The Congressman and the Dictator’s Daughter

Jerry Weller was running for his sixth term as congressman from Illinois’ 11th District in July 2004 when he announced that he was engaged to Zury Rios Sosa, an outspoken third-term legislator in Guatemala’s congress and the daughter of former dictator General Efrain Rios Montt. “I am thrilled to have found my best friend and soulmate,” Weller stated in a press release. “Our love knows no boundaries.” In the same release Sosa said, “With Jerry, I am starting an eternal springtime. I admire his character, his commitment to his responsibilities, and his honesty.”

Their mutual admiration notwithstanding, the announcement raised a red flag. Weller, who would be the first congressman ever to marry a member of a foreign national legislature, sat on the International Relations Committee and its western hemisphere subcommittee–would his votes be influenced by Sosa?

In a July 12 editorial the Chicago Sun-Times said, “The problem is the image it conveys to our Latin American neighbors, who are critical enough of our policies without concerns about how a vote might have been influenced by a committee member’s wife.” The following day the Bloomington Pantagraph, the biggest paper in Weller’s district, ran an editorial that said, “Any time an elected U.S. representative privy to confidential information is intimately involved with a central figure in a foreign government–and one whose father has been accused of genocide within that country–there should be concern. . . . There are some boundaries that elected representatives have to draw in the name of U.S. security. We can’t say Weller has crossed that line, but he’s sure tiptoeing down it.”

The Sun-Times suggested that Weller, a Republican whose district includes parts of the south suburbs, resign from the committee. His opponent in the congressional race, Tari Renner, also called on him to give up the post. Weller’s spokesman, Telly Lovelace, told the Pantagraph the congressman had no intention of resigning. “If there is any obvious conflict,” Lovelace said, “Congressman Weller will do what’s appropriate.”

In late August 2004, Weller met with members of the Pantagraph’s editorial board; without quoting him directly, the paper said he’d told them he would “recuse himself from legislation . . . specific to Guatemala.” Lisa Haugaard, executive director of the nonpartisan Latin America Working Group in Washington, D.C., says that’s a “fairly meaningless statement,” explaining that any Guatemalan issue would almost surely be part of broader legislation. Weller also went to the House ethics committee for advice. According to the Associated Press, committee members told him he had “a duty to vote on bills unless he had a direct interest in the outcome”–not exactly a clear standard.

Two years later, Weller, who’s 49, and Sosa, who’s 38, are married and just had their first child. Weller is up for reelection in November. Sosa is still a leading member of Guatemala’s single-house, 158-member congress, and until earlier this year she sat on its foreign affairs committee, the counterpart to Weller’s committee. She’s the second most powerful person in her party, the Guatemalan Republican Front, or FRG, which was founded in 1989 by her father and is still led by him. It’s been plagued by accusations of corruption, money laundering, and helping drug traffickers, though no one’s accused her personally of any of those things. In many ways she’s the clean face of her party, having sponsored legislation to protect women and people with AIDS from discrimination and to protect children by regulating the advertising of tobacco and alcohol. She’s also sponsored legislation to curtail the financing of terrorists and to curb smuggling, allowing Guatemalan authorities to seize assets such as trucks, boats, and planes from drug runners.

In January 2005, Weller became vice chairman of the Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere subcommittee, by far the most important committee in Congress writing legislation on Latin America and the war on drugs and overseeing U.S. policy on those issues. “The western hemisphere subcommittee has been one of the only ones overseeing U.S. drug policy, and it has been the main one making U.S. drug policy,” says Adam Isacson of the watchdog group Center for International Policy. “It has huge influence.” The 16-member committee also focuses on trade and democracy in the region.

Weller often talks about these issues as they relate to Caribbean and Latin American countries–but not Guatemala, even though it has 12.7 million people, a third of the population of Central America. He voted for CAFTA, the free-trade agreement that includes Guatemala, but he doesn’t talk about specific trade possibilities with that country. He also doesn’t talk about democracy in Guatemala, which is fragile at best, and he doesn’t talk about money laundering or drug trafficking there, even though up to 70 percent of the drugs that enter the U.S. come through Guatemala. All of which raises questions about whether he’s doing everything he can to address the concerns of his constituents. He’s painted himself into a corner, and he seems to be making no effort to get out.

In 2003, the year Weller met Sosa, Guatemala was controlled by the FRG, and the nation’s president was her father’s handpicked FRG ally, Alfonso Portillo. Relations with the U.S. had sunk to their lowest in years. “By all accounts corruption continues to run rampant in Guatemala,” Otto Reich, an assistant secretary of state, had told the western hemisphere subcommittee in October 2002. “Organized crime, in particular narcotics trafficking and alien smuggling, is increasing. Guatemala is a major and growing transit country for narcotics, yet seizures have dropped to practically nothing. . . . Few high-level figures are ever charged or even formally investigated for corruption, and fewer go to trial.” Reich also stated that “large amounts of cocaine are being transshipped through Guatemala with almost complete impunity” and noted that narcotics smugglers had “very close ties to the highest levels of government.” The following month the Bush administration embarrassed Guatemala by denying a former intelligence chief a visa and accusing him of drug trafficking.

In January 2003, the Bush administration embarrassed Guatemala again by dropping it from the State Department’s list of countries seen as cooperating in the fight against drug trafficking. It was the first time Guatemala had failed to make the list since the U.S. began doing annual evaluations in 1987, and it was one of only three countries decertified, the others being Haiti and Myanmar.

A few months later, the Los Angeles Times reported that State Department officials estimated 220 tons of cocaine had been shipped through Guatemala in 2002–triple the amount of a decade earlier and over two-thirds of the U.S. supply–and that seizures by the Guatemalan government had dropped from just under 10 tons in 1999 to less than 3 tons. The flow had “turned parts of Guatemala into lawless zones ruled by family-controlled transit cartels. . . . Now U.S. and Guatemalan anti-drug officials believe that Colombian drug traffickers have mostly consolidated their operations in Guatemala with the cooperation–or at least tolerance–of current and former Guatemalan government figures.” The Times quoted a former ally of General Rios Montt who was running against the FRG in the November election: “If we don’t watch out we could become another Colombia. What has happened here is that narco-traffickers have infiltrated the people in authority–both the army and the government.”

In May, the FRG nominated Rios Montt as its candidate for the presidency in the November elections. The U.S. view, though couched in understated diplomatese, was clear. “We would hope to be able to work with and have a normal, friendly relationship with whoever is the next president of Guatemala,” said the State Department’s Richard Boucher. “Realistically, in light of Mr. Rios Montt’s background, it would be difficult to have the kind of relationship that we would prefer.”

Rios Montt had been president before, having come to power in a military coup in 1982. The Guatemalan military was then at war with leftist rebels–they’d been fighting since 1960 and wouldn’t stop until 1996–and thousands of civilians were being murdered. During the war an estimated 200,000 people were killed, up to 70,000 of them during Rios Montt’s 17 months in office; he was overthrown in another coup. According to two truth commissions set up after the war, the military was responsible for over 90 percent of the violence. Rios Montt wanted to run again for president in 1990, but the constitution passed in 1985 barred former coup leaders from running. Four years later he ran for congress and won and was soon elected its head. When he tried to run for president that year the courts again barred him, but in 2003 he was back as a candidate.

Zury Rios Sosa, who’d started her political career in 1989 doing public relations for the FRG and was first elected to congress on the party’s slate in 1995, was running for reelection in 2003–and directing her father’s presidential campaign. She regularly stumped for him, saying Guatemala needed a “strong hand” and calling him her “inspiration.” (She hasn’t publicly distanced herself from his record or denounced the murders committed while he was president in the 80s.) In mid- July, the constitutional court ruled that this time Rios Montt could continue his campaign, saying the law against former coup leaders running couldn’t be applied retroactively. The country’s supreme court said it wanted to revisit the issue, and on July 24 thousands of his supporters, armed with clubs and machetes, poured into the streets of the capital, burning cars, smashing windows, and surrounding court buildings and the U.S. embassy. A TV reporter chased by Rios Montt supporters threatening to douse him with gasoline suffered a heart attack and died. The rioters’ actions seemed coordinated, and for hours neither the police nor the military intervened. The U.S. State Department accused the FRG of providing tents and other supplies to the demonstrators, many of whom had been bused in the night before.

FRG party delegates were photographed in the middle of the crowds, and some people told reporters they’d seen Sosa among the demonstrators with a walkietalkie. A few days later a Prensa Libre journalist asked her, “There are those who say you were the brains behind the disturbances. What do you say to that?”

“Who says that?” she said.

“Some analysts, and yesterday a morning daily published their views.”

“For the moment, I have no comment.”

“And with respect to the FRG party members involved and whose photographs have been published?”

“I don’t have any comment.” When the reporter asked if it was important that Guatemalans know who was responsible for the violence, she replied, “Every day thousands of people die of AIDS, and we have 13 million orphans in the world. This is what concerns me.”

Two weeks later, Jerry Weller arrived in Guatemala with three other members of the International Relations Committee to discuss trade and drug trafficking.

Weller saw Sosa for the first time at a reception the day he arrived. “From the moment I met her, I realized I had discovered the most incredible woman,” he later told journalists. He reportedly confided his interest to the U.S. ambassador, and the following evening he found himself sitting next to her at a state dinner sponsored by the Guatemalan congress’s foreign relations committee, of which she was a member. He later told Guatemalan reporters he saw it as luck, but an embassy official who was seated at the same table says, “She arranged it.”

In November, while she and Weller were courting long-distance, Sosa was reelected. Her father, whose right to run had been reaffirmed by the constitutional court a week after the July riots, got less than 17 percent of the vote, and the word was that the violence had cost him the election. A coalition of parties opposed to the FRG had won the presidency and now controlled the congress; the FRG had become Guatemala’s largest opposition party.

The following summer, Weller announced that he and Sosa were engaged. His spokesman said it would be the second marriage for both of them, and it’s not clear whether Weller knew this would actually be her fourth. At any rate, the day after they announced their engagement, they sent a petition to the Federal Election Commission asking if Sosa–who had no intention of resigning her seat, applying for U.S. citizenship, or becoming a permanent resident–could make decisions in Weller’s reelection campaign as well as solicit funds for him and speak on his behalf. The FEC said the law prohibited foreign nationals from donating funds or participating in decision making related to any U.S. election, but if she worked as a volunteer she could make speeches and ask for money, though only from Americans.

Weller won in November 2004, then flew to Guatemala, where he and Sosa were married in a villa her father owned outside the capital. Her father was under house arrest in the capital, charged with inciting the July riots, but a judge gave him permission to attend. (He was cleared of the charges this past January; in July a Spanish judge indicted him for alleged crimes, including genocide, dating back to the early 80s. Meanwhile Portillo, who remains under investigation on embezzlement charges, fled the country, and top officials from his administration were jailed on corruption charges.)

Two months after his marriage, Weller, ignoring calls for him to resign, became vice chairman of the Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere. It’s not that he doesn’t have plenty of other interests. He’s also on the powerful Ways and Means Committee and on the International Relations Committee’s terrorism and nonproliferation subcommittee. His record, of which he’s proud, covers a wide range of issues, from eliminating the marriage-tax penalty to redeveloping the Joliet Arsenal, establishing health clinics for veterans, creating tax incentives for companies to clean up brown-field sites, and lobbying to expand the use of alternative fuels.

In 2004, Weller released a statement saying he wanted to stay on the Subcomittee on the Western Hemisphere “to focus on narcotics trafficking and international law enforcement,” and his Web site states that he “has taken an active role with U.S. government agencies in combating narco-trafficking.” Yet he seems determined to act as if Guatemala doesn’t exist. In January 2005, he led a nine-day delegation to Colombia, Panama, and Honduras to discuss trade and drug trafficking, during which he said, “Almost 90 percent of the cocaine and one half the heroin that comes into Illinois comes from Colombia and the Andean region.” He didn’t mention Guatemala, though Bush administration officials say most of those drugs passed through it. He didn’t make drugs in Guatemala an issue that May either, though he spoke about drugs in general terms: “We have tremendous concerns about narco-trafficking through the region.”

It’s not like the problem in Guatemala has gone away. In September 2003, the country was put back on the State Department’s list of countries cooperating with the U.S. on trafficking, but last fall its interior minister, Carlos Vielmann, told Reuters, “We can see the effects in Guatemala similar to what happened in Colombia from 1985 to 1990.” Also last fall Michael O’Brien of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration made a similar point. “If they don’t change things they could have a mini-Colombia,” he said, adding that what Guatemala needed was a tough law against organized crime. And DEA chief Michael Braun told the western hemisphere subcommittee, “Guatemala is a major transshipment and storage point for South American drugs en route to the United States.” The State Department’s 2006 annual report to Congress on the war on drugs says, “Large shipments of cocaine continue to move though Guatemala by air, road, and sea.”

This March at a subcommittee meeting, Weller told Bush administration officials he hoped they would focus on corruption in Venezuela, but he hasn’t talked about corruption in Guatemala. He denounced Venezuela for sheltering Colombian “terrorist groups” who’d assassinated judges and elected officials, but he didn’t denounce Guatemala, even though judges and elected officials there have been assassinated too. This spring, one of the leading delegates backing legislation to fight organized crime, Mario Pivaral, was assassinated outside the building where the congress meets. (In July the congress passed the nation’s first law that specifically fights organized crime, allowing the government to tap suspects’ phone calls and put law enforcement agents undercover.)

A thorough search of online congressional records and news reports over the past three years turns up almost nothing Weller’s said publicly about Guatemala. He is quoted in a press release his wife distributed in Spanish in Guatemala City, saying, “I am a Republican and we believe our countries must work together.” He wouldn’t comment for this story, and in a January 2006 article an AP writer complained, “Weller refused repeated requests to discuss his marriage’s impact on his work in Congress.” Other members of the western hemisphere subcommittee talk about Guatemala, including the Republican chair, Dan Burton, who last year denounced “mob justice” in the country.

Weller clearly thinks he can’t even talk about anything good that’s happened in Guatemala, including the antiterrorism legislation sponsored by his wife. “There are some positive notes in this hemisphere,” he said during a subcommittee hearing in May. “Some countries, such as Panama, Trinidad, Tobago, Jamaica, Mexico, and El Salvador, have all made serious prevention and preparedness efforts” against terrorism. He didn’t say a word about Guatemala, which sits between Mexico and El Salvador.

Carlos Gomez, coordinator of the Chicago-based Foundation for Human Rights in Guatemala, thinks Weller’s silence hurts both the U.S. and Guatemala. “If he did not have a relationship with Zury he would be working against drug trafficking and organized crime in Guatemala,” he says. “It is the FRG that opened the door to drug trafficking and organized crime in Guatemala. So he can’t attack the same party as his wife.”

Like every politician, Weller must know that, no matter how confident he is that he’s serving his constituents fully, appearances matter. And silence doesn’t help.

U.S. Sends Wrong Message to the World

Original article can be found here.

Restrictive regimes around the world came out ahead when the U.S. Supreme Court announced this week that it would not hear an appeal by two journalists in a case involving the leak of a CIA officer’s name. The reporters, Matthew Cooper of Time magazine and Judith Miller of The New York Times, face up to 18 months in jail for not revealing their confidential sources.

President George W. Bush has stressed the need for greater press freedom in Russia, the Middle East and Asia, but the message from U.S. prosecutors and courts is being heard more clearly in repressive corners of the world. Many of the world’s despots have been using the case to their advantage.

Late last year, the Committee to Protect Journalists protested Cameroon’s imprisonment of Eric Wirkwa Tayu, publisher of a small private newspaper, Nso Voice, on charges that he defamed a local mayor. The government justified the detention in part by saying: “You are aware courts have decided in a number of countries that protection of free speech does not grant journalists, for instance, the privilege to refuse to divulge names of sources in all circumstances.”

Similarly, President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela recently complained when international observers criticized his country’s new media law, which severely restricts broadcast news coverage. They should complain instead, Chávez said, about “U.S. journalists that are being prosecuted by the government in Washington for not revealing their sources.”

The U.S. case has followed a winding path. The syndicated columnist Robert Novak, citing two unnamed “senior administration officials,” first revealed CIA officer Valerie Plame’s identity in July 2003. Cooper wrote about the disclosure later; Miller conducted interviews but never wrote a story. A special prosecutor was appointed to determine whether government officials committed a crime by willfully disclosing the agent’s identity. No government official has been charged after two years of investigation, most of which has focused on compelling reporters to identify confidential sources. By refusing to hear the journalists’ appeal, the Supreme Court let stand a lower court’s contempt ruling against Miller and Cooper.

In repressive countries, journalists are routinely compelled to reveal their sources. Last week alone, CPJ found that three governments on three continents had harassed or jailed journalists while pressuring them to reveal sources.

In Nepal, the police demanded that Kishor Karki, editor of the daily Blast Time, reveal his sources for a report on clashes between the government and Maoist rebels. In a separate incident, two military officers insisted that the editor of Jana Aastha, Kishor Shrestha, and other journalists from the weekly reveal sources for an article about an army general. These journalists refused to reveal their sources, but officers promised they’d be back. In Nepal that threat is not empty.

In Serbia and Montenegro, two police officers visited the independent daily Danas, demanding that the editor, Grujica Spasovic, and director, Radivoj Cveticanin, reveal their sources for a report identifying where indicted war criminal Ratko Maldic may be hiding.

And in Burundi, authorities released journalist Etienne Ndikuriyo after jailing him for more than a week for a story questioning President Domitien Ndayizeye’s health. He said that prison interrogators demanded that he reveal his sources, but that he refused. Ndikuriyo faces criminal charges of “violating the honor” of the president.

The American case is troubling because it follows several others in which U.S. prosecutors and judges demanded that journalists disclose sources. A television reporter served four months of home confinement for refusing to reveal a source; prosecutors are seeking records from two New York Times reporters; several other reporters face contempt charges in a lawsuit involving a former U.S. government scientist.

Because the United States has set a high standard for press freedom, any perceived weakening in U.S. protections provides cover for authoritarian regimes to justify crackdowns. CPJ documented a spike in the number of journalists imprisoned worldwide in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, when restrictive governments appropriated the Bush’s war rhetoric to clamp down on dissent.

They may have a similar opportunity today.

(Frank Smyth is the Washington representative and journalist security coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists.)

ABU GHRAIB: Within the Horror

Original story found here.

WASHINGTON — Like everyone else, I am riveted by the images from Iraq of humans being abused and humiliated in U.S.-run prisons. But I also find myself studying the backgrounds of the photographs, looking for something familiar. Thirteen years ago, a French journalist named Alain Buu and I spent two weeks inside a cellblock at Abu Ghraib prison.

I had been in the northern Iraqi town of Kirkuk covering the short-lived anti-Saddam Hussein rebellions that followed the 1991 Persian Gulf War. When it became apparent that we would need to flee the city, our guide, an armed Kurd, carefully drew a map on the palm of my hand showing where he thought the Iraqi troops were stationed. He was wrong. Traveling with another journalist, Gad Gross, we drove directly into an Iraqi ambush.

After 17 hours of hiding in a ditch, Alain and I listened as Gross and the [Kurd] were captured and executed by Iraqi soldiers. An hour later, we had better luck: The soldiers who found us decided to take us prisoner.

Alain and I were eventually taken to an Abu Ghraib cellblock that was rectangular and two stories tall. It looked a lot like those photos, although the hallway between our cells may have been a little bigger. A pingpong table occupied the middle of the cement floor between the rows of cells, an incongruous note given what happened in that hallway.

Then, as now, the authorities who governed Abu Ghraib wanted information from suspected insurgents, and the methods they used to extract it weren’t pleasant. Hussein’s official interrogators questioned prisoners during the day. If the answers weren’t what they wanted, the guards punished their Iraqi subjects. I saw one questioner repeatedly poke a crying man on the side of the head with a long, thick dowel like a pool cue.

I saw another interrogator hose down a man standing outside on an overcast spring day. As the prisoner stood shivering, the official asked him questions, and when unsatisfied with the answers he zapped him with a hand-held electroshock device. The victim lost consciousness frequently, but as soon as he awoke the questioning began again.

After the official interrogators left at the end of the day, lower-level night guards took over the cellblock. They carried out the worst abuse. One shift of night guards was particularly cruel. When they tired of playing pingpong or dominoes, they’d choose a prisoner.

One night they took their victim to the second floor and placed him behind a steel railing. All through the night, the prisoner made a strange noise, as if he was trying to bleat like a sheep. A guard yelled at him to do it louder, and when the man failed to bleat loudly enough the guard swung at him with a long, flat board.

The guards took turns holding the board and ordering the man to make the animal outbursts, punishing him with another swat after each bleat. Hours into the game, the prisoner was so exhausted that he could no more than gasp, but the guards kept swinging. As dawn broke, after a long, sleepless night, I could see that his feet were flat on the ground while his wrists were tied to the ceiling. Soon after, a rooster crowed somewhere in the farm country outside Abu Ghraib. Only then did I realize which animal the guards had wanted him to imitate. They all broke into laughter, and a few were guffawing so hard that they fell to the floor. I feel certain the torture we witnessed was tame compared with what transpired elsewhere in the prison. Occasionally, we heard faint but chilling cries coming from deep inside the large prison: These were not the sharp cries of pain we heard so often in our area but, rather, sustained wails of agony I hated to contemplate.

Many if not most of the prisoners in our cellblock were released at the end of each week during the two weeks we were held there. The men often fell to the ground and praised Allah, kissing the damp floor before lining up to be escorted out. Most of them, I suspect, were innocent of any crime.

In talking about the coalition’s accomplishments in Iraq during his State of the Union address in January, President Bush noted that without our intervention, “Iraq’s torture chambers would still be filled with victims, terrified and innocent.” When I hear, as was reported recently by the International Committee of the Red Cross, that about 70{2ef06ca992448c50a258763a7da34b197719f7cbe0b72ffbdc84f980e5f312af} of Iraqis recently detained by U.S. authorities were wrongly incarcerated, I worry that the “torture chambers” are still filled with victims.

Neither Alain nor I was ever physically abused by Hussein’s authorities inside Abu Ghraib. But I will carry memories of those days and nights for the rest of my life. The worst abuse we witnessed involved a young boy named Jaffer who was so young, his voice had not yet cracked. A Shi’ite from southern Iraq, Jaffer was accused of having participated in the anti-Hussein uprisings. The guards, each with a rubber hose in one hand, chased him around the cellblock floor for hours at night, three nights in a row, while he yelped like a dog at every stroke.

Witnessing torture stains the soul. Night after night at Abu Ghraib, I wondered who could allow, much less participate in, such cruelty. Looking at the recently released photos, the answer now seems clear: Torture is done by people just like us.

Il ricordo di un amico perso nel terrore di Saddam

Original story found here.

Il rovesciamento del regime di Saddam Hussein in Iraq ha liberato un torrente di ricordi repressi, racconti di torture, sparizioni ed esecuzioni sbrigative. Iracheni in ricerca di parenti e amici dispersi da molto tempo hanno invaso diverse prigioni per poi scoprire cimiteri clandestini e dozzine di tombe comuni.

Alcune famiglie sono riuscite a identificare e disseppellire il corpo di una persona amata rubata via da loro molti anni prima. Ma la maggior parte dei morti rimane inidentificabile, incluso il mio amico fotografo Gad Gross.

Gross è stato ucciso nelle vicinanze di Kirkuk nel 1991 mentre seguiva l’insurrezione kurda, incoraggiata dall’amministrazione Bush, durante e dopo la guerra del Golfo. Ora che il governo di Saddam non controlla più il paese, molti iracheni avranno probabilmente la possibilità di recuperare i resti delle persone che sono scomparse da tanti anni. Con “ottimismo” ora si comincia a sperare che anche i resti di Gad saranno ritrovati e verranno identificati.

Gross, lo vidi l’ultima volta il 28 marzo 1991, ai confini del Kirkuk.

Eravamo in quattro, tre giovani giornalisti occidentali e un giovane guerrigliero kurdo, Bakhtiar Abdel Rahman, la nostra guida. Kirkuk è caduta sotto l’attacco delle forze di Saddam in sette ore. Con un kalashnikov sulle spalle e una pistola appesa nella cinta, Bakhtiar ha guidato Gad, che portava con sé alcune macchine fotografiche, verso alcune case nella vicinanza sotto un pesante bombardamento, mentre io ed un fotografo francese, Alain Buu, siamo saltati dentro una fossa.

Soldati iracheni si accamparono durante tutta la notte intorno a noi. Le loro mitragliatrici spararono su un campo che durante il giorno precedente era occupato da centinaia di kurdi che lasciavano la città, la maggior parte donne, portando con sé i bambini. Poco dopo l’alba, io e Alain abbiamo avvertito un trambusto proveniente dalle case in vicinanza, sembrava che i soldati iracheni stessero catturando delle persone. Dopo alcuni minuti, abbiamo sentito il colpo di un fucile, seguito da un lungo e stordente urlo, placato da un ulteriore colpo.

Aguzzando lo sguardo oltre la fossa, io ed Alain abbiamo osservano alcuni soldati iracheni lasciare la scena, uno dei soldati teneva sulle sue spalle la borsa blu di una delle macchine fotografiche di Gad. Abbiamo continuato a nasconderci fino a quando, un’ora dopo, un soldato ha avvistato Alain, che alzandosi si arrese. Gli iracheni sembravano pronti a sparaci, fino a quando un ufficiale, appena arrivato sulla scena, non è intervenuto.

L’ufficiale vestendo la divisa del partito in commando, Ba’ath, ordinò ai soldati di accompagnarci verso un altro ufficiale iracheno, un capitano delle Forze Speciali, che ci ha ricevuti con parole infuriate: “Il vostro amico si è suicidato. Sapete perché? Perché aveva una pistola.” Io non so se Bakhtiar avesse dato la sua pistola a Gad, quello che so è che accanto al capitano c’era la borsa della macchina fotografica di Gad. Appeso ad esso c’era il suo tesserino stampa, macchiato di sangue.

Le forze irachene hanno rilasciato me ed Alain dopo 18 giorni. Ma i resti di Bakhtiar e di Gad non sono mai stati ritrovati. Gad, come me, era figlio unico. Sua madre, Edith Gross, è una pittrice di etnia germanica nata in Romania, immigrata poi nella Germania occidentale quando suo figlio era ancora adolescente.

Non erano stati benvenuti da alcuni vicini tedeschi, i quali li denigravano per le radici straniere. Gad decise di iscriversi come studente di scambio in una scuola superiore americana e ottenne più tardi una borsa di studio integrale per studiare ad Harvard.

Ritornò in Europa dopo la laurea, e le sue foto dei bambini rumeni che morivano di AIDS arrivarono in prima pagina sul Newsweek. Subito dopo averlo conosciuto, vinse il premio Missouri Award of Excellence per una sua foto di due soldati rumeni seduti su una statua caduta di Lenin.

A quel punto Gad stava organizzando i suoi prossimi passi. Aveva presentato domanda per iscriversi al corso di giurisprudenza dell’università di Yale mentre era in Giordania, aveva intenzione di studiare la protezione dei diritti umani. Ma non è sopravissuto per sapere che era stato accettato nella scuola.

La Germania non riconoscerà la morte di Gad senza il suo corpo, mantenendo Edith senza alcun beneficio. Lei vorrebbe seppellire i suoi resti vicino alla sua casa di Colonia. Con tante tombe comuni in Iraq, non sarà facile ritrovare i resti di Gad.

© 2003 International Herald Tribune 2003

Remembering a Friend Lost to Saddam’s Terror

The overthrow of Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq has unleashed a torrent of repressed memories — tales of torture, disappearance, and summary executions. Iraqis searching for long-lost relatives and friends broke into prisons only to discover clandestine cemeteries and dozens of mass graves.

Some families did find solace, identifying and burying the body of a loved one taken from them years ago. But most of the dead remain unidentified, including my friend Gad Gross. He was killed near Kirkuk in 1991 while covering the Shi’ite and Kurdish uprisings that were encouraged by the last Bush administration during and after the Gulf War.

Now that the hostilities have finally abated in Iraq, many Iraqis will hopefully have the opportunity to recover the remains of those who have been missing for so long. Hopefully, too, the remains of Gad will be found and identified. I last saw him on the afternoon of March 28, 1991, on the northern edge of Kirkuk.

There were four of us, three young Western journalists and one equally young Kurdish armed guerrilla, Bakhtiar Abdel Rahman, our guide. Kirkuk fell to Saddam’s forces in seven hours. With a Kalashnikov over one shoulder and a pistol tucked into his belt, Bakhtiar led Gad, carrying several cameras, toward some nearby houses under heavy fire, while a French photographer, Alain Buu, and I dove, one after the other, into a nearby ditch.

All night, Iraqi soldiers camped around us. Their machine gunners shot into fields that the day before had been filled with hundreds of Kurds fleeing the city, mostly women either carrying or leading children. Not long after dawn, Alain and I heard a commotion coming from the nearby houses — it sounded as though Iraqi soldiers were capturing people. Within minutes, we heard the burst of an automatic rifle, followed by one long, loud scream, before another burst cut it short.

Peering over the edge of our ditch, Alain and I saw a group of Iraqi soldiers walking away from the scene, one soldier holding Gad’s blue camera bag over his shoulder. We continued to hide until about an hour later, when a soldier saw Alain, who jumped up and surrendered. The Iraqis seemed ready to shoot us, too, until an officer, evidently newly arrived at the scene, intervened.

Wearing the uniform of Iraq’s ruling Ba’ath party, he ordered the soldiers to save us for interrogation. They led us to another Iraqi officer, an army Special Forces captain, who greeted us with angry words: “Your friend, he kill himself. You know why? He had a gun.” I do not know whether Bakhtiar might have given Gad his revolver. But nearby, Alain and I saw Gad’s camera bag. Hanging from it were his laminated press cards, stained with blood.

Iraqi authorities released Alain and me 18 days later. But neither Gad nor Bakhtiar’s remains have been recovered. Gad, like me, was an only child. His mother, Edith Gross, is an ethnic German painter born in Romania who later immigrated to West Germany with her son when he was a young teen.

But they were not welcomed by some German neighbors who disparaged them for their foreign roots. Gad decided to apply to become an American high school exchange student and later won a full scholarship to Harvard.

He returned to Eastern Europe after graduating, and his photographs of Romanian babies dying of AIDS made the cover of Newsweek. Right after I met him, he won the Missouri Award of Excellence for his picture of two Romanian soldiers sitting on a toppled statue of Lenin.

By then, Gad was planning his next step. He applied to Yale law school while he was in Jordan, intending to study the protection of human rights. But he did not live to learn that he had been accepted.

Germany will not recognize Gad’s death without his corpse, keeping Edith without benefits. She wants to bury his remains near her home in Cologne. With so many graves across Iraq, finding Gad’s remains will not be easy.

The writer is the Washington representative of the Committee to Protect Journalists.

Battle Cry of Freedom: A Review of Taking Liberties

How many Americans take their rights for granted? Last month an impressive number of antiwar demonstrators converged on San Francisco and New York in chartered buses. Similarly, more than 30 years ago, various protest organizers chartered buses to bring anti-Vietnam-War demonstrators to Washington. After that peace demonstration, the largest of that war, FBI agents secretly asked private banks to open their proprietary records to identify the people who had signed the checks to pay for the buses. “We found out when a bank clerk called to alert us,” writes Aryeh Neier, who was then executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union, “which allowed us to rush into federal court to halt the practice.”

Born in Nazi Germany to Jewish parents, Aryeh Neier is America’s foremost rights advocate. Today, at 65, he runs the Open Society Institute funded by the philanthropist financier George Soros. Neier previously founded and led Human Rights Watch, a once-small organization that has surpassed even Amnesty International as the world’s most authoritative voice on international human rights. Before that, Neier successfully guided the ACLU through some of its most challenging years, including the recovery of its prestige after the revelation that some previous leaders had secretly collaborated with the FBI during and after America’s “Red scare.”

Anyone looking to learn much more about Aryeh Neier himself will only be disappointed by this book. Instead of being a revealing personal memoir, Taking Liberties, as its subtitle suggests, reads more like an intellectual history of the rights movement in the United States and abroad, as told by a perhaps self-serving but no doubt highly effective protagonist.

Neier was executive director of the New York ACLU before he was elected to run the national organization, and the first issue he confronted was brutality by New York City police officers, including the practice of forced confessions. While at the ACLU, he also exposed abuses in prisons and mental-health asylums, and he was a pioneer in challenging the then-illegality of abortion. But his defense of the right of neo-Nazis to march through a Skokie, Ill., neighborhood whose residents included Holocaust survivors was even more controversial. Although many ACLU members resigned, as widely reported at the time, the drop was only short-lived, and the organization rebounded in the 1980s during President Ronald Reagan’s term in office.

By then, Neier had already left the ACLU to join with others, most notably Robert L. Bernstein, then chairman and chief executive officer of Random House, to form the U.S. Helsinki Watch Committee “to protest repression against dissenters in the Soviet Union.” Neier writes that “as one who had followed closely accounts of resistance to Soviet repression since the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 . . . I welcomed Bob Bernstein’s call.” Soon the founders of Helsinki Watch added America’s Watch, which battled President Ronald Reagan’s administration over the facts of human-rights cases, first in El Salvador and later elsewhere.

Taking Liberties reminds readers that defenders of rights are ironically indebted to the Reagan administration. Officials such as Elliott Abrams (White House director of Middle East policy today) erroneously argued that only communist regimes committed the worst offenses. When the Watch committees proved him and others wrong, together they established the tenet that human rights deserve a central place in U.S. foreign policy.

Along the way, Neier’s sometimes uncompromising style provoked more than a few internecine conflicts. In Taking Liberties, he avoids reopening old wounds over different strategic approaches. But the book does take some swings at, among others, Chief Justice William Rehnquist and his allies on the Supreme Court, who Neier maintains have only eroded our rights.

Today, as director of the well-funded Open Society Institute, Neier has even more latitude to defend rights at home and abroad. He chronicles his own lead role in promoting the Truth and Reconciliation Commission after the dismantling of apartheid in South Africa. He laments the loss of his friend Fred Cuny, who volunteered to go to Chechnya to help provide health and reconstruction services. “Every day,” writes Neier, “[I] rue my part in [his disappearance].”

But there is one area that this otherwise intrepid activist steps over. Watchdogs such as Human Rights Watch under Neier’s leadership sharply criticized U.S. military aid to many human-rights-abusing countries, but after the Cold War, Human Rights Watch, still under Neier, began to lobby for international military intervention to stop similar abuses by other non-U.S.-backed parties and regimes. Unfortunately, he papers over what he fails to mention was a watershed dispute among human-rights advocates over whether to back U.S. intervention in Somalia. (The last Bush administration began the intervention that the Clinton administration continued.) Aryeh Neier was among those hoping to use the African Horn intervention as a springboard to stopping both alleged and many already proven acts of genocide and other crimes throughout the 1990s in Bosnia and later in Rwanda and Kosovo.

Neier deserves credit for his lead role in helping establish the notion that the same standards that apply to international war crimes also apply to civil conflicts. In the early 1980s, he began promoting accountability for disappearances and other political crimes in Argentina. Two decades later, the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia’s ex-president Slobodan Milosevic was indicted at the Hague for humanitarian crimes he had allegedly ordered in his own nation’s southern province of Kosovo.

Taking Liberties tells us more about where we came from than where we are going. But it is a timely story told by one American who never took any right anywhere for granted. *

Frank Smyth is a freelance journalist who has collaborated with many human-rights organizations. He is writing a book about the 1991 uprisings against Saddam Hussein.

Iraq: Telling the Left from the Right

How many Americans who oppose the looming war know the left from the right when it comes to Iraq? The only two players on the field are not George W. Bush and Saddam Hussein. For inside and outside the borders of Iraq there is a political opposition to Saddam — and while some of those opponents are now aligned with the White House, others remain on the political left.

But don’t expect to read or hear much about any Iraqi leftist groups in the mainstream or even the “alternative” press.

In past U.S. foreign-policy conflicts, American activists frequently expressed their solidarity with and support of embattled leftists, whether in Chile, Nicaragua or El Salvador. But in this standoff with Iraq, American leftists seem woefully ignorant of their Iraqi counterparts and, consequently, of their views on the present conflict. And for these Iraqi leftists the current crisis transcends the prevailing American leftist view, which reduces the matter simply to either war or peace.

Today, Iraqi leftists play an important oppositional role against Saddam. Foremost among them is the Iraqi Communist Party, which at one time was that country’s biggest and broadest leftist mass movement, touching the lives of literally millions. Even before Iraq’s short-lived, British-imposed monarchy was overthrown in 1958, the Communist Party was organizing trade unions and other civic groups.

The leftist party has also long been Iraq’s most diverse political movement, cutting across traditional population lines to incorporate many disenfranchised majority Shias and minority Kurds. Even though tens of thousands of Communists and other leftists have perished in Saddam’s gulags and are still actively targeted by the ruling Ba’athist regime, the Iraqi CP today maintains a clandestine network across Iraq that experts deem to be of significant scale and political potential.

That network provides some of the best and most detailed reporting on armed resistance and government repression within Iraq. Indeed, human-rights activists, from Human Rights Watch to Amnesty International, rely heavily on the detailed reporting that comes out of Iraq via this network. “[T]he bodies of tens of people from the city of Basra, who were executed by firing squads of the dictatorial regime in late March 1999, are buried in a mass grave in the Burjesiyya district near the town of Zubair, about 20 km southeast of Basra,” reads the Iraqi Communist Party Web site in an article about a brief anti-Saddam uprising three years ago in the Shi’a-dominated, southernmost city. “Some of the victims fell into the hands of security forces after being wounded, or when their ammunition had finished. But most of the arrests took place during the following days when the authorities . . . unleashed an unprecedented campaign of police raids, house searches and detentions.” The report concludes that 400 to 600 people died in this massacre. “The massacre culminated with security men firing their handguns at the [h]eads of their victims,” says the report. “The horrific scene ended with throwing the bodies of victims in a deep pit dug with a bulldozer which was used later to cover up the site in an attempt to hide the traces of the crime.”

Today, Iraqi Communists, and most Iraqi leftists, firmly oppose the Bush administration’s war plans — but not necessarily war itself. Unlike many of their American counterparts, Iraqi leftists offer a policy alternative other than a vague call for “peace.” Instead of a unilateral U.S. invasion, Iraqi leftists want the international community to back an Iraqi-led military uprising against Saddam.

Short of that, Iraqi leftists would most likely support a multilateral military intervention that would not only overthrow Saddam but also hand him over to an international tribunal that would try him on charges of crimes against humanity.

Iraqi leftist groups also favor other positions routinely ignored by most American leftists, including vigorous U.N. human-rights monitoring inside Iraq. Most American anti-war activists also downplay another issue that Iraqi leftists are most worried about. What might a post-Saddam Iraq look like? The Communist Party and other Iraqi leftist groups refused to join the recent U.S.-backed Iraqi opposition meeting in London, pointing out that Washington has only been planning to replace Saddam’s regime with another minority dictatorship. The Iraqis closest to Washington remain deposed aristocrats, although the Bush administration finally dumped the plan, backed by the Pentagon alone, to restore exiled former supporters of the Kingdom of Iraq, which prevailed for [37] years, to power as the Iraqi National Congress.

Instead of the U.S.-backed return of the old ruling class, the Communist Party and Shi’a and Kurdish opposition groups want U.N.-monitored elections inside a post-Saddam Iraq leading to a federal representative government. This is an ongoing struggle yet to be adequately reported, unfortunately, in any U.S. publication, and the issue represents a genuinely democratic frontline with, so far, few if any so-called American progressives on it.

American and Iraqi leftists also differ over whom to blame for any coming war. The Iraqi CP blames not only the Bush administration, but also the Iraqi government. In this regard, the Iraqi Communist Party ironically joins the Bush administration in unequivocally demanding that Saddam fully cooperate with U.N. inspections to prevent his regime from developing more weapons of mass destruction. “The rulers” of “the dictatorial regime in Iraq,” reads an Iraqi CP declaration, put “their selfish interest above the people’s national interest, refusing to allow the [work] of U.N. weapons inspectors, and thus preventing action to spare our people and country looming dangers.”

Any U.S. leftist who even remotely thinks that Saddam’s regime is — beside its heavy-handedness — some sort of socialist alternative had better think again. No matter how much Saddam relies on the Stalinist model for his security services, the Iraqi dictator has never held anything but contempt for Iraqi leftists.

At 22, Saddam Hussein carried out his first assassination plot, against a Communist-backed leader in Baghdad who was the first president of Iraq. In fact, the young man from Tirkit was not accepted into the Ba’ath party until after he and others shot at President Abdel-Karim Qassem, who was backed by the Iraqi Communist Party and many trade unions. President Qassem survived, while Saddam was wounded in the leg.

Instead of leftist principles, Saddam’s ruling Ba’athist ideology unabashedly champions ethnic nationalism in order to build a greater nation based on ethnicity. [The name of h]is Iraqi Arab Socialist Ba’ath party explicitly excludes the one in every five Iraqis who are ethnic Kurds. Moreover, the Ba’athists’ Pan-Arab message is shaped mainly by Arabs of the Sunni Muslim faith like Saddam, and their form of Arab nationalism has little appeal for Arab Muslims of the Shia faith, who constitute three out of five Iraqis. Rather than empower either Iraq’s Shi’a majority or its Kurdish minority, the Ba’ath party merely replaced Iraq’s old rulers, who were Sunni Arab-led monarchists based in Baghdad, with new Sunni Arab-led rulers like Saddam from rural regions north of the capital.

“A ruling class-clan rapidly developed and maintained a tight grip on the army, the Ba’ath party, the bureaucracy, and the business milieus,” writes Faleh A. Jabar, a University of London scholar and former Iraqi Communist Party newspaper editor, in a recent issue of the U.S. monthly The Progressive. “You had either to be with the Ba’ath or you were against it.”

Today most of Kurdish-speaking Iraq, in the north, enjoys U.S.-enforced autonomy from Saddam’s regime, while Shias, in the south, still actively resist rule from Baghdad. Take Basra, where Saddam’s officials routinely bring visiting U.S. peace activists. “We were welcomed warmly into the home of Abu Haider, the father of a young boy who was killed three years ago by a U.S. Tomaha[w]k missile shot from a ship in the Gulf,” reads a pre-Christmas report from Pax Christi, a faith-based group. Pax Christi’s newsletter today says that this U.S. missile attack occurred in Basra in 1998. Undoubtedly true. But missing from that newsletter is that in that same year Saddam’s regime interred dozens of anti-Saddam rebels and others in secret graves in that same city, according to Iraqi Communist sources.

Opposing American imperialism is one thing. But ignoring Iraqi fascism is quite another. In the wake of the Gulf War, and after then-President Bush called on the Iraqi people to rise up, mass armed rebellion swept Iraq in the spring of 1991. More than a dozen major cities fell into the hands of the Iraqi rebels. Yet, as American forces stood by with arms crossed, Saddam’s troops and attack helicopters drowned the rebellion in blood, taking at least 100,000 lives. The anti-Saddam opposition was openly and tragically betrayed by Washington.

American leftists and peace activists must not now repeat the same sin. Only a quintessentially American arrogance would lead leftists in a big country to think that leftists in a smaller country don’t matter. Iraqi socialists and leftists have endured Saddam’s Ba’athist terror long enough to know the left from the right in Iraq. And as our nation prepares to invade their country, more Americans, especially peace activists, should take the trouble to do the same.

Frank Smyth is finishing a book on the 1991 Iraqi uprisings, which he reported on for CBS News, The Economist and Village Voice.