April 23, 2010
BAGHDAD — I came to Iraq to find my driver Salam, who has been unjustly imprisoned for the last 16 months.
I found him in a grimy police station jail, a shadow of the ebullient man I knew, with marks of torture on his legs. His suffering reflects the trauma so many Iraqis still endure in a country trying to recover from decades of dictatorship and botched U.S. occupation.
But what makes Salam's case so scary is that he's being punished for opposing the sectarian slaughter that nearly drove Iraq over the edge.
Salam is a Shiite whose uncle was hung by Saddam Hussein, but he couldn't stand watching innocent Sunnis slaughtered. He tipped U.S. and Iraqi forces about a family of Shiite Mahdi Army militia who were killing his Sunni neighbors in 2007. Two members of the militia family were jailed and one went into hiding.
Once U.S. troops left Salam's neighborhood, the Mahdi Army family took its revenge.
Members of this family used personal connections with senior army and intelligence officers to get Salam arrested. How can it be that relatives of militia killers are free to bring bogus charges and get the innocent jailed? In fact, the practice of bringing malicious charges — known in Arabic as kaydia — has become so widespread here that Iraq's Supreme Judicial Council has urged judges and prosecutors not to issue warrants unless there is sufficient evidence. The judges aren't listening.
Every Iraqi to whom I've told Salam's story knew of similar cases of arrests on bogus charges for reasons of revenge or personal vendettas. I'm told it's possible to rent fake witnesses who wait outside the courthouse.
In Salam's case, the miscarriage of justice reveals a rot that threatens every tenuous advance this country has made in the last couple of years.
I could feel a chill as I approached the Baghdad police station where Salam is being held. It is a gray two-story concrete structure, with balconies painted an incongruous blue, and an entry room crammed with desperate people trying to find out about relatives inside.
Officials were extremely nervous about Salam's case, and didn't want to let a journalist near him. I waited for 90 minutes in a dark room with a mustachioed intelligence colonel chain-smoking behind a desk. Only calls to Iraqi officials I knew well finally got me permission to meet Salam.
I was brought to the police chief's office, where I sat in a line of chairs along one wall, and watched as Salam was led toward me.
"You cannot write anything," the police chief told me. Wearing blue sweatpants and a white T-shirt, Salam looked 50 pounds thinner than when I last saw him. Here is the story he told: The initial charges against him, of murder, were brought by a member of the Jaish Mahdi family named Leila Tha'ad, the mother and aunt of the men who were arrested in the U.S. bust. Judge Abdullah al-Alousi acquitted Salam of these charges on Jan. 14, 2010, after he had already spent one year in jail.
As he walked out of the prison, two Iraqi army Humvees pulled up; men jumped out and seized him. He was taken first to a notorious prison, and then to an army base at Muthanna airport, where, he says, Leila Tha'ad has close contacts with senior military and intelligence officials. "They tortured me, they used electric," he said, showing the burn marks and scabs on his legs. "They did it in other places, too. They accused me of being an American spy."
So here we have it. An Iraqi who helped U.S. troops catch militia killers — and I spoke at the time to U.S. officers who verified this — is tortured by Iraqis for his efforts. An Iraqi who helped his own military catch sectarian killers — and Salam gave me a list of Iraqi officers who can verify this — is jailed on the word of a Mahdi Army woman.
I asked knowledgeable Iraqi security sources — whom I can't identify because they fear retribution — whether they thought Salam was innocent and being treated wrongly, and they answered yes.
The story gets worse. Salam was thrown back in jail, and now faces a host of new charges — brought by friends of Tha'ad's family — including a charge of terrorism.
Salam's two sons were also arrested and remain imprisoned; one was badly tortured. In January, Salam's brother was shot dead, by Mahdi Army friends of Tha'ad, he believes.
Salam was stoic as he talked, but at one moment his shoulders started shaking. He handed me a letter he had written in Arabic to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in which he recalled that Maliki asked Iraqis to help in the fight against terrorism. "Instead of being rewarded by respect and pride," he wrote, "some of those who have weak souls and are working in government have thrown me in jail along with my sons. ..."
Indeed, Maliki built his reputation with his crackdown on radical Shiite militias in Basra. As Iraqi politicians struggle to form a new government six weeks after elections, Maliki, who's seeking a second term, talks constantly of moving beyond the sectarianism that nearly tore Iraq apart.
Yet so long as Salam and others like him remain imprisoned, such pledges ring hollow.
Until he is freed, I intend to keep writing about his case, not only because it's a travesty of justice, but because it symbolizes everything that needs changing inside Iraq.
——— ABOUT THE WRITER Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial-board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Readers may write to her at: Philadelphia Inquirer, P.O. Box 8263, Philadelphia, Pa. 19101, or by e-mail