U.S. military holds dozens of Iraqis as bargaining chips to pressure wanted relatives

U.S. military arrests war’s ‘bargaining chips’

May 25, 2004 | Newsday


BAGHDAD, Iraq — U.S. troops wanted Jeanan Moayad’s father. When they couldn’t find him, they took her husband in his place.

Dhafir Ibrahim has been in U.S. custody for nearly four months. Moayad insists that he is being held as a bargaining chip, and military officials have told her that he will be released when her father surrenders. Her father is a scientist and former Baath party member who fled to Jordan soon after the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime.

“My husband is a hostage,” said Moayad, 35, an architect who carries a small portrait of Ibrahim in her purse. “He didn’t commit any crime.”

In a little-noticed development amid Iraq’s prison abuse scandal, the U.S. military is holding dozens of Iraqis as bargaining chips to put pressure on their wanted relatives to surrender, according to human rights groups. These detainees are not accused of any crimes, and experts say their detention violates the Geneva Conventions and other international laws. The practice also risks associating the United States with the tactics of countries that it has long criticized for arbitrary arrests.

“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,” said John Quigley, an international law professor at Ohio State University. “Arrests are supposed to be based on suspicion that the person has committed some offense.”

U.S. officials deny that there is a systematic practice of detaining relatives to pressure Iraqi fugitives into surrendering. “The coalition does not take hostages,” said a senior military official who asked not to be named. “Relatives who might have information about wanted persons are sometimes detained for questioning, and then they are released. There is no policy of holding people as bargaining chips.”

But Iraqi human rights groups say they have documented dozens of cases similar to Moayad’s, in which family members who are not accused of any crimes have been detained for weeks or even months and told that they would be released only when a wanted relative surrenders to U.S. forces.

“We have many cases of Americans going to a house looking for someone, and when they can’t find him, they take another family member in his place,” said Bassem al-Rubaie, director of the Council of Legal Defense Care, a group of Iraqi lawyers that has been campaigning for prisoner rights. “This has been going on since the early days of the American occupation.”

In a recent report, the International Committee of the Red Cross quoted military intelligence officers as saying that between “70 and 90 percent” of the nearly 8,000 Iraqis detained by occupation forces had been arrested “by mistake.” In some cases, the report found, U.S. troops continued to hold people for several months after they had been cleared of any wrongdoing.

Human rights groups first criticized the United States for detaining the relatives of wanted Iraqis in November, when U.S. forces arrested the wife and daughter of Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, one of Hussein’s longtime deputies. After Hussein was captured last year, al-Douri became the most wanted man in Iraq, and Washington put a $10 million bounty on his head.

Al-Douri’s wife and daughter are still in U.S. custody, although rights monitors say they have not been charged with any crime. Rights groups say the United States is committing a war crime by detaining al-Douri’s relatives without charge. “Taking hostages is a grave breach of the Geneva Conventions — in other words, a war crime,” Human Rights Watch wrote in a January letter to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.

The senior U.S. military official declined to discuss the detention of al-Douri’s relatives, saying it is a “special case with very unusual circumstances.” In the past, U.S. officials had likened the detentions to those of a material witness who is held for questioning.

But rights monitors say there is no basis under international law for holding family members as material witnesses. “That explanation is dubious at best,” said Alistair Hodgett, a spokesman for Amnesty International USA.

Detaining the relatives of a fugitive is a form of “moral coercion” forbidden under the Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949, according to Quigley. The convention, which guarantees the rights of civilians under military occupation, also prohibits punishing someone for an offense that he has not personally committed.

In the 1970s and ’80s, Washington frequently criticized the former Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc countries for making arbitrary arrests and for using relatives to exert pressure on fugitives and political prisoners. In its latest report on human rights conditions around the world, the State Department singled out several countries — including Uzbekistan, Pakistan and Syria — for using such tactics to pressure people to surrender or to force confessions.

By adopting similar tactics in Iraq, experts say Washington risks losing a moral high ground. “It makes it difficult for the U.S. to criticize other countries,” Quigley said, “when it undertakes detentions of this sort that so clearly exceed what is permitted by law.”

International law leaves little recourse for civilians under occupation to challenge wrongful detentions, something Moayad has become painfully aware of in recent months.

Her plight began on Jan. 30 at 2:30 a.m., when two U.S. Humvees pulled up to the door of her family’s house as an Apache helicopter circled overhead. The soldiers asked for her father, Abdullah, 66, an American-educated geologist. Moayad insists that she does not know what U.S. forces wanted from her father, whom she described as a low-level Baath party official.

Moayad told the soldiers that her father had gone to neighboring Jordan to undergo surgery for prostate cancer and she showed them his medical records. They arrested the only other man in the house: Moayad’s husband. As her mother and children started to cry, Moayad said the troops told the family that they just wanted to ask Ibrahim some questions and they promised to bring him back the next day.

“My husband told them several times, ‘I’m not a troublemaker, I just want to live in peace with my family,'” said Moayad, who was born in Austin, Texas, while her father was working there. She lived in the United States until she was 5 years old.

Moayad has been married to Ibrahim, 45, for eight years. They have three children, aged 2 to 7. Like many Iraqis, they live with their extended family.

On Feb. 17, Moayad said, a group of soldiers knocked on her door and delivered a handwritten letter from Ibrahim. It said he was being transferred from a U.S. base in Baghdad to Abu Ghraib prison “until the arrival of my father-in-law.”

“I am going to be there in his place until he surrenders himself,” Ibrahim wrote. “Please tell him that I will be released when he arrives here, since I am not the wanted person… Please urge my father-in-law to surrender himself of his own free will. That will make things much easier for him. They will not mistreat someone who surrenders of his own free will. They only want to ask him some questions.”

Ibrahim, who lost his job as an architect because of his detention, apologized for not being home to celebrate a Muslim holiday. “I send my warm kisses to our pretty little ones, and I hope that they are being well-behaved and doing well in school,” he wrote. “Please tell them that I am traveling for some time, and don’t tell them anything else.”

Since receiving the letter, Moayad has made the 40-mile roundtrip journey from Baghdad to Abu Ghraib 18 times. On most visits, she stood outside the gates with other family members waiting in vain for information about their relatives. One soldier who felt sorry for her looked up Ibrahim’s name on the prison’s computer system and told her that he was marked as a detainee with “intel value.”

Moayad, whose patchwork English is the legacy of her Texas childhood, doesn’t know what “intelligence value” means and how it might affect her husband’s status. But the Red Cross report documented a pattern of abuses — including humiliation, hooding and threats of execution — against Iraqi prisoners deemed to have an intelligence value.

“The American soldiers kept on telling me, ‘Bring your father, and you will get your husband back,'” said Moayad, her soft voice trailing off. “How can they say that he’s not a hostage?”

On May 15, her 18th visit to Abu Ghraib, Moayad finally got to see her husband. Ibrahim told her he was being well treated, but he said that military officials had forced him to write the letter pleading for his father-in-law to surrender.

The tactic, Moayad said, reminded her of Hussein’s regime. “The Americans promised us that they would bring democracy and freedom. They talked about the prisoners in Saddam’s time, and we expected them to do something better,” she said. “But now they’re doing the same thing, or even worse.”

Thanks to Alexandra Dadlez for passing this article along. –BL

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