Al Jazeera Goes to Jail
EDITOR'S NOTE: After this story about the abuse of Arab journalists by the US military in Iraq went to press, there were several further developments. On March 18, US troops in Baghdad killed two TV journalists from the Al Arabiya network in what appears to have been an overreaction at a checkpoint: Ali Khatib, 34, a reporter, and Ali Abdul Aziz, 35, a cameraman. Two days later, some thirty Arab journalists walked out in protest at a press conference with US Secretary of State Colin Powell, who had made a surprise trip to Iraq. On March 29, the US military acknowledged it was responsible for the killings but held that the incident was "an accident" and that the soldiers had acted "within the rules of engagement." Around the same time, six US soldiers were criminally charged with abusing inmates at the US military's main prison in Iraq, Abu Ghraib, where the Al Jazeera journalists profiled below were held. Meanwhile, the Coalition Provisional Authority shut down a newspaper run by supporters of militant Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, drawing cries of protest and accusations of hypocrisy.
Salah Hassan looks sad and very tired. The Al Jazeera cameraman, a 33-year-old father of two, is recounting his tale of incarceration in a soft and matter-of-fact tone. Sipping tea in the lobby of the hotel that serves as Al Jazeera's Baghdad bureau, he explains how on November 3 of last year he raced to the site of a roadside bomb attack on a US military convoy in Dialah, near the eastern Iraqi city of Baquba. While he was interviewing people at the scene, US troops who had previously taken photographs of Hassan at other events arrested him, took him to a police station, interrogated him and repeatedly accused the cameraman of knowing in advance about the bomb attack and of lying in wait to get footage. "I told them to review my tapes, that it was clear I had arrived thirty or forty minutes after the blast. They told me I was a liar," says Hassan.
From Baquba, Hassan says he was taken to the military base at Baghdad International Airport, held in a bathroom for two days, then flown hooded and bound to Tikrit. After two more days in another bathroom, he was loaded onto a five-truck convoy of de-tainees and shipped south to Abu Ghraib, a Saddam-built prison that now serves as the American military's main detention center and holds about 13,000 captives.
Once inside the sprawling prison, Hassan says, he was greeted by US soldiers who sang "Happy Birthday" to him through his tight plastic hood, stripped him naked and addressed him only as "Al Jazeera," "boy" or "bitch." He was forced to stand hooded, bound and naked for eleven hours in the bitter autumn night air; when he fell, soldiers kicked his legs to get him up again. In the morning, Hassan says, he was made to wear a dirty red jumpsuit that was covered with someone else's fresh vomit and interrogated by two Americans in civilian clothes. They made the usual accusations that Hassan and Al Jazeera were in cahoots with "terrorists."
While most Abu Ghraib prisoners are held in large barracks-like tents in open-air compounds surrounded by razor wire, Hassan says he was locked in a high-security isolation unit of tiny cells. Down the tier from him was an old woman who sobbed incessantly and a mentally deranged 13-year-old girl who would scream and shriek until the American guards released her into the hall, where she would run up and down; exhausted, she would eventually return to her cell voluntarily. Hassan says that all other prisoners in the unit, mostly men, were ordered to remain silent or risk being punished with denial of food, water and light.
Elsewhere in Abu Ghraib, Hassan's colleague Suheib Badr Darwish was also in lockup. He had been arrested in Samarra on November 18 and, according to a colleague of his at Al Jazeera, Darwish was badly beaten by US troops.
Meanwhile, on the outside, the network hired a top-flight lawyer named Hider Nur Al Mulha to start working Hassan's case through Iraq's largely wrecked court system. Eventually Hassan was brought before a panel of the Iraqi Governing Council's freshly minted Federal Supreme Court, which was set up alongside its war crimes tribunal for trying the likes of Saddam Hussein and his henchmen. Salah Hassan, journalist, was the subject of the Court's first hearing. He was released for lack of evidence. After three more days in Abu Ghraib, this time in one of the prison's open-air camps, Hassan, still in his vomit-stained red jumpsuit, was dumped on a street just outside Baghdad on December 18. Darwish was released more than a month later, on January 25, again for lack of evidence.
Military officials did not respond to my requests for a tour of Abu Ghraib, nor were most of my numerous calls and e-mails about the cases of Hassan and Darwish returned. The one military spokesperson who did address relations with Al Jazeera on the record was Lieut. Col. Daniel Williams of the Coalition Joint Task Force 7; his comment was, "Al Jazeera is a welcome guest and professional news organization." As one source at the civilian Coalition Provisional Authority explained, "Anything about Al Jazeera is very sensitive, so any on-the-record comment would have to come from pretty far up in the hierarchy. Only a very senior person can deal with this." But repeated calls to the CPA's senior spokesperson, Dan Senor, produced no response.