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Call-In Show Is Must-Hear Radio for Inmates Cut Off From Family

Prisoners at Abu Ghraib in Iraq drop everything to listen for messages from friends and relatives. To many, the program is a lifeline.

October 05, 2005|Edmund Sanders | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — Inside Iraq's most notorious prison, activities grind to a halt at 3 p.m. each day. That's when prisoners huddle around transistor radios or listen through loudspeakers on the wall to the radio show "Send Your Regards."

The daily 90-minute call-in show, broadcast by a Sunni Arab political organization and tolerated by U.S. prison officials, allows friends and family of detainees to send one-way messages of love, support and concern to those inside Abu Ghraib's walls.

A fiancee professes her undying love. A son boasts about passing his school exams. A mother breaks the news that an uncle has died.

"Your wife has delivered a new baby girl," one family member said recently to a prisoner named Ammar Adnan. "We named her Tebaa."

The show has become a huge hit with Abu Ghraib's 4,800 inmates, particularly Sunnis, who have been arrested by U.S. or Iraqi forces on charges ranging from theft to terrorism.

Each afternoon, prisoners take a break from chores and gather in tents, hoping to hear a familiar voice with news from back home. They wake one another so no one will miss the program, and carry portable radios when prison guards order them to stand in roll-call formation during airtime.

Adel Abbas Jawad, 22, a mechanic arrested in June and held until August, said he had nearly given up hope of leaving Abu Ghraib, an infamous torture house during Saddam Hussein's regime that was later at the center of a prisoner abuse scandal involving American soldiers.

Jawad, who was swept up in a U.S. raid, said he had no idea why he was arrested and was not given the chance to contact his family to inform them of his detention. The show, he said, was his sole salvation.

One afternoon, tuned in on his way to the laundry room, Jawad heard something that caused him to freeze: his father's anxious voice was pleading over the loudspeaker for information about his missing son. Jawad said he instinctively ran to the speaker.

"I'm here, Dad, I'm here!" Jawad recalled shouting into it. "It was like the ground was moving. I couldn't stop smiling. I wanted to hug the speaker and put it in my lap."

Attorneys for prisoners say the program performs an important humanitarian service, particularly given the bureaucratic tangles of the U.S. military and the Iraqi government, which often make tracking and communicating with detainees difficult.

"It's like giving a breath of fresh air to someone who is suffocating," said L. Najat Zubaidi, a defense attorney who represents detainees.

Many of the prisoners at Abu Ghraib are not hardened criminals but ordinary citizens unjustly accused, attorneys say. Last month, nearly 1,000 were released without being charged because of lack of evidence or because they were deemed to pose no threat.

The show was launched last year, largely by accident. A senior official of the Iraqi Islamic Party noticed that when he spoke as a guest on the party-owned radio station, Dar al-Salam, he received many letters from Abu Ghraib prisoners.

"I thought, why should they be listening to me when they could be listening to their families instead," said Alaa Makki of the Sunni party.

He said U.S. officials initially had reservations about allowing prisoners to listen, but the party persuaded them to give the program a chance, noting that the plug could always be pulled if things didn't work out.

"We won the confidence of both Americans and the prisoners, which is not an easy thing to do," Makki said.

U.S. officials, who monitor the show's content through an interpreter, aren't fans, but they have decided to live with it and have issued radios at the request of Iraqi human rights officials.

The show gets about 50 phone calls, letters, e-mails and cellphone text messages a day. Some callers read poems. Others take turns speaking, passing the phone among family members.

"Hello, Daddy, how are you?" said one little girl who called the show recently. "Please be careful and watch out for your health."

A sister urged her brother to stay strong and vowed to care for his kids. "Your children are fine," she said. "They are driving us crazy, but we love them and remind them that the most important thing is that you will be returned to us safely."

A tearful young wife tried to update her husband about family news before breaking down.

"Ahmed finished his exams," she said, her voice cracking. "Everyone is asking about you. The house is empty. Life has no taste when you are not here."

Other callers desperately seek news about missing relatives, who they fear have been arrested and sent to Abu Ghraib.

"Please tell us where you are," cried one woman to her missing husband. "They told me you were transferred to Abu Ghraib, but when we went there, we did not find your number. Where are you?"

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