x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Margaret Hassan: How justice was spirited away

The mystery of why the aid worker died has deepened with the disappearance of the only man held to account for her killing.

In October 2004, Al Jazeera broadcast disturbing footage of Margaret Hassan, pleading for her life days after she was kidnapped in Baghdad. Two more videos, including one in which she was shot dead, were never broadcast.
In October 2004, Al Jazeera broadcast disturbing footage of Margaret Hassan, pleading for her life days after she was kidnapped in Baghdad. Two more videos, including one in which she was shot dead, were never broadcast.

Even in a country that through decades of war, sanctions and repression had become sadly familiar with bloodshed and misery, the cold-blooded murder of aid worker Margaret Hassan in 2004 came as a shock, an act of inhumanity so stark it stood out from its brutal surroundings. Her abduction in Western Baghdad in broad daylight, by men dressed in police uniforms, was greeted with outrage by ordinary Iraqis, many of whom took to Baghdad's streets in protest. Even anti-American insurgent groups demanded the release of the joint British-Iraqi citizen and, in an unprecedented step, Abu Musab al Zarqawi, at the time head of al Qa'eda in Iraq, called for her to be freed.

Despite being born in Ireland and growing up in England, Margaret Hassan had spent 30 years in Iraq, moving there in 1972, and subsequently devoting her life to the place and its people. She was married to an Iraqi - changing her surname from Fitzsimons - had Iraqi citizenship and spoke fluent Arabic with the local dialect. More than that, as Baghdad director of Care International, a Brussels-based aid organisation, she was well-known and highly regarded for pushing through desperately needed health, nutrition, water and sanitation projects.

During the eight-year Iran-Iraq conflict and the 1991 Gulf war she remained in her adopted country while the bombs fell and continued Care's relief projects as the US-led invasion force attacked in 2003. It was between those two wars that her reputation was sealed, her tireless work giving a lifeline to thousands as a decade of UN sanctions choked Iraq, destroying its infrastructure and plunging it back into the ranks of undeveloped states.

The first video of Mrs Hassan pleading for her life was shown a few days after she was snatched from a Baghdad street in October 2004. A woman renowned for her courage and compassion, she broke down in tears and, looking into the camera, begged for help, saying she feared she would soon be killed. There would be two more videos, neither of which was ever broadcast in full because they were even more disturbing. In the second, the 59-year-old fainted. Her captors revived her by throwing a bucket of water on her sprawling figure.

The third, recorded a month after she was taken, showed her murder, a man, with his face hidden by a scarf, shooting her in the back of the head. Unusually, no group ever admitted responsibility and the sparse, traumatic videos provided no clues. The Islamic banners and religious chanting that accompanied similar executions by other groups - proud to lay claim to their work - were noticeable by their absence.

For years, there was little progress on the case and it seemed that Mrs Hassan had joined the long list of Iraqi dead whose killers would never be forced to answer for their actions. In March 2008, however, a 37-year-old Iraqi architect was arrested by US and Iraqi forces after demanding US$1 million (Dh3.67m) from the British government in exchange for revealing the location of Mrs Hassan's body.

He confessed to being part of the insurgent group behind her abduction. He also admitted, in writing, trying to extort $1m, and it took less than an hour for Baghdad's central criminal court to find Jassar guilty of involvement in Mrs Hassan's kidnap and murder. During the court hearing, in June last year, Jassar protested his innocence and retracted the confessions, claiming they had been extracted under torture at the hands of US and Iraqi special forces. Unimpressed by the claims, Judge Asaad al Moussaw sentenced Jassar to life in prison.

But now, just a year and two months since sentence was passed, Jassar is no longer in jail - he has vanished. He had been due to appear in court on July 15 as part of his appeal against the conviction but he didn't show up. According to lawyers involved in the case, the court was told he could not be located and might have escaped from prison in Chamchamal, in northern Iraq, during an undisclosed "incident".

Details about Jassar's disappearance are sketchy, with reports that he could have been transferred to a Baghdad prison, escaping en route, or that he could have been freed as a result of an administrative mistake. The Iraqi government launched an inquiry into the affair but The National has learnt that no trace of the convict has been found by investigators. An official involved in the investigation says it indicated Jassar had been deliberately released, something he said could have happened only as a result of high-level intervention.

"Jassar got out of prison without actually having to escape. It's not a matter of him paying a bribe, or scaling a fence or digging a tunnel, or having a getaway car, he just disappeared," said the official, a member of a joint unit comprising ministry of defence, ministry of justice and minister of interior staff. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorised to speak to the media.

"There is no paperwork saying he was released [as part of an amnesty], which means the only conclusion I can draw is that Jassar and those who killed Margaret Hassan have powerful connections, with the ability to protect them and with the ability to get him out of prison. "We have investigated other cases where prisoners just vanish and believe those to be political releases, where political power is used to have people freed. This case [Ali Lutfi Jassar] shows the same signs."

The official, angered by the situation, says he does not expect the investigation will unearth any more information; the unit, he says, lacks the clout to push the matter further. The possibility that Jassar has been released following intervention by a person or group with enough influence to free such a high-profile detainee was confirmed by Dharfa al Bassam, a criminal lawyer in Baghdad. "The Iraqi justice system works to a degree but it is not perfect," he said. "There is a war going on and there are problems of political interference. In wars, criminals often have political connections. If that connection wanted Jassar out of jail, they might be able to make it happen."

Mr al Bassam speculated that, if Jassar did have contacts with people in power, they would have every incentive to make him disappear rather than return to court on appeal where, potentially, he could reveal new information that could lead to their identification or prove to be politically embarrassing. Only one other person, Mustafa Salman al Jabori, arrested in 2006, has been tried and convicted over the aid worker's death. Like Jassar, he was sentenced to life in prison and he too is no longer behind bars. Although al Jabori was found in possession of some of Mrs Hassan's belongings, his sentence was reduced on appeal and he was freed in 2008.

Other suspects wanted in connection with the kidnap and murder, carried out by a group known as the Twentieth Revolution Brigade, include a cleric, Hussein al Zubayi. None has yet been detained. The disappearance of Jassar from prison has come as a blow to Mrs Hassan's family - her husband, Tahseen Ali Hassan, her brother and three sisters. It had been the aid worker's wish that she be laid to rest in a cemetery in Richmond, west London, and her relatives had hoped that Jassar would tell them where they could find her body.

Almost 100 e-mails and telephone calls were made to the British embassy in the autumn of 2007 by a man who gave his name as Abu Rasha, but whom the authorities say was Jaffar. In one of the messages he said he had "put her in the grave". "I can guide you to the house she was killed in and you can there examine the remaining blood and fingerprints," he wrote. "Margaret's camera is still with me and if you want I can give you model and serial number so you can examine it."

Suggestions that the disappearance of Jassar from jail may have been politically motivated add further intrigue to a case that, one way or another, has been political from the outset. The kidnappers used Mrs Hassan to urge the British government to pull its troops out of Iraq; Britain's then prime minister, Tony Blair, responded by saying he would do all he could to free her but would not negotiate with terrorists or pay a ransom.

Her death had political repercussions. It was cited by those supporting the invasion as evidence of the merciless brutality of their enemies and the need to crush them. Mrs Hassan herself had been highly critical of the war and of the crippling economic sanctions that preceded it and opponents of the conflict saw her death as another reason the invasion should never have been allowed to take place. They blamed President George W Bush and Mr Blair for her death, saying they bore ultimate responsibility.

Mr Hassan, the aid-worker's husband, has said he does not believe she was murdered by Iraqis, an assertion supported by Denis Halliday and Hans von Sponek, both former UN humanitarian co-ordinators for Iraq and colleagues of Mrs Hassan's. All three are adamant that no Iraqi would have harmed her and that her much-publicised criticism of the war made her an unlikely target for insurgents - an assertion reinforced by the fact that powerful militant groups had called for her release.

Mr Hassan has blamed "foreign" hands, but Iraq's faltering criminal justice system has failed to unearth much in the way of evidence, either to support or debunk the suggestion. Jassar, in fact, may have been the only person who could have helped to answer such questions. His conviction had led to hopes that the matter might be resolved but now his disappearance, in circumstances at best murky, means the truth behind the murder of Margaret Hassan may never be known.

* The National