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Kurds Seeking Justice for Longtime Tormentor

Witnesses gather evidence of killings and rapes they say were ordered by provincial governor, a feared Baathist who walks free.

June 08, 2003|Carol J. Williams | Times Staff Writer

SULAYMANIYAH, Iraq — From a crowded cell several blocks from the execution grounds here, Sadika Qadir heard the staccato reports of the firing squad and knew that her son was dead.

For the crime of having raised a critic of Saddam Hussein's tyranny, she too paid dearly. With her six remaining children, she was first imprisoned for three years in cells crammed with consumptive mothers and wailing infants, then exiled to an arid village on the plains north of Baghdad.

Her husband, Faiq Faris Aziz, escaped the regime's clutches but not its torture. It fell to him, as the only family member still free, though in hiding, to rescue his son's corpse from the mass grave where his body and those of other executed students had had been dumped. Alone in the predawn darkness, he carried the lifeless remains on his shoulders a quarter mile to rebury him in this Kurdish city's Cemetery of the Martyrs.

But what torments the parents of Hiwa Faiq now, more than the loss of their son or memories of the nocturnal grave robbing, is that the provincial governor who ordered the public execution still walks free and faces no immediate threat of justice.

Sheik Jaafar Abdulkarim, the feared Baath Party potentate accused by Kurds of dozens, if not hundreds, of political killings from 1980 to 1989, didn't make the U.S.-compiled most-wanted list of former Iraqi officials.

That is an oversight the victims' families are bent on correcting. In Kurdistan, the ethnic Kurd region of northern Iraq, a campaign is on to find, arrest and prosecute the sheik, thought to be living an hour's drive west of here in the U.S.-patrolled, oil-rich city of Kirkuk.

"The U.S. military must not shelter people who have committed crimes," said Barhim Salih, prime minister of eastern Kurdistan, who has passed on documentation of Abdulkarim's alleged atrocities to U.S. troops in Kirkuk.

Intimating that he soon expects the former governor's arrest and extradition to Kurdish-held territory, Salih said he assured U.S. forces that Abdulkarim would be granted a fair trial and provided an attorney.

"This has to do with justice and healing," said Salih, explaining that a regional war crimes tribunal is being assembled here in anticipation of a national or international forum for bringing to light the worst abuses committed by the deposed Baath Party regime.

Grieving relatives of those allegedly slain on Abdulkarim's orders are eager to see him in the public dock.

"He took inhuman pleasure in what he did," Sadika Qadir said of the man venomously referred to by Kurds as Sheik Jaafar. "He led the crowd in applause afterward, then went to shake the hands of those who shot our sons."

Lawyers and judges putting together the tribunal and collecting affidavits from victims insist on swift action to prevent the wanted parties from slipping away. While Iraq is already coming to grips with the legacy of Baath Party rule, a formal effort to expose the regime's crimes is likely years down the road.

"It's not a matter of revenge. It's a right of the public to see justice done. This was done with the Nazis at Nuremberg and with war criminals from Yugoslavia," said Hamid Bilbas, head of the Jurists Assn. of Kurdistan, about plans to prosecute those who abused power. "The public has a right to confront these people."

Abdulkarim is accused by regional authorities of ordering summary executions, gang rapes, destruction of Kurdish homes and mass detentions of anyone suspected of supporting the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, a then-outlawed opposition party. He is also accused of jailing whole families, including infants, as a terror tactic.

Bilbas said that many of the 7 million Iraqis who belonged to the Baath Party were professionals with little association to the regime. Many joined because affiliation was essential to their advancement, he said. It is only those who willfully applied Hussein's repressive policies who should be brought before the tribunal, he said.

At the Sulaymaniyah House of Justice, investigating Judge Omar Ahmed said accusations have been brought against several former Iraqi officials who were in power before a 1991 Kurdish uprising that compelled most senior Baath Party figures to take refuge for a short time in Baghdad or nearby Kirkuk.

"Most of the complaints have to do with Sheik Jaafar. He is accused of killing people without cause and without judicial proceedings," said Ahmed. "Victims were brought to the place of execution and crowds assembled to applaud once the firing squads had done their work."

Abdulkarim left Sulaymaniyah for Kirkuk in 1989 after he was promoted to head a governing council for all of northern Iraq, said Kurdish police Maj. Mohammed Tahir, whose precinct has taken testimony from three families seeking the arrest and prosecution of the former governor.

They claim that Abdulkarim had his own brother-in-law killed so he could abandon his wife without fear of retribution by the woman's male relatives, who would have defended her honor.

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