REPRIEVE RELEASES THE SECOND IN A SERIES OF SAMI AL HAJ PROTEST SKETCHES CONDEMNING US MILITARY ABUSE OF THE AL JAZEERA JOURNALIST
Reprieve is releasing the second in a series of protest pieces called Sketches of My Nightmare, inspired by the suffering of Sami al Haj. Mr. Al Haj is an al-Jazeera journalist picked up covering the Afghan war and sent to Guantánamo Bay. He has been on hunger strike in Guantánamo since January 7, 2007.
Sami al Haj drew a series of powerful, graphic sketches that illustrate the suffering in Guantánamo Bay, particularly the abusive treatment of those on hunger strike. The drawings were submitted to the US military censors, and were barred from public release. However, Reprieve counsel Cori Crider also submitted Mr. al Haj’s detailed descriptions of his sketches, which was permitted through the censorship process.
Based on these descriptions, Political cartoonist Lewis Peake has drawn the second in a series of Sketches titled: “SCREAM FOR FREEDOM.”
“There is a second sketch, which is about the Hospital,” explains Mr. al Haj. “Again it is a skeleton, but with a face this time. The top of the skull is dotted with tracks, tracks of pain. This is the hospital gurney prisoner. He sits completely still, his hands and feet shackled to the side of the bed. ‘In Hospital.’”
Mr. Peake has issued a statement about his own motivation in trying to reproduce Mr. al Haj’s work:
The so-called “War on Terror” has been characterised by grim farce and Orwellian euphemisms, such as friendly fire, collateral damage, rendition and, of course, the enemy combatants of Guantanamo Bay who have virtually been deprived of their civil and legal status as human beings. Sami al Haj, among others, is an innocent man caught up in this grotesque nightmare and used as a trophy of that misguided war.
On a personal level my illustration work and my ethics came crashing together exactly five years ago when the US-led coalition invaded Iraq. Along with a million others I marched in London in February 2003 and could not believe it would really happen – that people would allow it to happen. But we did. There is a cliché that such things are beyond satire, but that phrase was invented by intellectuals. There are other more urgent clichés: “The only thing necessary for the triumph [of evil] is for good men to do nothing” (Burke). At such times coruscating heartfelt satire is more vital than ever.
Drawing cartoons based on someone else’s concepts is a new experience for me and when Reprieve asked me to do this I wasn’t sure it would work. In the event I have found it very rewarding – artistically and emotionally – and if it contributes even minutely to helping Sami obtain his freedom (insh’ allah!), it will have done more than all of my other work combined.
Today (March 20, 2008) is the 434th day of Sami al Haj’s hunger strike, where his only demand is liberty or an open and fair trial.
“Sami al Haj has often spoken to me of the nightmare that is the hospital in Guantanamo Bay,” said Clive Stafford Smith, Director of Reprieve. “He is not only suffering from his hunger strike, but he has also been told he may have cancer in his kidneys, and that no doctor can see him until May. Even then, he was told, perhaps the right doctor will not come to the base. It is no wonder that he portrays his own dark vision of the hospital in this way.”
“Reprieve continues to call urgently either for a fair trial, or for his immediate release,” said Mr. Stafford Smith.
Backstory: Notes on Sami al Haj’s First Sketch
The sketches are based on drawings done by Mr. al Haj earlier this year, depicting his ongoing hungerstrike in Guantánamo. Cori Crider, a lawyer with Reprieve, explained: “When I saw Sami on February 1, he showed me four very gruesome and incredibly detailed sketches. He explained he felt compelled to express the nightmare that he, and the rest of the hungerstrikers in Guantánamo, have been suffering. Sami’s sketches spoke volumes about what he goes through every time they strap him into that chair for forcefeeding. But I knew that they might be censored, so I had him describe what he was trying to say in his own words as well.”
As predicted, Mr. al Haj’s drawings were censored, although a memo describing them was unclassified. Lewis Peake’s drawings try to reflect Mr. al Haj’s design as honestly as possible.
“This is typical of the senseless censorship used by the authorities at Guantánamo, where the motivation is not national security but trying to avoid embarrassment for the illegal acts of the military,” said Clive Stafford Smith. “The Bush Administration can suppress Sami’s sketch, but they can’t stop another artist from replicating it. Ultimately, Sami’s spirit is irrepressible. Like Martin Luther King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail, the world will hear him, because he seeks only justice.”
“The first sketch is just a skeleton in the torture chair,” Mr. al Haj explains. “My picture reflects my nightmares of what I must look like, with my head double-strapped down, a tube in my nose, a black mask over my mouth, strapped into the torture chair with no eyes and only giant cheekbones, my teeth jutting out – my ribs showing in every detail, every rib, every joint. The tube goes up to a bag at the top of the drawing. On the right there is another skeleton sitting shackled to another chair. They are sitting like we do in interrogations, with hands shackled, feet shackled to the floor, just waiting. In between I draw the flag of Guantanamo – JTF-GTMO – but instead of the normal insignia, there is a skull and crossbones, the real symbol of what is happening here.”