An Al Jazeera journalist, who was once imprisoned at Abu Ghraib and allegedly tortured by private contractors with CACI International, is one of the plaintiffs in a lawsuit being brought by the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR).
Salah Hassan appeared on “Democracy Now!” to describe many details about his arrest, detention and torture, which he had not spoken publicly about before.
Hassan was one of the prisoners at Abu Ghraib, who was made to stand naked for hours with a hood on their heads. When he was asked to strip naked, he recalled:
…I was helpless and could not object or not comply because, as military men, they had more power than me. They forced me. At the beginning, when they asked me to take off my clothes, I refused, of course, and told them, “I will not take my clothes off.” They said to me, “You either take them off yourself, or we will take them off for you.” Then I realized they are serious, so I started taking off some pieces like my pants and shirt, but they insisted that I strip completely. I told them it is impossible and I cannot take off all my clothes. They said, “You either take them off, or we will.” So I had to take off all my clothes, timidly, the hood on my head. I put my hand to cover my genitals, very embarrassed. These were very difficult moments. I transformed, in a second, from a journalist on the ground who has a social status and people look at me in a certain way—I have my familial and social values and status—to a humiliated person stripped down forcefully, very naked, helpless. This was a huge shock in these moments…
Hassan did not expect that as a journalist he “would be treated in this manner.” He thought this kind of behavior “would be coming from people who do not believe in democracy,” not Americans.
He was kept in a solitary cell for about 40 days, and he told “Democracy Now!” that “70 percent of that time” he was “kept naked.”
“Throughout my detainment in the solitary cells, there was an interrogation every two or three days,” Hassan further recounted. “During these interrogations, [prisoners] were subjected to many psychological and physical torture methods. One of these methods was that you were kept naked, handcuffed, the hood on your head, then they would bring a big dog. You hear the panting and barking of the dog very close to your face. This is one of the methods of torture and interrogation that they conducted.”
What crime was Hassan accused of committing? Why was he a target for arrest, detention and interrogation? Did they realize they were subjecting a journalist to degrading treatment?
The specific details were not mentioned by Hassan on air, but, according to a 2004 report from Christian Parenti for The Nation, the Al Jazeera cameraman and “father of two,” was going to interview people at the scene of a “roadside bomb attack on a US military convoy in Dialah” on November 3, 2003. US troops, “who had previously taken photographs of Hassan at other events, arrested him, took him to a police station, interrogated him and repeatedly accused the cameraman of knowing in advance about the bomb attack and of lying in wait to get footage.”
“I told them to review my tapes, that it was clear I had arrived thirty or forty minutes after the blast. They told me I was a liar,” Hassan told Parenti.
When Hassan got to Abu Ghraib:
…[Hassan] was greeted by US soldiers who sang “Happy Birthday” to him through his tight plastic hood, stripped him naked and addressed him only as “Al Jazeera,” “boy” or “bitch.” He was forced to stand hooded, bound and naked for eleven hours in the bitter autumn night air; when he fell, soldiers kicked his legs to get him up again. In the morning, Hassan says, he was made to wear a dirty red jumpsuit that was covered with someone else’s fresh vomit and interrogated by two Americans in civilian clothes. They made the usual accusations that Hassan and Al Jazeera were in cahoots with “terrorists”…
US contractors or troops knew Hassan was with Al Jazeera. His treatment was a part of the war being waged against the media organization by President George W. Bush’s administration for daring to report on what was actually happening on the ground in Iraq.
Bush reportedly considered bombing the Qatar-based organization. Al Jazeera journalist Sami al-Haj was detained and brought to Guantanamo Bay prison in 2002. He was imprisoned until 2008. US military forces fired upon a building that was clearly marked a media center and killed Tareq Ayyoub, an Al Jazeera journalist. The attack also injured Zouhair Nadhim, an Al Jazeera cameraman.
Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was on record expressing anger about the “propagandist” nature of Al Jazeera. In 2009, although he was no longer Defense Secretary, he told a meeting of defense ministers on Asian security issues that “Al Jazeera television in the Middle East” was “promoting terrorism by broadcasting pictures of extremists carrying out beheadings and other brutal attacks.” He accused the network of engaging in coverage of “kidnappings in Iraq and other extremist violence” that was “slanted so that even a loyal American who watched the satellite network’s reports would eventually turn against US policies.”
During interrogations, Hassan was mostly asked questions “relating to Al Jazeera and the details about Al Jazeera channel, details about my life. Some examples of these questions were: ‘Will you go back to work for Al Jazeera when you get out of here?’ ‘Do you like working for Al Jazeera?’ ‘Why do you like working for Al Jazeera?’ But they did not directly charge me with any specific accusation while I stayed in this prison.”
Hassan did return to work for Al Jazeera. He was not ever charged with any crimes. He was released when he was eventually brought before a judge because there was no substance to the outrageous allegations initially made against him.
Over the weekend, the United States government marked World Press Freedom Day. A statement from the State Department declared that a diverse and independent press is “crucial to holding governments accountable and promoting democracy around the world.” Secretary of State John Kerry stated, “I am in awe of courage of those who risk their lives to tell stories the world needs to hear.”
This appreciation for press freedom was non-existent when it came to Al Jazeera journalists while the Bush administration was in power. And, while President Barack Obama’s administration has been in power, the disregard has in some ways been extended by virtue of the fact that the Obama administration has fought every effort by individuals like Hassan to hold individuals accountable for torture they allegedly experienced.