(Ghazwan al-Mukhtar, an Iraqi citizen still living in his country, facing judges at the Kyoto tribunal as he takes an oath to "tell the truth and nothing but the truth" about the current state of Iraq.)
Iraq is Far Worse Now Than Under Saddam Hussein,
Iraqis Testify at War Crimes Tribunal in Japan
By Brian Covert
The second day of the two-day “International Criminal Tribunal for Iraq” in Kyoto, Japan was kicked off by testimony from Haifa Zangana, an Iraqi Kurd now living in exile in London.
Zangana said she had long been opposed to Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath party when she lived in Iraq, and because of that she was arrested and imprisoned, including at Iraq’s notorious Abu Ghraib prison.
She was tortured, and later, fearing for her life, she fled Iraq in 1975, eventually settling in England, where she has continued working as an author, artist and activist. “Fifteen months after what’s called ‘liberation’ of Iraq, most Iraqis feel unsafe in their country,” said Zangana. “Women and children in particular are at risk. ….Kidnapping is widespread, for various reasons, and specifically kidnapping of women and children. It could happen for revenge, it could happen for profit. In some cases it’s been proved that [they] are sold for prostitution.”
She said these crimes against Iraqi girls and women are going uninvestigated in the chaos that now engulfs Iraqi society. “So many things are happening, and neither the occupying forces nor the Iraqi representatives working for the occupation forces are leading any investigation in these cases,” said Zangana, co-founder of a London-based organization called Act Together that supports Iraqi women.
She said she last visited Iraq in January of this year, and found a nation in ruins, politically and socially — conditions, she said, that are much worse now than when Saddam Hussein was in power. “[O]ver decades, Iraqi women achieved a lot, especially regarding education and regarding health service. Health service used to be free — now there is total chaos. Iraqi children are dying because of neglect. Women are dying because of the lack of medicine, lack of health care.”
Zangana said the U.S.-led invasion and occupation of Iraq has led to widespread unemployment and poverty in her homeland. “The dismantling of the Iraqi state immediately after the war led to huge, massive unemployment,” Zangana said. “I mean, how can you be independent if you are staying at home, imprisoned in your house because of lack of security? How can you support yourself and be independent if you can’t work?”
“Iraq has the highest level of educated women — women engineers, women scientists — in the Middle East,” she continued. “Yet they are forced at the moment to stay in their houses, not being able to go to work at all, and they are not employed.”
She said the United States, through its political control in Iraq, is contributing to such high unemployment: “You need a letter of recommendation from one of the political parties chosen by the Americans. If you don’t have this letter, if you don’t prove you are a member of those political parties, you cannot go and work.”
The widespread poverty in Iraq has given rise to an unprecedented situation in Iraq, she said, where women are turning to prostitution to survive. “Because of poverty, we noticed that there is an increase of prostitution. And prostitution is leading to abortions. Abortion is illegal in Iraq. But now we’ve seen the growth of many backstreet, unhygienic [abortion rooms] — almost killing women in these small rooms in the backstreets of Iraq, Baghdad specifically,” she said. “I visited one of them and it’s a most horrendous situation women are subjected to. This is part of the whole climate of poverty.”
She added that “We are not talking about a poor country. We are not talking about an African country suffering from famine. We are talking about the second-richest country in oil in the world.”
Japanese attorney Kenichi Ohkubo of the amicus curiae/defense team asked Zangana if she believed the Iraqis had really been strong enough to overthrow Saddam Hussein without the help of the U.S. and U.K. “Yes, I do, yes,” said the former Iraqi political prisoner. “You see, the Iraqi people did not stop struggling against Saddam’s regime. Thirteen years of [U.N.-imposed] sanctions weakened the Iraqi people; it didn’t weaken the regime itself. ….For 13 years of sanctions, Iraqis were cut off from the world. ...Yes, I think Iraqi people were capable of achieving that.”
“I am a Kurd myself,” Zangana added, referring to the ethnic group that had been persecuted by Saddam Hussein for decades. “And I am not grateful at all for the American, British, Japanese armies there in Iraq, claiming they are protecting us or liberating us. They did more damage than anybody can ever imagine at the moment.”
Her testimony was immediately followed by that of another Iraqi, Ghazwan al-Mukhtar, a retired engineer who still lives with his family in Iraq. He is the brother of Sabah al-Mukhtar, the Iraqi exile who testified in the first day of the Kyoto tribunal.
Ghazwan al-Mukhtar had studied in the U.S. during the 1960s and began working for the Iraqi government upon his return to his country. He later opened his own engineering office, and he and his wife, who is a doctor, had been putting their children through medical school. Al-Mukhtar, who was said he was no fan of the regime of Saddam Hussein, said when the U.S. forces dissolved the Iraqi police and military, law and order in Iraq became a thing of the past.
“The crime rate did not increase very much until the beginning of the war [by the U.S.] because there was a functioning police,” he said. “The [Iraqi] police knew the criminals and they were monitoring them. As soon as the war began, and the police stations were dismantled and the police officers were sent home, the criminal elements [in Iraq] had a field day. ….There was encouragement from the American side to loot and to burn.”
He added that a burnt-out police station near his home was guarded by a police officer with nothing more than a pocket knife to fight off intruders: “While the criminal elements had all kind of armaments — they had automatic weapons, they had rocket launchers, they had everything — the policeman had a small knife to protect the police station.”
Al-Mukhtar has been working with Global Exchange, a U.S. nonprofit organization, in setting up the International Occupation Watch Center, a Baghdad-based grassroots group that monitors the situation in Iraq and shares that information with the international community.
He didn’t have to look too far in the beginning, as U.S. military forces closed down and occupied a nearby school, originally founded by American Jesuits, that his child was attending. It was only after he and other local Iraqis demonstrated in front of the foreign press that the U.S. soldiers left the school, he said.
Hospitals in Iraq were equally hard-hit following the U.S. invasion, said al-Mukhtar: “Because of the deteriorating conditions of the pumps and electricity, you’ve got sewage flowing on the floor! In some hospitals the sewage is flowing on the floor. You go into the hospital and you can’t breathe because it smells so bad, because the pumps stopped working,” he said. “You try to do an operation on the second floor and move the patient after the operation to the 10th floor, and there is no elevator. What do you do? You carry the patient on a stretcher. It’s very difficult.”
He said that “conditions are even worse” in the health care field now than they were under Saddam Hussein. “Mind you, Iraq had the best health system, according to the WHO, in the Middle East in the 1990s. Now because of the war and the sanctions and the other [Gulf] war we have the worst medical facilities in the world.”
Tokyo-based lawyer Akira Ibori of the defense team asked al-Mukhtar if his country hadn’t been helped by the U.S. reconstruction efforts in Iraq. “You are assuming that there is an honest effort for reconstruction,” al-Mukhtar told the lawyer. “That’s a big assumption. ….There is no real, definite plan for reconstruction. That is visible to us. So the reconstruction is not hampered by the insurgents or the thieves. …They [the U.S.] have not done the contracting yet, despite the 15 months” the American forces have been Iraq.
During the second day of the tribunal, it was Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s turn to come under fire for supporting the U.S. and U.K. in invading and occupying Iraq. The public prosecuting team asserted that Koizumi was an “accomplice” to U.S. President George Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair, and thus should stand trial alongside the other two for war crimes in Iraq and crimes against humanity.
But the defense side soundly rejected that argument. “Suppose you were in the shoes of the prime minister of Japan. Can you say that you would not have done the same thing that he has done?” a Japanese attorney on the amicus curiae side asked the audience. “Probably you think that Prime Minister Koizumi is dumb. But think about the relationship between Japan and the United States. ….If Japan does not follow the instructions of the United States, and if the U.S.-Japan relationship deteriorates, what would happen? Our economy would collapse.”
“You can say ‘No more war’, ‘Respect life’ and ‘We are against the war in Iraq’. That’s easier said than done. But let’s think about the position of Japan” in the world before judging Koizumi, the amicus curiae lawyer said.
International politics wasn’t the only area where the Japanese prime minister came under fire. Kenichi Asano, a journalist and professor of mass communications at Doshisha University in Kyoto, held Koizumi responsible for what he called excessive control of the Japanese press in Iraq, thus effectively covering up war crimes from the Japanese public.
“Today the media are really freeing themselves from the responsibility of serving as an independent press,” Asano said. “Koizumi has been committing these [war] crimes, and part of that comes from the malfunctioning of the media.”
About 500 Japanese military troops, called Self-Defense Forces, are now based in Samawah, Iraq, following Koizumi’s controversial dispatch of the forces there earlier this year. The majority of public opinion in Japan has long been against such a move. Samawah is an area with an especially high contamination level of depleted uranium, according to recent news reports in the U.S.
Asano said that there is only Japanese journalist, a freelancer, based in Samawah. During the first day of testimony, Taku Sakamoto, a reporter for the Tokyo-based Asia Press International, showed some rare footage of Iraq that he and his team was able to gather independently and without Japanese government control.
Asano added that while mainstream Japanese news reporters who do go to Iraq are not officially “embedded” with U.S. troops, as are many journalists, Japanese reporters nevertheless are forced by the Japanese government to sign a “pledge” as to what they can and cannot cover in Iraq. “The mission of journalism and the mission of the Self-Defense Forces are completely different,” said Asano, a former reporter of more than 20 years with the Kyodo News wire service and now one of Japan’s most well-known media critics.
“Journalism knows no national boundary,” he said. “The policies of the news agencies never state that their employees work for the benefit and interest of the Japanese nation. So we shouldn’t confuse the role of journalism with the role of the government or the SDF.”
The tribunal also took unsworn testimony from activists in Okinawa, where most of the U.S. military bases in Japan are located. Some of those U.S. soldiers in Okinawa are undergoing training to fight in Iraq.
In a videotaped interview with some Okinawa-based U.S. soldiers that was shown at the Kyoto tribunal, a Japanese activist asked one U.S. soldier how he sees his job. “World freedom. To defend, like, world freedom,” replied the 22-year-old American soldier, drawing laughter from the Kyoto tribunal audience. “To help make the world a better place. I fight for freedom, pretty much. That’s my job,” he said. When asked what he thought about the recent Abu Ghraib prison torture scandal in Iraq involving the U.S. military, the soldier replied: “I don’t think we’re at liberty to discuss our personal feelings or anything like that. So I would have to say ‘no comment’.”
The two-day tribunal wound to a close with testimony by Ayca Cubukcu, a Turkish-American activist based in New York who was involved in organizing the New York hearing of the World Tribunal on Iraq in May. The WTI is holding tribunals at various cities around the world, including one scheduled for Hiroshima, Japan in October.
The information gathered at the two-day Kyoto ICTI meeting — and its resulting indictment of George Bush, Tony Blair and Junichiro Koizumi for international war crimes — is to be used at Japan’s final ICTI tribunal in Tokyo in December, with those results then forwarded on to a culminating WTI hearing in Istanbul, Turkey, in March 2005.
Following the closing of the two-day Kyoto tribunal on Sunday, July 18, about 100 people, including the three Iraqi witnesses, joined a peace march through the hot, humid streets of downtown Kyoto, where some harassment of demonstrators by police was witnessed by this reporter.
Brian Ohkubo Covert is an independent journalist based in Hyogo, Japan.