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[casi] Amnesty In Baghdad




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EXTRA! EXTRA! DOZENS PROTEST IN BAGHDAD - (p.s. saddam emptied all the
prisons).

Filed October 24, 2002 By Jeremy Scahill


BAGHDAD—There's no doubt about it-the small-scale protests that broke out in
front of Iraq's Ministry of Information earlier this week were extraordinary.
No one here can recall a moment when any group of people for any reason
staged a spontaneous demonstration here in Baghdad. Last week, the very idea
of a demonstration that could be construed even remotely as having an
anti-government tone would have sent shudders through almost any Iraqi asked
the question "what if…" It still does.



Last Sunday's announcement by Iraqi President Saddam Hussein that he was
granting a <A HREF="http://www.iraqjournal.org/journals/021020.html">complete and immediate 
amnesty</A> for nearly all the country's
prisoners, brought stunned jubilation into the homes of thousands of
citizens. Celebrations stretched for days in some neighborhoods. But for
other Iraqis, the announcement brought pain and ultimately spurred them to
gather in front of the Information Ministry to ask the whereabouts of their
loved ones.

An unknown number of prisoners were not released last Sunday. Officially,
those accused of spying for Israel or the United States (a sweeping
designation) were not covered under the amnesty, nor were those people
convicted of murder who had not reconciled with the families of their
victims. Unofficially, it seems clear that there were other prisoners who
simply did not come home. There is only speculation here as to the reasons
why. Some people say that certain Shi'ite and communist political prisoners
were not released and are still being held. Others say they fear that other
unaccounted for prisoners had been executed. There is no way of confirming
any of this.

What is clear is that several dozen people were willing to brave what many
here believed would be severe consequences for engaging in an "unauthorized"
demonstration. But the mothers, fathers and siblings of some unaccounted for
prisoners knew what they were doing when they selected the location for their
demonstration. The Information Ministry also houses the "Press Center" which
is still relatively packed with foreign journalists.

They also were smart on another front. There were no anti-government banners
or leaflets and the people sustained long sessions of chanting their loyalty
to Saddam. "Yes, Yes to the Leader Saddam" and "Our Blood, our souls, we'll
give for you Saddam." Also, "Down, down USA, down, down Israel." Some say
this was all people knew how to chant; others said it was a strategy to make
clear it was not anti-government protest. One Iraqi man smiled and said,
"What else could they have chanted?"

But one must remember that for these people who gathered in front of the
Information Ministry, desperation looms over them. They have watched
thousands of families rejoice in the return of their loved ones while theirs
are nowhere to be seen. It also must be stated that this demonstration was
not some plot clandestinely launched in the homes of some underground
dissidents. It grew out of a gathering of several hundred people inquiring
about their loved ones whereabouts in front of another government building.

The government responded in a remarkably calm manner in dispersing people in
front of the Information Ministry. Yes, police and "minders" ran around
frantically. But largely people were simply told that they should
leave-"now." Foreign journalists were ultimately told they could not take
pictures and hurried back inside the building. But it was hardly the
"iron-fisted" tanks-in-the-street response one might expect from Saddam after
listening to only 5 minutes of a White House press briefing.

It must be said, however, that there is no way of confirming that there will
be no consequences for the people who demonstrated (many media outlets handed
over copies of their videotapes from that day to the government). But there
is also no way of confirming that there will be consequences. Interestingly,
Babil-the newspaper owned by Saddam's son Uday-ran an article today on the
protest, saying that officials from the Information Ministry told the
families that their messages would be relayed to the president.

Outside the prison gates at Abu Ghraib, thousands of people danced and sang,
mainly songs of praise to Saddam Hussein. Many people had looks of total
disbelief on their faces, clearly shocked at the scene. Cars stopped in the
middle of the highway in front of the prison, as many simply abandoned their
vehicles to join the crowd.

What is extraordinary about the last week here in Iraq is that Saddam
Hussein, released almost every prisoner in the country. Not just a few
hundred for the cameras, not just shoplifters and purse-snatchers. He
released almost every prisoner. Regardless of the motive or reason, it was
incredible, unprecedented. Only Cuba at the time of the 1980 Mariel boatlift
comes even close, and that was a remote second. Remember, this is THE Saddam
we're talking about.



Incredibly, New York Times correspondent John Burns reported "Many prisoners
thanked President Bush for their liberty, seeing it as the government's
response to Mr. Bush's description of Mr. Hussein as a murdering tyrant."



Many prisoners thanked Bush? Is he kidding? "Many" implies that thousands
must have been rushing up to Burns (on the day of their "liberation" back
into "Saddam's Iraq") to make sure that The Times relayed their message back
to the Oval Office (which is currently threatening to destroy Iraq). Even if
Burns had managed to hunt down that handful of Iraqis who do have affection
for the US president, none of them would have been stupid enough on that day,
when they had just hit "freedom," to come out swinging at Saddam and praising
Bush to an American reporter. And "many" is a flat-out fairytale.



Then there is the issue of the salivating journalists, eager to show that
"the regime" is teetering on the brink.



The Boston Globe reported, "Diplomats suggested that the protest represented
a potential fissure in the government's iron grip." The paper quotes an
unnamed "western diplomat" as saying the protest indicated a "lack of
discipline, losing grip, losing control."



At the end of the day, the "demonstrations" by a few dozen people out-scooped
the incredible story of Saddam’s having just virtually emptied the country's
prisons.



The press coverage of these small "protests" in Baghdad of families of the
unaccounted for prisoners is probably one of the most extensive pieces of
reportage ever done on families of the "disappeared." Where are these stories
for the 1,300 Serbs still missing in Kosovo? Every day the families protest
in Belgrade. Or the countless families in Central and South America, whose
loved ones disappeared in murderous rampages by US-trained and supported
security forces and paramilitary death squads? Or the countless Timorese
"disappeared" by the US-backed regime in Jakarta? Or the families of
prisoners now held in INS "detention" in the US and Guantanamo? If only this
media blitzkrieg was applied when it does not directly pander to George W.
Bush's agenda.





------------

<A HREF="http://www.iraqjournal.org/jeremybio.html">Jeremy Scahill</A> is an independent 
journalist, who reports for the nationally
syndicated Radio and TV show Democracy Now! He is currently based in Baghdad,
Iraq, where he and filmmaker <A HREF="http://www.iraqjournal.org/jacquiebio.html">Jacquie 
Soohen</A> are coordinating <A HREF="http://www.iraqjournal.org/">Iraqjournal.org</A>,
the only website providing regular independent reporting from the ground in
Baghdad.



Roger Stroope
"Ideas are more powerful than weapons"
Austin College

"Individuals have international duties which transcend the national
obligations of obedience…Therefore [individual citizens] have the duty to
violate domestic laws to prevent crimes against peace and humanity from
occurring" -- Nuremberg War Crime Tribunal, 1950




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