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Iraq: ‘Disappearances’ – the agony continues

Women grieve beside coffins containing the remains of people executed by the Iraqi security forces in 1999, Basra.
 

When Amnesty International delegates visited a deserted prison in Basra in April 2003, dozens of people were trying to dig up the ground with the most rudimentary tools, in the forlorn hope that someone they loved was hidden in an underground prison cell.

Grief-stricken and desperate people told the delegates the stories of those who had “disappeared”. In one family alone, seven brothers had “disappeared”, one had been executed, and two sisters had been tortured and were subsequently unable to marry because of the social stigma attached to their treatment.

When someone is taken into custody by the authorities who then deny all knowledge of their existence, they have “disappeared”. Their family suffers extreme agony, not knowing whether their husband, son, mother or sister is alive or dead.

Tens of thousands of people have “disappeared” in Iraq. “Disappearances” were particularly widespread during the Iran-Iraq war from 1980 to 1988. In the first 10 days of August 1983, an estimated 8,000 Kurds of the Barzani clan, all males aged between eight and 70, were arrested in the province of Arbil and have not been seen since.

In early 1988, during “Operation Anfal” in Iraqi Kurdistan, entire Kurdish families “disappeared” from hundreds of villages after they were rounded up by government forces. Amnesty International collected the names of more than 17,000 people who “disappeared” in this wave, but Kurdish sources put the total at over 100,000. Immediately after the 1991 Gulf War, when Iraqi government forces crushed the uprisings led by the Shi’a in the south and the Kurds in the north, thousands more Iraqis “disappeared”. However, during the 1991 uprisings, hundreds of people who had “disappeared” in the 1970s and 1980s were discovered alive in secret underground prisons.

Because they are so desperate for news, relatives have exhumed bodies from mass grave sites, unaware of or ignoring the fact that they may be disturbing vital evidence, preventing others from identifying bodies and potentially hindering the process of justice.

" My wife and I take this opportunity to express our gratitude and sincere appreciation for your support. We hope and pray that your efforts to determine the fate of my brother [Al-Sayyid] Izzidin will prove fruitful. "

Ensuring justice is fundamental for the countless victims of grave violations of human rights by Iraqi government agents. One key aspect of delivering that justice is to protect the sites of mass graves and make sure that they are properly investigated by the appropriate experts and authorities.

Families refuse to give up hope

The family of Sadiq Nematollah Fathali thought he was probably dead. Like all relatives of the “disappeared”, they could not be certain, and they never gave up hope of finding him alive.

On 15 April 1980 the entire family had been arrested in Baghdad, taken to the Iran-Iraq border and expelled to Iran. All that is except Sadiq Nematollah Fathali, a 27-year-old literature graduate who was doing military service and had returned home on a short visit. He was taken to Abu Ghraib Prison near Baghdad, where he was held until 1982, and then he was sent to an unknown detention centre.

His family heard nothing for 17 long years.

Sadiq Nematollah Fathali’s imprisonment was apparently solely because of his ethnic origin – he is a Feily Kurd. During the 1980s many Feily Kurds were declared to be of “Iranian descent” and forcibly expelled to Iran. However, thousands of their male relatives were arrested. Although many were released after the end of the Iran-Iraq war, thousands of others are still unaccounted for.

In 1996 one of Sadiq Nematollah Fathali’s sisters returned to Iraq and managed to obtain information suggesting that he was still alive and had undergone a surgical operation at a prison hospital. Although his family managed to obtain some letters from him, they do not know where he is or the state of his health.

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