U.S. Challenges Condition of Gitmo Detainee

Officials say he was in fine health until cameras recorded his return home.

February 11, 2009, 6:51 PM

May 2, 2008 — -- Video footage of a just-released Guantanamo detainee, unable to walk and grimacing in pain as he is loaded off a U.S. military plane in Sudan, didn't sit too well with Pentagon officials who say Sami al-Hajj appeared healthy and good-natured as he boarded the plane to leave Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Broadcast images of his arrival in Sudan showed a weakened al-Hajj returning home after six years of detention at Guantanamo.

The Pentagon sees al-Hajj's weakened appearance as the former detainee's latest effort to influence public opinion.

"He's a manipulator and a propagandist," said one of the three Defense Department officials who spoke to ABC News.

One of the officials talked about al-Hajj's "constant drumbeat of allegations" about the treatment of Guantanamo detainees, which had apparently become an irritant to his military handlers. One of the officials said that his credibility was called into question because there was "no information to substantiate his allegations that he was mistreated at Guantanamo."

He had maintained his innocence since he was captured by Pakistani forces along the border with Afghanistan in late 2001, shortly after the U.S. invasion of that country. Working as a cameraman for the Arab news network al-Jazeera, al-Hajj was detained under suspicion that he was a terrorist financier and courier for al Qaeda.

Determined to be an "enemy combatant," al-Hajj became one of the most well-known Guantanamo detainees, as al-Jazeera often carried reports of his case and campaigned for his release.

He was transferred to Sudanese custody early Friday morning. Video of his arrival showed al-Hajj being carried off a C-17 military transport plane by U.S. Air Force personnel and being loaded onto a stretcher grimacing in pain, and eventually being taken to a hospital by ambulance.

Additional video of al-Hajj's return showed a standing al-Hajj greeting his young son and conducting media interviews from his hospital bed shortly after he had been carried off on a stretcher.

A Guantanamo spokesperson said that prior to his transfer, al-Hajj had a final meeting with Defense Department interviewers that was described by them as being "very cordial." He told them that he planned to write a book and that he would not eat again until he was back in Sudan.

The spokesperson said that he was "fully ambulatory" to and from the meeting, and as he later made his way to the C-17 military plane that would take him back to Sudan. Though escorted by guards, he "was not supported in any way."

A Pentagon official familiar with his case said that al-Hajj's airport arrival in Sudan was "very orchestrated. He knew media would be there for the arrival and obviously he was using that to his advantage."

His weakened appearance during his airport arrival also was questioned by another Pentagon official.

"It's interesting to me that he was carried off the plane claiming he couldn't walk or speak," the official said, "and then we see him on al-Jazeera speaking on a cell phone, giving interviews and leaning down to pick up his son. He seemed like a healthy individual to me."

Although tentative plans had been made by the Pentagon to release video of Hajj's departure from Guantanamo, to counter the impression left by his arrival in Sudan, the video will now not be released publicly.

Al-Hajj had been on a hunger strike for 16 months. But one of the Defense Department officials said that he was not malnourished because of the regular forced feedings he had received during that time.

All three of the officials expect al-Hajj to continue making claims that he and other Guantanamo detainees have been mistreated by their military jailers.

Said one: "I expect he'll likely be in the news for some time to continue claiming all sorts of wild things . It's the advantage they have in this fight. It's a war of ideas, and they can claim any wild number of things happened to them and they'll capitalize on it. It puts the pressure on us to disprove them."

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