Ex-hostages in Iraq opt for forgiveness

Iraqi suspects await trial, but the Christian Peacemaker Teams say they oppose harsh punishments.

Three pacifists who were held hostage for 118 days in Iraq and were released only after a fourth colleague was murdered, publicly forgave their captors Friday.

At a press conference in London, the members of the Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT) said they were reluctant to testify against four alleged captors in Iraqi custody because of the possibility that they will face harsh punishment, especially the death penalty.

Canadian James Loney, Briton Norman Kember, and Canadian Harmeet Singh Sooden, who now lives in New Zealand, said they did not want "punitive" justice for their suspected captors, scheduled to stand trial early next year.

"Justice is about restoring relationships that have been broken,'' says Mr. Loney. "We are very, very concerned about the death penalty. It would be the worst possible outcome for us if they were to be sentenced to death."

"To lock then up and throw way the key," he says, "that is not justice. Punishment comes from the same mind-set that is behind the escalating spiral of violence that we see in Iraq that is being fueled by the governments in Washington and London. If they are punishing them on my behalf, that doesn't do anything for me."

Loney was a member of the four-man CPT unit seized outside a mosque in Baghdad on Nov. 26 last year. The lone American member, Tom Fox, was killed by their captors. The kidnappers, a group of Sunni Arab insurgents, appeared to have ties to the kidnappers of Jill Carroll, a Christian Science Monitor reporter who was held for 82 days earlier this year following the murder of her translator Allan Enwiya.

After Ms. Carroll was freed from captivity, she revealed that one of her captors said they had killed an American because the US had failed to meet a demand to release Sheikh Omar Abdel-Rahman, a blind cleric convicted of involvement in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and currently serving a life sentence in a US penitentiary.

In an earlier interview with the Monitor, Mr. Loney said the captors had spoken of demanding Abdel Rahman's release in exchange for their safety; this demand was never made publicly.

The three surviving members of the team say they would be hypocrites if they gave in to the anger created by their ordeal, and participated in the traditional avenues of justice. Loney, a committed Christian, said he would even return to Iraq to meet with his captors. "It would be wonderful to sit down and talk to them and talk about what [prompted] this thing that they did ... what did it mean to them, what does it mean to them now."

Mr. Sooden added that the men have doubts about the fairness of the Iraqi court system, particularly giving the raging war there. "I don't know if the Central Criminal Court of Iraq can act as per its mandate because of the security situation."

Despite the country's ongoing war, the wheels of justice have haltingly moved forward in Iraq, where the death penalty is enforced. And not all hostage advocates share the CPT members' forgiving view.

In June, Mustafa Salman al-Jibouri was sentenced to life imprisonment for aiding the men who kidnapped and later murdered Margaret Hassan, the British national who had run the charity CARE's Baghdad offices and had made aiding Iraq's poor her life's work.

Mrs. Hassan's family charged afterward that "inept" handling of the case allowed Mr. Jibouri to escape the death penalty, and also led to the acquittal of two other men on trial in her murder. They said the acquittals would encourage more kidnapping in Iraq.

In November, Hussein Fahmi, whom authorities described as a member of Al Qaeda in Iraq, was sentenced to death for his role in the kidnapping and beheading of Shosei Koda, a young Japanese man who was abducted while traveling in Iraq in 2004. Mr. Fahmi was of mixed Egyptian and Palestinian descent.

Also, the Iraqi justice system has come under criticism from human rights organizations for frequent torture of captives.

If the three don't testify, either by identifying suspects in a photo lineup or by giving video evidence (there is no suggestion that they should actually travel to the Iraqi court) the case could unravel. "We were told there would be a possibility that they could walk away from this if we don't testify," said Loney. "Not to excuse what they were doing but there was a rationale for it. They saw themselves being part of a fight to defend their country."

The three CPT survivors said a lot of forensic evidence was collected after they were released in a raid following a tip. "There was a fair bit of forensic evidence in the house that we left,'' says Mr. Kember. "When I got to the hospital, they stripped me ... they said we could get fingerprints off clothes."

Some of the alleged kidnappers of Carroll have been arrested, and Iraqi officials say they are building a strong case against them, but no court dates have yet been set.

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