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Out There News

Families search prison for murderers

Missing prisoners' files leave families little hope of justice

By Paul Eedle in Baghdad, Financial Times
Published: Apr 15, 2003

In the deserted wastes of Abu Ghraib prison, a man came running up, weeping and demanding to be heard. "My two brothers were executed. The Ba'athists wrote everything down. I've come to find documents about the men who condemned them to death and then I'm going to find them and kill them."

But there were no documents for Karim Mjalli Hashem to find in the empty cell blocks, or the empty, once refrigerated shed where he had to collect his brothers' bodies from a pile of corpses, or the concrete shed where two thick hangman's ropes still dangled from the ceiling.

Maybe Saddam Hussein's torturers and executioners had carefully cleaned out their records before invading US troops reached them. Perhaps the looters allowed into this vast walled compound west of Baghdad by the US forces got there first. But there were no ledgers or files that might help the families of Saddam's victims.

In a windowless room by the entrance of the "special sentences" block, the remains of the prison library were strewn on the floor: all Ba'ath party tracts and works by Mr Hussein.

In an office nearby, the floor was carpeted with yellow release orders for prisoners - relics of a mass amnesty last October when the dictator was desperately trying to curry favour with his people - and a few battered ledgers from the prison's clinic.

This is another of the consequences of America's chaotic occupation of Baghdad. Documents abandoned in interrogation centres and prisons - or other government buildings - could have been collected and collated by human rights experts, who might then have helped at least some of the families bereaved by Mr Hussein to learn what happened to their relatives.

But any evidence that was left behind has now been stolen or has gone up in smoke, along with the files and records that would have made it possible to reconstruct all the other public services people now need.

The US marines, who occupy the half of Baghdad east of the Tigris river, did start trying to organise a police force yesterday to end the anarchy. They promoted a police inspector with what they believe to be a reliable background, Zuhair Ahmed Zaki, to be Baghdad's chief of police.

With a team of only three junior marines, they then began trying to screen crowds of policemen who flocked to Baghdad's Police College asking to return to duty. Staff sergeant Jeremy Stafford, leader of the three, told journalists in the middle of a mob of policemen: "Initially we were supposed to have 100 police officers turn up here this morning. The word leaked out and thousands turned up."

"I came here because our honour is going down," said Muhannad al-Mutawalli, a retired police colonel who now runs a trading business. "I do not need a salary, but I want them to put me in at any point to keep security."

Before the police went back to work, there was a ritual to perform. In the forecourt of the police college, young officers started smashing a gold-painted bust of Saddam Hussein. Cheering, it crashed to the ground and they queued up to wipe their shoes on the vanished president's face.