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Terror Suspects Grilled, Mocked on Hit Iraqi Show

Washington Post | April 5 2005
By Caryle Murphy and Khalid Saffar

BAGHDAD -- Iraq's hottest new television program is a reality show. But the players are not there by choice. And they don't win big bucks, a new spouse or a dream job.

Instead, all the characters on "Terrorism in the Hands of Justice" are captured suspected insurgents. And for more than a month, they have been riveting viewers with tales of how they killed, kidnapped, raped or beheaded other Iraqis, usually for a few hundred dollars per victim.

Seated before an Iraqi flag, the dejected and cowed prisoners answer questions from an off-camera inquisitor who mocks their behavior. Some sport bruised faces and black eyes.

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Far from appearing to be confident heroes battling U.S. occupation, they come across as gangsters.

"I watch the show every night, and I wait for it patiently, because it is very revealing," said Abdul Kareem Abdulla, 42, a Baghdad shop owner. "For the first time, we saw those who claim to be jihadists as simple $50 murderers who would do everything in the name of Islam. Our religion is too lofty, noble and humane to have such thugs and killers. I wish they would hang them now, and in the same place where they did their crimes. They should never be given any mercy."

Broadcast on al-Iraqiya, the state-run network set up by the U.S. occupation authority in 2003, "Terrorism in the Hands of Justice" has become one of most effective arrows in the government's counterinsurgency propaganda quiver.

"It has shown the Iraqi people the reality of those insurgents, [that] they are criminals, killers, murderers, thieves," Interior Minister Falah Naqib said last week.

Sabah Kadhim, an Interior Ministry spokesman, added, "The last few weeks have been incredible in terms of tips coming in from the public."

Officials launched the program, Kadhim said, after realizing that Iraqis did not believe that insurgents were being arrested. "Talking to people in the street, they say, 'Is it really true? . . . Why don't you show it?' " he recalled. "The demand for this came from the people."

The bruised faces and the death of at least one prisoner after his appearance on the show have raised questions about the men's treatment in custody. Kadhim denied the prisoners were being abused. "There is absolutely no motive for us to torture them," he said.

In recent reports, the State Department and Human Rights Watch have criticized the use of torture by Iraqi police.

"In light of our recent findings about the prevalence of torture in Iraqi prisons," said Joe Stork, a Washington-based spokesman for Human Rights Watch, "we have serious concerns that these confessions were not also coerced and that the Iraqi authorities failed to provide essential due process protections."

"Televised confessions are almost always suspect," Stork added. "Recent examples in Iran and Saudi Arabia clearly involved a high level of coercion and degrading treatment."

Such concerns have not dimmed the program's popularity.

"We had not planned for the tapes, but suddenly we had what you might call a scoop," said al-Iraqiya's Baghdad station director, Ahmed Yasseri. As a result, he said, "we have overtaken the other stations. These tapes have captured the attention of Iraqis."

The program usually opens with a graphic shot of a bloodied bombing victim lying in the street, followed by one of two smiling young boys holding a handwritten sign that reads, "No to Terrorism."

As each insurgent is questioned, others sit behind him, hands folded in laps, as if patiently waiting their turns in a barbershop. Sometimes, the head of a cougar or lion -- mascots of counterinsurgency police commandos -- are superimposed on the Iraqi flag in the background.

Many of the suspects are former policemen who claim they were coerced into joining the insurgency by threats against their families. Though many claim to have attacked U.S. forces, the interviews focus on their atrocities against Iraqis and payments they allegedly received from Syrian and Saudi paymasters.

In one recent episode, Ramzi Hashim Obeidi, a painter from Mosul who claimed to be a member of the Islamic radical group Ansar al-Islam, described his purported role in the 2003 car bomb assassination of a senior Shiite Muslim cleric, Ayatollah Mohammed Bakir Hakim, in Najaf.

Obeidi said he was part of a six-man team that was to "intercept U.S. forces if they came." Others drove the explosives-laden vehicle the approximately 90 miles from Baghdad to the site of the attack. "It was very easy," he said "It was an ambulance."

Among the conspirators who planned the operation, Obeidi said, was Iraq's most-wanted Islamic extremist, Abu Musab Zarqawi.

"You did not target just Hakim," the police interrogator shouted at Obeidi. "You killed 110 people, some of them women and children. . . . Do you call this jihad? What kind of jihad is this? To kill police, to behead police?"

Obeidi, who made no attempt to defend his actions, meekly replied, "Up to now, I don't know what jihad is."

On another segment, Qahtan Adnan Khalid, a prisoner who said he had been a policeman in the town of Samarra, had two black eyes and appeared to have difficulty breathing, occasionally wincing in pain.

Responding to each question with a deferential "Sir," Khalid recounted how he had shot two kidnapped policeman in the head and was paid $200 for each killing.

"I advise the young to stay away from these paths," he said at one point.

A few days after Khalid's appearance, his body was delivered to his father's home in Samarra, his family has said. Human Rights Minister Bakhtyar Amin said his office was investigating the death.

At times, the insurgents appear to be parroting packaged answers, and critics of the program say the prisoners' stories fit well with the government's portrait of the insurgency: that it is in large part a bunch of greedy criminals run amok, that foreigners play a big role and that funding is coming from neighboring Syria and Saudi Arabia.

Less emphasized on the program is that the predominantly Sunni Arab insurgency is also driven by fears of Shiite political domination and resentment of the U.S. occupation. As a result, "Terrorism in the Hands of Justice" provokes mixed feelings among some Sunni Arabs.

"My criticism of the program is that it is sometimes simplistic, repetitive and gives the impression that those [men] are being coached to say what they are saying, although I believe they have committed these crimes," said Abdul Kareem Janaby, 46, a Trade Ministry employee. "Those persons are nothing but dirty, lowly gangs who are being used to defame the true character of the Sunnis."

Kadhim said that the captured insurgents eventually would be brought to trial and that what they said on television would be ignored in court because the program was "not a court of law."

The prisoners can only hope they get a judge who shares the views of Fuad Awdeh, 27, a Shiite laborer in Baghdad who said he found the program "captivating."

"I feel sorry and pity for those guys," he said. "They may have done it for money . . . and probably, being unemployed, were easily drawn into this."

Still, Awdeh said, he finds the program credible "because in one episode someone spoke of committing a crime in the Wahda district, and it happens I knew the victim's family, and it was true."

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