Once a month, on a Saturday afternoon, Narmeen Saleh and her eight-year old daughter, Zeinab, hold a solitary, silent protest outside the US Embassy in London, calling for the release of their respective husband and father, Shawki Ahmed Omar who, this month, marks his ninth year of detention without due process in an Iraqi jail.
In October 2004, Mrs. Saleh, who was pregnant at the time, and her husband were seized by force by American soldiers at the home of a relative in Baghdad. The couple was taken to the Camp Nama detention facility near Baghdad Airport, where they were held and tortured. Mrs. Saleh, who is Iraqi, was released after 16 days, but her treatment took a toll on her pregnancy: Zeinab, who has never met her father, was born with cerebral palsy. Mrs. Saleh managed to leave Iraq after continuing threats to her and her family in 2006, and came to Europe.
Her husband, Shawki Omar, remains a prisoner. Camp Nama “was the first stop for many insurgents on their way to the Abu Ghraib prison a few miles away”, where he was also held, and later at Camp Bucca and Camp Cropper, all known torture facilities. Months earlier, photographic images and videos emerged in the US media of the physical and sexual torture of prisoners at Abu Ghraib by US and coalition forces that, sometimes leading to death, shocked and scandalized the world.
The US military accused Shawki Omar, 53, an American-Jordanian dual national of being an associate of Abu Musab Al Zarqawi, the alleged leader of Al Qaeda and the insurgency in Iraq, and of “harboring foreign fighters intent on engaging in jihad”. One of his alleged foreign recruits signed a court-certified statement, after release to Jordan, retracting the statements he had made against Shawki Omar, stating he had been tortured into doing so.
In spite of these accusations, he has never been charged in relation to them, as far as he and his lawyers are aware. Instead, the US sought to have his case transferred for trial to the Iraqi courts. Given the risk of torture in Iraqi jails, his family sought to have his transfer blocked in the US courts and won an important ruling in the US Supreme Court in 2008 that allowed American citizens held abroad by a multinational force to challenge their detention in US courts through a writ of habeas corpus. Nonetheless, on July 8, 2011, he lost his habeas case in the US Court of Appeals. In spite of fresh allegations of prisoner abuse, the court accepted US government assurances that he would not be “likely to be tortured if transferred to Iraqi custody”. A week later, he was handed over to the Iraqi authorities.
The US military also claimed that Omar had entered the country illegally, a charge he was only made aware of when his case finally came to court in Iraq in 2010. No charges were listed in his notice to attend the hearing, at which he had no legal representation, due to miscommunication by the courts to his lawyer, who understood the hearing was to be held a month later; furthermore, he could not contest the charge as his identity documents were seized when he was arrested in 2004, although he maintains that he entered legally. He was given a 15-year conviction at this hearing for illegal entry into the country. An appeal by his lawyers saw his sentence reduced to 7 years by the Iraqi Supreme Court, which upheld the conviction itself. Throughout this time, he was held in US custody.
Shawki Omar was held at Camp Cropper when he was handed over to the Iraqi authorities five months to the day before the US withdrew its military forces from Iraq in December 2011. It was the last detention center to be handed over to Iraqi control as part of the withdrawal plan in July 2010, but as with Bagram in Afghanistan, the US retained control over some of the prisoners there, including Shawki Omar, whom it claimed were high risk. Amnesty International criticized the handover agreement in its 2011 Annual Report as it “contained no human rights safeguards despite the well-established record of torture and other ill-treatment of detainees by Iraqi security forces.”
Prison conditions in Iraq remain poor, and torture rife. Amnesty International’s 2013 Annual Report states, in addition to the extensive use of the death penalty and deaths in custody, that:
“Torture and other ill-treatment were common and widespread in prisons and detention centres, particularly those controlled by the Ministries of the Interior and Defence, and were committed with impunity. Methods included suspension by the limbs for long periods, beatings with cables and hosepipes, the infliction of electric shocks, breaking of limbs, partial asphyxiation with plastic bags, and sexual abuse including threats of rape. Torture was used to extract information from detainees and “confessions” that could be used as evidence against them at trial.”
Conditions in recent years have been particularly hard for the minority Sunni Muslims; Shawki Omar is Sunni. In January, the government released more than 300 Sunni prisoners held under anti-terrorism laws “whose jail terms had ended or whose cases had been dismissed for lack of evidence.” This was to assuage growing protests against the arbitrary detention of Sunnis and their torture at the hands of the security forces. Protests have been ongoing for over a year in various parts of Iraq as part of its Arab Spring, largely by Sunnis who feel marginalized and persecuted by the ruling regime. This summer’s jail breaks, allegedly by Al Qaeda which saw more than 500 prisoners freed in a serious of coordinated attacks, have made harsh conditions even worse for inmates. Being a citizen of the country that led the occupation of Iraq in 2003 also singles Omar out for further discrimination and persecution, as does being a non-Iraqi Arab.
With the growing abuse of prisoners at Al Karkh in 2012 and the fact he has been held for longer than the 7-year sentence he has never been able to challenge, with limited access to lawyers – he met his lawyer for the first time in December 2012, during which she noted the physical signs of the abuse he faced – and medical treatment, Shawki Omar went on hunger strike on February 4, 2013, days before prisoners at Guantánamo Bay started their protest. He ended his hunger strike at the beginning of August.
Nonetheless, hunger strikes can have devastating effects on the long-term health of those who undertake such drastic action. In Omar’s case, his health has steadily deteriorated since and he is unable to eat properly or hold down food that he has consumed. He has weakened since coming off the hunger strike and his existing medical problems have worsened. He has also been refused medical attention and has not been seen by a doctor for months. The prison authorities consider his health problems to be a result of his hunger strike, which he voluntarily chose to undertake, and whose consequences he must thus face. With the growing crackdown on prisons since the summer, he is no longer able to receive supplies of medicines sent for him by his family for his illnesses. In nine years, Mr. Omar has never been seen by an independent doctor to verify or check his claims of torture.
One of the reasons for his hunger strike is that Shawki Omar does not know why he has been held for so long or why he continues to be held after having served the sentence he was given: he was convicted in 2010 as Shawki Ahmed Sharif, not Omar, his family name, and as a Palestinian national, which he has never been, although he is of Palestinian origin. In response, his family was informed that he still has four years remaining of his current sentence. The time spent in US custody, and the six years he spent incarcerated prior to being brought to court, have not been taken into account.
They were also informed that Iraq does not intend to release him after that; he will then be prosecuted him for the original terrorism-related accusations made in 2005. Just last month, Amnesty International reported that 13 men had been executed on one day in Baghdad following conviction in unfair trials and the use of confessions obtained through torture. While Iraq’s security problems cannot be denied, the circle of violence cannot be broken through further lawlessness and disregard for the rule of law and human dignity.
Narmeen Saleh would like the US authorities take responsibility for his case. During Shawki Omar’s hunger strike, she and her daughter held their vigil outside the US Embassy every week. She too briefly went on hunger strike to raise awareness of his plight, and has not ruled out doing so again. The response of the US Embassy thus far has been largely noncommittal. He last met US Embassy officials in May and while they check up on his wellbeing from time to time, more could be done to secure his release.
There are thousands of prisoners in Iraq who suffer such arbitrary conditions and abuse, yet Shawki Omar’s case is different, in that he is an American-Jordanian national, and thus the responsibility of other states. Throughout his ordeal, he has not been afforded a fair trial or due process rights, by either the US and its allies or the Iraqis. His family does not want him to be another statistic in the troubled history of Iraq over the past decade. As well as the American government taking action to see him released, Mrs. Saleh would like to see human rights organizations pressurizing the US and Iraqi authorities to do justice in this case, even if it is almost a decade late.