An Al-Jazeera TV cameraman imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay has been told he may soon be released after more than six years in U.S. military custody, a lawyer for the detainee said Monday, though U.S. officials refused to confirm the report.
Attorney Cori Crider told The Associated Press that a delegation of Qatari officials recently visited Sami al-Haj at Guantanamo and told him that he "should be out soon."
It was not immediately clear how the officials received that information, but Qatar is an ally of the U.S. government.
A Pentagon spokesman, Navy Cmdr. Jeffrey Gordon, declined to comment on any possible diplomatic discussions with other countries.
Al-Haj, a Sudanese citizen, was detained in December 2001 by Pakistani authorities as he tried to enter Afghanistan to cover the U.S.-led invasion. He was turned over to the U.S. military and taken in January 2002 to Guantanamo Bay, where the United States holds some 275 men suspected of links to al-Qaida and the Taliban.
"We're cautiously optimistic," said Crider, a lawyer for the British human rights group Reprieve, in a telephone interview from Britain.
Al-Jazeera is based in Qatar and is funded by the royal family of the Persian Gulf nation. The Qatari delegation met with al-Haj at Guantanamo on Jan. 31 and told him he "should be out soon," the cameraman told Crider on Feb. 1. She was able to disclose the conversation only after the U.S. government had reviewed and censored her notes from her meeting with al-Haj.
Crider said she does not know who was in the delegation that visited al-Haj. The press office at Qatar's foreign ministry, reached after business hours on Monday, said it could not immediately provide details on the visit.
The cameraman has been the subject of worldwide protests and many view his imprisonment as punishment for a network whose broadcasts have angered U.S. officials. The military says he was a courier for a militant Muslim organization, an allegation his lawyers have denied.
The Qatari officials told al-Haj he could live in their country and resume working for Al-Jazeera, the lawyer wrote.
"The shock for seeing someone come to help him after all this time took him aback and he found himself shaking when he was in the room with them," Crider wrote.
His lawyers say the 38-year-old has been on hunger strike since January 2007 to protest conditions and indefinite confinement at the prison. As of Monday, the military said there were seven men on hunger strike. Hunger strikers at Guantanamo are force-fed twice daily through tubes shoved through the nose.
"Sami has aged several years in appearance in the last six months, and he has definitely lost weight since I last saw him," said attorney Clive Stafford Smith, who saw al-Haj on Thursday. "He pulled up his shirt and his ribs were showing much more clearly than before."
Still, Stafford Smith added, al-Haj's "spirits have lifted" because of efforts to secure his release.