Saddam's Nemesis

The story of how one Iraqi Kurd based in Scotland dedicated his life to bringing the dictator to trial

IT the time, the world seemed not to care. Almost daily, over months and years on end, hundreds of thousands of Iraqi Kurds and other civilians were gassed, shot, bombed, and tortured to death. “The world needs to know what is happening. If I can get you there, can you can get the story on television,” asked Dr Kamal Ketuly one afternoon more than 20 years ago, as we sat in his house in Glasgow’s west end.
For hours I sat and listened while Ketuly, with information from Kurdish contacts, detailed a campaign of genocide. He was proposing to secretly smuggle me from Jordan into Iraq to clandestinely film and document the atrocities Saddam Hussein’s Ba’athist regime was perpetrating against his fellow Iraqi Kurds.

Between us, in the months that followed – I as journalist, Ketuly as self -styled human rights campaigner – we would try to interest Britain’s TV news networks in the mass deportation, concentration camps, firing squads, and chemical warfare that were wiping out families and communities by the thousand. But as we were quickly to realise, our requests to follow up the story would only fall on deaf ears.

Few, it seemed, had even heard of this genocidal operation, which at its height in 1987-88 the Ba’athists had called “Anfal” after a chapter of the Koran meaning Spoils of War.

Fewer still believed it possible that Ketuly, then a lecturer in chemistry at Glasgow University, could bring evidence of such atrocities to light from inside Saddam’s Iraq. However, the doubters could not have been more mistaken, as I fully realised during the first Gulf war in 1991 after Ketuly efficiently relayed me through his extensive network of contacts over the Turkish border into northern Iraq, to report on Saddam’s attempt to crush a Kurdish uprising that had erupted inside the country.

Last week, as Saddam Hussein stepped into the dock at his trial in Baghdad, facing charges of genocide over the Anfal operation, I again found myself in contact with Ketuly.

After more than two decades of often frustrating but tireless campaigning, what, I wondered, would his thoughts now be as the former Iraqi dictator was finally brought to account for his crimes against the Kurds?

It was, after all, largely due to Ketuly’s efforts in collating and presenting evidence from eyewitnesses to atrocities and from relatives of the dead, that the ministries of justice and human rights in Baghdad were able to add an eighth charge to the preliminary seven originally read out to the former Iraqi dictator on July 1, 2004.

Among the components of this “Charge Number 8” are the illegal detention, torture and killing of citizens, and the forced deportation of tens of thousands of Iraqi citizens to Iran in the 1980s. Also on the charge sheet are the illegal confiscation of property, businesses and bank accounts by the Ba’athist authorities, and the use of prisoners in chemical and biological weapons experiments.

“I cannot ignore the past, the mass graves, acid baths and torture. These issues have to be discussed with the perpetrators and those guilty of using such methods. This way Iraq will gain all-round respect,” Ketuly once told me, clutching a file full of pictures and biographical details provided by relatives of missing loved ones to his human rights group, originally called the Committee for the Release of Hostages and Detainees in Iraq.

But after all this time and the many painful findings of his campaign along the way, what I wanted to know more than anything was what exactly Ketuly hoped for in the way of justice and closure over the “disappearance” of his brother Jamal and other relatives who vanished, along with thousands of other Kurds, all those years ago.

The story of Jamal’s disappearance, which effectively launched his brother’s quest for answers and a determination to see Saddam Hussein convicted of crimes against humanity, began in April 1980.

“It was six months before Iraq attacked Iran,” Ketuly recalls. “Saddam had called together over 1000 leading Iraqi businessmen to discuss the economy at the house of commerce in Baghdad, and my father was among them.”

His father remembered how events had an ominous air that evening, with large numbers of armed secret police positioned in and around the building. After dinner, many of the “guests” were taken by bus at gunpoint to the headquarters of the General Intelligence Service.

There, drawing on a detailed personal file, Mukhabarat – Iraqi intelligence – interrogated Ketuly’s father, in particular about his sons. Then, along with the others, he was taken to the frontier with Iran. “My father recalls seeing large customs warehouses empty of goods and filled with people, mainly families ready for deportation.”

Still in their dinner suits, the businessmen were then ordered to walk to Iran, with their escorts threatening to shoot them should they try to return.

The events of that night marked the beginning of what was to become the mass expulsion of many ordinary people Saddam perceived as his enemies. They included Arab and Feily Kurdish Shi’a Muslims, who were declared by the authorities to be “of Iranian descent”.

IN the next six months alone, some 500,000 were deported; another half a million in the following few years. Deportees found themselves stripped of their belongings, property, passports and Iraqi citizenship. “It was impossible for people to protest,” explains Ketuly. “Saddam’s henchmen intimidated them by keeping members of each family behind as hostages.”

Only weeks after their father’s enforced exile, it was the turn of the rest of the Ketuly family. Around midnight one night, their home was visited by a dozen or so secret policemen armed with assault rifles. Realising they too were to be deported, another of Ketuly’s brothers asked for time to gather a few belongings and say goodbye to relatives, but was refused. In the ensuing argument he was singled out and handcuffed.

“My mother knew what this meant, grabbed a Kalashnikov from one of the policemen, and threatened to shoot herself until they allowed my brother to leave with the rest of the family.”

The deportation process itself was brutal and humiliating. Children were often separated from their parents in the confusion; the elderly and sick sometimes had to be left where they fell. Whole families had to negotiate army minefields as they crossed the frontier.

By the time Ketuly, who was back in Scotland, knew anything of his family’s predicament, the situation had worsened.
Coming home on leave from military service, his older brother Jamal had found the family home sealed up.

“Our neighbours told Jamal to escape, but the warning came too late. The Mukhabarat took him hostage and sent him to the ‘heavy wing’ of Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad. A real living hell.”

Around this time a friend of Jamal Ketuly, Ali Hussein Abbas, was also taken hostage. He was to spend the next eight years as a prisoner, first in Abu Ghraib and then other camps, before inexplicably being released and fleeing to Britain as a refugee. According to Ketuly, Abbas is a rare eyewitness to the horrors endured by those like Jamal who were left behind.

Abbas recalled: “I was taken first, like the others, to the Mukhabarat HQ. Everyone was blindfolded, handcuffed, and very scared. We had all heard of the acid baths used for getting rid of people and thought our turn had come. Instead, inside a caged van disguised as an ambulance, we were taken to Abu Ghraib. Jamal was already there in the same cell, 13 of us crammed into each one about 15ft square.”

It was in October 2002, when Saddam was still in power and before the tales of abuse of Iraqi prisoners by Americans, that I got my first glimpse of the infamous Abu Ghraib prison. Driving into Baghdad from the north, its walls and watchtowers ran for miles alongside the main highway leading into the Iraqi capital.

The cockroach-infested cells and guards with Kalashnikovs were just yards away from me and a world apart from the comforts of Ketuly’s house in Glasgow’s west end, where all those years earlier he had first told me about Jamal and this terrible place.

In the claustrophobic hell of Abu Ghraib’s “heavy wing”, everything was painted black. The one small ventilation slit in each cell was useless in the stifling atmosphere. Each group of prisoners had only a single bucket of water each day for washing and drinking.

“In summer the heat and stench were unbearable,” recalled Abbas. “Sometimes the guards would torment us by spitting or putting things in our food. When one man in our cell died it was hours before they took his body away.”

THROUGHOUT this time, in Glasgow, Ketuly had kept up a barrage of letters and enquiries about his family. By May 25, 1980, the International Committee of the Red Cross had found his reunited family, now refugees in Iran, who would later find asylum in Sweden, but could provide no help regarding his brother Jamal.

Meanwhile, in Abu Ghraib, Jamal, Ali Abbas and others were witnessing the worst of the Iraq authorities’ political retribution. Forced to clean out basement torture areas, Abbas recalls seeing inmates who had been subjected to electric shocks, and others kept in cupboard- sized cells without light and lined with shards of broken glass.

According to Abbas, when Red Cross representatives finally gained access to Abu Ghraib, the authorities prevented prisoners from meeting them and disguised their cells as stock rooms.

In desperation the “heavy wing” hostages rioted, but after two days of fierce fighting, their hopes were blown away by the bullets and tear gas of Saddam’s Republican Guard. Worse was to come when prison informers betrayed 750 of the rioters as the ringleaders. Among those rounded up was Jamal Ketuly. Since that day in 1984, he and the others have never been seen.

Two years later Abbas was transferred to a detention camp at the old British Army airfield at Habaniya, 75 miles northeast of Baghdad. There, scratched on the walls of his cell and written in blood on tiny strips of paper hidden in the plasterwork, he found notes by previous inmates saying that some had been used as guinea pigs in chemical and biological weapons experiments.

The accusation of human experimentation is now one of the five indictments listed as part of Charge Number 8, brought by Ketuly’s human rights group ,that Saddam will face in the coming weeks and months.

In court last week, Saddam Hussein kept up his defiance, refusing to enter a plea as his new trial for genocide got under way. With him are six co- defendants, among them his cousin Ali Hassan al-Majid – known as “Chemical Ali” for his use of poison gas attacks, such as that used in the infamous Halabja massacre when Iraqi forces used chemical weapons on the town’s population.

At the height of the Ba’athists’ systematic ethnic cleansing programme in late 1988, perhaps as many as 182,000 people were murdered in under a year.

“We owe it to all the families of these people to find out exactly what became of them, and punish those responsible for any of their deaths,” insists Ketuly. For him, closure can only come with knowing what eventually happened to Jamal and where his body is buried.

The health of Ketuly’s mother deteriorated rapidly after his brother Jamal’s arrest and disappearance and she died in April 1984, aged 54.

“I was with my mother when she passed away and will never forget her dying wish to see Jamal one last time, or at least know what had happened to him,” Ketuly says.

And what of Saddam’s fate should he be found guilty of genocide, I asked?

“Saddam should be executed,” he insists, without hesitation. “A message must go out to the world that such monsters cannot escape justice forever.”

By Foreign Editor David Pratt
Sunday Herald, 27 August 2006