In Guantanamo, one man is living the life of a king

I have seen as much credible evidence of Sami being a terrorist as I have seen of the Loch Ness Mons

Much of my week has been spent finishing off a documentary based on letters from a prisoner in Guantanamo Bay for BBC Radio 4. Letters From Guantanamo is told largely in the words of the man the Americans know as Enemy Combatant Prisoner 345, Camp Four. His employers at al-Jazeera know him as the TV cameraman Sami al-Hajj. And his young son, Muhammad, hardly knows him at all: Sami has been held without charge or trial for almost five years, and Muhammad is now just six.

So, is Sami a "man of peace" - as he describes himself in the letters? Or is he, conceivably, a terrorist who would sit next to you on a plane and blow you and everybody else to smithereens?

I can't tell you for sure, though the answer to that question is at the heart of one of the most important stories of our times: whether Guantanamo is an American Gulag or a wise precaution against terror. The Americans will not say why Sami - or anyone else - is held. But after months of talking to relatives, friends, ex-prisoners, lawyers and the commander of Guantanamo Bay, Rear Admiral Harry Harris, I have seen as much credible evidence of Sami being a terrorist as I have seen of the Loch Ness Monster. Correction. I have seen slightly more evidence of the Loch Ness Monster - at least one dubious black-and-white photo.

After more than 130 interrogations, the US authorities have yet to make public even a Loch-Ness-style photo to suggest Sami is a threat to anyone. Rear Admiral Harris tells me the inmates use any weapons, including urine and faeces, to attack US guards. Sami's letters speak of beatings, tedium and bewilderment that the country that houses the Statue of Liberty should treat him so badly for (as he puts it) no reason, and with no end in sight. As he writes in one of his letters: ". . . who are these people who are held in cages not even fit for wild animals? How do these humans live? . . . The Prophet Jonah lived inside a whale - and Moses lived in a coffin. So, I have to force myself to think that these Guantanamo cells are only for those who are strong, and those who have the will to adopt the path of the prophets. If I have to stay all my life in these cages, let those who inflict this on me do what they wish, but I feel that I am living the life of a king."

Personal plug

Politics of a different sort at the première of a BBC1 comedy serial, The Amazing Mrs Pritchard, in which Kirsty Wark and I have cameo roles as . . . Newsnight presenters interviewing the next prime minister (played by Jane Horrocks). Good fun, but not true to life. In comedy Newsnight, I had my own dressing room. In real Newsnight, there's the men's loo in TV Centre. Sometimes one of the sinks has a plug.

History boy

A few months ago I read a quotation from the estimable historian Andrew Roberts in which he claimed that the United Kingdom had never lost a war. I suggested in the daily Newsnight e-mail that the events of the 1770s in North America prove otherwise. The British lost the American war of independence to the upstart Americans. No-oooo, cries Roberts. Writing in the Spectator, he retorts that because the UK was not formally founded until the Act of Union 1800, the American war of independence doesn't count.

Hmmm. Sounds to me like Bill Clinton's logic when he claimed that Monica had had sex with him, but he'd never had sex with her. And anyway, what about the Black and Tan war in Ireland leading to the 26 counties going their own way? Another victory for the UK? Or maybe that wasn't a proper war, just as the UK wasn't a proper UK in 1783. History books at dawn.

Mountain to Muhammad?

To the Comedy Theatre to interview Michael Frayn. He wrote Donkeys' Years, Noises Off and Copenhagen, and I'm a big fan. Frayn told me the Comedy Theatre owners once thought to rename it "the Pinter Theatre", until Tom Stoppard intervened. "Wouldn't it be better," Stoppard commented, "if Pinter just renamed himself Harold Comedy?" Indeed.

Gavin Esler is a presenter of BBC2's Newsnight. "Letters From Guantanamo" is on Radio 4 on Saturday 30 September at 10.15pm

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