj sits in Guantanamo. He is no terrorist, as illustrated by his first interrogation (first of many): not one question was asked about the allegations. His interrogators wanted only to turn him into an informant against al-Jazeera. He learned that his calls to his wife while he was posted in Afghanistan had been monitored by the CIA. It was strange to think, when I went to Qatar to give a talk to his colleagues, that there were US informants in the audience.

Bizarrely, it was Osama Bin Laden who came to Sami's defence. In a recent tape, he seemed put out that some Guantanamo inmates "oppose al-Qaeda's methodology of calling for war with America". He singled out "those . . . in the media, like Sami al-Hajj".

Bush's vitriol has frightened many journalists. Perhaps this explains why none has gone out to bat for Sami. It would be a fine moment if someone in the western press plucked up the courage to defend him now.

Clive Stafford Smith is the legal director of Reprieve, a UK charity fighting for the lives of people facing the death penalty and other human-rights abuses. He represents 36 of the prisoners in Guantanamo. He will be writing this column monthly. www.reprieve.org.uk or contact Reprieve at PO Box 52742, London EC4P 4WS. Tel: 020 7353 4640