New information uncovered in Iraq by Human Rights Watch points to Ali Hassan al-Majid (or “Chemical Ali”) as the commander who ordered the summary killings of hundreds of Shia Muslims in 1999.
Ali Hassan al-Majid was a top Saddam Hussein associate. Iraqi officials have said he will be among the first to be tried by the Iraqi Special Tribunal in Baghdad.
In a 36-page report released today, Human Rights Watch documents summary executions, torture, mass arrests and other human rights crimes carried out by former Iraqi government and Baath Party officials in southern Iraq in early 1999. The report, “Ali Hassan al-Majid and the Basra Massacre of 1999,” provides indications of al-Majid’s overall responsibility.
Human Rights Watch researchers conducted interviews with dozens of victims, family members, and eyewitnesses, and also examined documentary evidence and the exhumed remains of mass graves.
“Al-Majid’s role in the genocide against the Kurds is well-known, but it appears his hands are dirty in Basra in 1999 as well,” said Joe Stork, Washington director of Human Rights Watch’s Middle East and North Africa division.
On February 19, 1999, Grand Ayatollah Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr, a senior Shia Muslim cleric, was assassinated, almost certainly by agents of the Iraqi government. In protest, Shia Muslims across Iraq took to the streets and in some cases attacked Iraqi government officials and buildings.
Human Rights Watch has obtained four pages of a handwritten list that named 120 young men executed in March, April and May of 1999 for taking part in the al-Sadr uprising. Although these pages bear no official marks, circumstantial evidence strongly suggests that it is an authentic contemporary Iraqi government document. Family members have identified 29 bodies recovered from a mass grave in May 2003 as persons named on the list. The first two pages of the list stated that the executions had been ordered by the “Commander of the Southern Sector” – who at the time was Ali Hassan al-Majid.
In May 2003, the remains of 34 men were exhumed from a mass grave site near Basra. Family members said they had identified 29 of the men. Witnesses, as well as family members of the victims, told Human Rights Watch that hundreds of young men who had been detained in March 1999 after the al-Sadr intifada were summarily executed and dumped in mass graves in and around Basra.
Al-Majid, whose moniker “Chemical Ali” stems from his role in using chemical weapons against Iraqi Kurds and Iranians, has been in U.S. custody in Iraq since August 2003.
Al-Majid and other high-level former officials in custody have recently been allowed access to defense counsel, but they spent a year or more undergoing interrogation without defense lawyers present. Even if the Iraqi Special Tribunal bans the use in court of statements possibly taken through torture and mistreatment, Human Rights Watch said, it should also ensure that such statements are not used in any way against a suspect, whether to provide investigative leads or to induce him to repeat a “confession” in court.
“The alleged crimes are so serious, it’s very important to get these trials right,” said Stork. “The Iraqi Special Tribunal must be independent of political pressure and adhere to international standards.”
Human Rights Watch called on the Iraqi Transitional Government to abolish the death penalty, an inherently cruel and inhumane punishment.
“Al-Majid’s trial should be an opportunity to prove that justice rules in the new Iraq, not vengeance,” said Stork.
Human Rights Watch called on the new Iraqi Transitional Government, as well as its U.S. and British allies, to assist the many families who have still not been able to locate the remains of their lost loved ones.