Iraqis, desperately seeking detainees, meet frustration

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

She didn't want to be a troublemaker; she's a US citizen, after all. So when American soldiers came to Jeanan Moayad's house, looking for her father, she cooperated. She showed them his medical records and her own Texas birth certificate. Her father was in Jordan, she told them, undergoing surgery. So they took her husband instead.

As far as she knows, her husband is not accused of any crime. But Mrs. Moayad says US troops are holding him as a human bargaining chip, telling her repeatedly that they would detain her husband until her father surrendered.

"My husband didn't do anything," says Moayad, a 35-year-old Iraqi architect who lived in Austin until she was five. Her chin trembling, she digs a tiny picture of him out of her purse, packed with documents related to his case and photos of their three children. Her husband, an architect named Dhafir Ibrahim, smiles calmly out of the scalloped frame. "He's a hostage!" she exclaims, her eyes filling with tears.

Recommended: Franz Kafka critiques his dad

"We repudiate that absolutely," says Capt . Mark Doggett, a US military spokesman. "The coalition does not take hostages. I don't have specifics on this particular case, but I can tell you on principle that we absolutely do not take hostages such as that lady has described."

Amid a growing scandal over photographs of US soldiers abusing detained Iraqis, US occupation officials pledged last week that conditions had improved at Abu Ghraib, where Mr. Ibrahim is being held, and in other prisons in Iraq. "I will tell you that everything that goes on in Abu Ghraib today is in accordance with our procedures and policies," said Maj. Gen. Geoffrey Miller, the new head of US-run prisons in Iraq, "and is in compliance with the covenants of the Geneva Convention."

But conversations with families of detainees, as well as documents, suggest that coalition forces are still holding Iraqis who have not been charged with any crime. In a stinging 24-page report leaked last week, the International Committee of the Red Cross quoted military intelligence officers who estimated that "between 70 percent and 90 percent" of the detainees in Iraq were arrested "by mistake."

In some cases, occupation forces are even holding people whom they know to be innocent - sometimes for months after the US military itself has declared them cleared of any crime. Weeks after the scandal began to snowball, and 10 days after Miller's claim, they are still holding them.

The Fourth Geneva Convention, which guarantees the rights of civilians under military occupation, forbids the use of "moral coercion" - such as holding relatives - to get information. It also prohibits punishing anyone for an offense he or she has not personally committed.

And both the Geneva Convention and international human rights law outlaw detaining people without speedy hearings and procedures for appeal. "There is a general prohibition against arbitrary incarceration," says John Quigley, an international law professor at Ohio State University. "And if they're holding somebody, they have some obligation to ascertain that there is a need to hold that person."

A letter brings hope - but no action

Sometimes even fulfilling that obligation isn't enough. On Jan. 10, American troops burst into the Abdul-Razaq family home near Baquba and handcuffed Wadhah Abdul-Razaq's brother Harith and two cousins. According to a US military letter, an informant had accused them of being in a terror cell. On March 18, a soldier drove back and delivered an apology - and the letter.

"All three of these men are innocent of the crimes they are accused of committing," reads the letter, signed by an American officer and dated March 15. (The letter, of which the Monitor has a copy, also notes that the accuser was now awaiting trial in an Iraqi court for "false testimony.")

"You cannot imagine how happy we were," says Mr. Abdul-Razaq, a chicken farmer. "We believed they would truly fulfill their promises. We wanted to get in the car and go straight to Basra at midnight. We thought that if we took this piece of paper, we would be able to release them."

Two months later, he is still trying. In the past four months, Abdul-Razaq's brother has been moved from Baquba to Tikrit, then to Abu Ghraib, and finally to Umm Qasr, in the south. "We never saw such terror in Iraq," says Abdul-Razaq's mother. "Not us, not our fathers, not our brothers."

In the meantime, Abdul-Razaq got another letter, dated April 22, restating his brother's innocence and asking again for his release. It didn't help. While Abdul-Razaq hopes his brother will come home eventually, the family has been devastated by his detention: To this day, his 3-year-old son, he says, who saw his uncle arrested, is afraid to sleep alone.

Doggett said he could not comment on the case. "We're getting buckets of requests about individual cases, so we're not able to follow them up individually," he sighs. "But there are a lot people due for release." Inquiries Doggett passed on to the 1st Armored Division were not answered by press time.

Alastair Hodgett, a spokesperson for Amnesty International USA, in Washington, says Abdul-Razaq's situation was not an isolated case. "Certainly the Geneva Convention, but also just basic standards for criminal procedure worldwide, would require that an individual that has been cleared of any crime would be released," he says. "And certainly there's no excuse for keeping somebody against whom there are no credible allegations. We've also documented cases of individuals who were detained far beyond the point where the allegations against them had proved to be unfounded."

A knock in the night

Moayad's ordeal began Jan. 30 at 2:30 a.m., when two Humvees pulled up to house.

The soldiers who came to her door asked for her father, Moayad Abdullah, a 66-year-old geologist and a Baath Party member. The family says they have no idea why he was of interest to the coalition forces. They didn't tell her what crime, if any, her father was suspected of committing - common practice, according to the Red Cross report.

"They told me it was because he was a Baathist," she says. "They told me my father didn't do anything, but they just wanted to know information about another person."

When the troops learned her father was out of the country, says Moayad, they arrested her husband. As Moayad's mother began to cry, they promised to bring him back the next day, saying they just wanted to ask him a few questions.

For the next 18 days, Ibrahim was held at a Baghdad detention facility. On Feb. 17, says Moayad, three soldiers came to her house and gave her a letter in her husband's handwriting. After greeting her and the children with "peace and kisses," the letter says he will be sent to Abu Ghraib "until the arrival of my father-in-law."

"I'm going to be there in his place until he surrenders himself," reads the letter. "Please tell him that I am in his place and that I'll be released when he arrives here, since I am not the wanted person, as you know from all who spoke to you about my case. Please inform my father-in-law to surrender himself of his own free will, and that will make things much easier for him. They don't mistreat someone who surrenders of his own free will, but just the opposite - they only want to ask him questions."

He apologizes for not being able to visit relatives during the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha, which she celebrated alone two days after he was taken. "I send my warm kisses to our pretty little ones, and I hope that they are being loving, well-behaved, and doing well in school," he writes. "Please tell them that I am traveling for some time, and don't tell them anything else."

Over the next three months, Moayad went to Abu Ghraib 18 times. Mostly, the soldiers there treated her well; she remembers one in particular, a baby-faced young doughboy who started to cry when she told him her story. Like Dhafir, the soldier left an infant behind as he deployed and will return to find a toddler.

"He told me that he is the same as me - he hasn't seen his children for eight or nine months," she says, biting her lip. "He was very sweet and kind."

Another soldier, moved by her story, looked up her husband's name on the computer. But he told her he couldn't do anything as her husband's name was marked "intel value." The Red Cross report describes a pattern of severe abuses against Iraqis deemed to have an "intelligence value," ranging from physical abuse to "psychological coercion" like threats of execution.

Experts in international law say that arresting one person to put pressure on others amounts to "moral coercion." "It's clearly an abuse of the powers of arrest to arrest one person and say that you're going to hold him until he gives information about somebody else, especially a close relative," says Quigley. "Arrests are supposed to be based on suspicion that the person has committed some offense."

Coalition authorities, while refusing to speak to the specifics of Ibrahim's case, denied that they would ever detain one person as a means of pressuring another. But last November, coalition forces detained the wife and daughter of Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, one of Saddam Hussein's top deputies. After Hussein's capture last year, Mr. Douri became the most wanted Iraqi official. His wife and daughter remain in US custody, though they have not been charged.

Human rights monitors have accused the US military of committing a war crime by arresting Douri's wife and daughter. "Taking hostages is a grave breach of the Geneva Conventions - in other words, a war crime," warned Human Rights Watch in a Jan. 12 letter to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.

Finally, a visit in the prison

Last Friday, US authorities released more than 300 prisoners from Abu Ghraib, and pledged to release hundreds more in coming weeks. Moayad waited at home all day, hoping her husband would walk through the door. He didn't. But the next day, May 15, she finally got to visit her husband in Abu Ghraib.

He told her to disregard the letter, and confirmed her suspicion that prison authorities forced him to write it. "He said they are treating him very well, very good, thanks be to God," she says, her voice shaking with relief.

Moayad doesn't blame America - "my first country" - for the months of living without her husband, or the job that he lost, or the time he missed with his children. She doesn't even hold a grudge for the night when his family came over and shouted at her, blaming her and her father for his detention.

But she does want the American public to know what is happening, and what she has endured over the past several months. "I think American citizens - as a country, not as soldiers - are very kind, very compassionate," she says. "And I'm sure they don't like what is going on."

Share this story:

We want to hear, did we miss an angle we should have covered? Should we come back to this topic? Or just give us a rating for this story. We want to hear from you.

Loading...

Loading...

Loading...