June 07, 2006

Who Killed Margaret Hassan?

The curious case of Margaret Hassan (previous posts here and here) just keeps getting curiouser. From the NYT (which bizarrely interweaves this story with reports on ongoing violence in Iraq today - I have extracted the relevant text only):
A judge imposed a life sentence on Monday on a man who apparently played a minor role in the kidnapping of Margaret Hassan, a British-Iraqi aid worker whose disappearance and death showed that no one was immune from insurgent viciousness.

The verdict, the first in a kidnapping of a foreigner in Iraq, brought an inconclusive end to the case of Ms. Hassan, 59, who was abducted on her way to work in Baghdad in October 2004. Two other men were acquitted and a sheik suspected of having played an important role in the kidnapping has eluded arrest.

The kidnapping of Ms. Hassan, the director of CARE International in Iraq who had dedicated her life to helping the country's poor, stunned Iraqis and opened a more dangerous era for foreign nationals working here. In one enduring image from a grainy video broadcast on television, she was seen crumpled and pleading. Her body was never found.

Judge Saab Khorshid of the Central Criminal Court sentenced Mustafa Muhammad Salman al-Jibouri, a man associated with a Sunni mosque in central Baghdad, to life in prison, a British Embassy official said. The charge, according to an Iraqi lawyer who watched the trial, was aiding and abetting: Mr. Jibouri held Ms. Hassan's purse after she was abducted, though he said he did not know whose it was at first.

The trial in Ms. Hassan's killing, which was completed in only two and a half hours, went virtually unnoticed by Iraqi television outlets, and raised more questions than it answered. The testimony connected Ms. Hassan's kidnapping to a mosque in Jadriya, a leafy neighborhood of university professors in central Baghdad, and the sheik who presided there, identified by defendants as Hussein Ahmed Salman al-Zobai.

The sheik had given Mr. Jibouri, a resident of Madaen, an angry Sunni Arab town south of Baghdad, Ms. Hassan's purse and identification cards in a plastic bag for safekeeping, according to Shawkat al-Samarrai, an Iraqi lawyer who watched the trial.

Mr. Jibouri, who denied he played a part in the kidnapping, said he looked inside the purse two months later and discovered it belonged to Ms. Hassan. The sheik, who had moved to Jamiya in western Baghdad, an area dominated by insurgents, said he would come to collect it, but never did, Mr. Samarrai said.

Two other men, Mohsin Ahmed and Qasim Muhammad, identified by The Associated Press as a guard and a worshiper from the mosque that figured in the case, were acquitted. It was not clear from the testimony what happened to the sheik, but some participants in the trial said that he had fled, according to Mr. Samarrai. Court officials were not available for comment on Monday afternoon.

In a frustrating tale of missed opportunities and painful waiting, Ms. Hassan's husband, Tahseen Hassan, took the stand on Monday. In a calm voice, he spoke of the ordeal of losing his wife, beginning from the morning of her disappearance on Oct. 19, 2004.

She left the house at 7:30 a.m., he said, according to Mr. Samarrai, riding with her driver and bodyguard in her Toyota Camry to her office in Quthat, a neighborhood on the edge of Jadriya. Two hours later, her secretary called Mr. Hassan and told him his wife was missing. The driver, an Iraqi, and the guard, an Egyptian, had been badly beaten.

In the days after his wife was abducted, Mr. Hassan received several telephone calls — her relatives said on Monday that four were made from her cellphone — from people he did not know, asking for the numbers of the British Embassy in Baghdad, and of Ms. Hassan's office.

Shortly after that, a caller who identified himself as Abu Mustafa reassured him that his wife was doing well, and proposed a meeting in the Shiite neighborhood of Kadhimiya. Mr. Hassan said he went there with the Iraqi police, but that the caller never showed up. Abu Mustafa later called back, according to Mr. Samarrai, and asked Mr. Hassan why he had come with the police.

In a statement released in England on Sunday, Ms. Hassan's family accused the British government of contributing to her death by refusing to negotiate with her kidnappers.

"The hostage-takers demanded to speak to a member of the British Embassy, but Tahseen had been told by the British that they would not speak to the kidnappers," said Ms. Hassan's siblings — Deirdre, Geraldine, Kathryn and Michael Fitzsimmons. "We believe that the refusal by the British government to open a dialogue with the kidnappers cost our sister her life."

In an interview with the BBC on Monday, Deirdre Fitzsimmons said that the last phone calls were made on Nov. 7, and that Mr. Hassan was essentially left on his own by an unhelpful British government.

"I don't think he knew what to do," she said. "He did the best he could. After all, this was a man in a house on his own, his wife had been taken hostage, he had seen terrible videos of her. He was really left on his own with this advice."

A spokeswoman for the British Embassy in Baghdad said: "Our thoughts are with her family."


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