Trial Highlights Halabja's Agony

Kurdish town tortured by legacy of chemical attack seeks redress in court.

Trial Highlights Halabja's Agony

Kurdish town tortured by legacy of chemical attack seeks redress in court.

Friday, 27 February, 2009
Kamil Abdul-Qadir Wais calls his health “a gift from the Ba’athists”. His lungs are failing, the doctors tell him, making it hard for him to utter even the simplest sentences.

Wais, in his mid-forties, is a survivor of the March 1988 chemical attack on Halabja that killed his family and filled his lungs with poisonous gases. Twenty-one years on, Wais remains an ardent advocate for Halabja’s victims, and smiles weakly knowing that they are finally being heard in court.

“All I ever hoped for was to see the criminals who destroyed Halabja on trial,” Wais said.

Four former leaders of Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath party are being tried in Baghdad for planning and executing the attack, which killed some 5,000 people and injured thousands more.

The chemical bombardment of Halabja, a town bordering Iran, became a haunting symbol of Kurdish suffering under Saddam’s rule. The former Iraqi government was accused of using poisons such as mustard gas and VX on civilians in the attack, carried out in the final stages of the Iran-Iraq war.

The trial is the seventh against former senior Ba’ath officials and has captured the attention of Halabja residents, who have waited two decades to see justice served.

Radio and television sets are constantly tuned into the trial. Halabjans are grateful that stories long relayed in homes and teahouses - of the twisted bodies that refugees had to leave behind, of the pain and loss of having entire families wiped out – are finally being told on the stand.

“This is what I have been waiting for,” said Aras Abid, who lost 12 family members including his parents in the attack when he was 20. “I don’t care if I die now; I am seeing the criminals and killers of my family on trial.”

The trial has not been without controversy and drama. One of the defendants has mysteriously gone missing; there is some concern that another might be executed before the trial ends; and prosecutors are promising to submit evidence that they say proves international companies supplied the poisonous gas to Saddam’s regime.

Prosecutors say they have a strong case against the defendants, including intelligence documents, video and photos of the attack and testimony from nearly 72 witnesses including foreign journalists who visited the town just after the bombing.

The most prominent defendant is Ali Hassan al-Majid, Saddam’s former military commander and intelligence chief, nicknamed “Chemical Ali” for his role in attacks on the Kurds.

Other defendants include former defence minister Sultan Hashim, former military intelligence chief Sabir Duri and a former intelligence official, Farhan Mutlaq Jibouri.

None of the defendants have issued statements or pleas. Saddam’s government had claimed Iran carried out the bombardment.

Prosecutors and the people of Halabja hope the case will not only deliver justice but will also help the victims seek compensation.

Goran Adham, the chief prosecutor in the trial, said the companies the prosecution plans to name in connection with supplying poisonous gas to the former regime might “offer to help to rebuild Halabja or provide financial assistance to the victims’ relatives so they won’t sue” after the trial.

The central government has also pledged to help Halabja by suing these firms.

Fuad Saleh, a local official in Halabja, said Kurdish officials want the court to recognise the crime as genocide and for the Iraqi government to provide compensation for the victims.

The need is great. Survivors continue to face a host of medical issues, including respiratory, vision and fertility problems, as well as cancer. Many can only be treated abroad, but few have the resources to seek care on their own.

“We have spent half our lives taking medicine and we are struggling with death all the time,” Wais said.

The Kurdistan Regional Government, KRG, has sent some victims abroad for treatment and initiated infrastructure projects in the town, where bombed-out buildings stand as ghost-like symbols of the raid.

But services are in a shoddy state and locals have loudly accused the KRG of neglect. In 2006, a monument honouring Halabja’s victims was torched when clashes between protesters and Kurdish forces turned bloody.

The disappearance of a former Iraqi pilot who was to be tried in the case has further bred Halabja’s mistrust of the authorities. Tariq Ramadan, a former air force officer accused of carrying out the attack on Halabja, escaped from Kurdish custody in late October and remains at large.

The KRG’s parliament is investigating the disappearance, which outraged residents and prosecutors.

Kurdish prosecutors said this will not affect their case against the other defendants, but that they were shocked to learn the news from the court and not the KRG. They have urged the court to investigate the disappearance.

One prosecutor, Bakir Hama Sidiq Arif, said the Kurdish security forces’ statement that Ramadan got away while en route to hospital was “unbelievable”.

“How could such a prominent criminal escape from such a huge establishment with such ease?” he said.

Zana Ahmed, a Halabja resident who lost his father in the attack, also questioned the story about the disappearance.

It “really hurts our morale because we understand clearly how apathetic our officials are toward us”, he said.

Some are also concerned that Majid, whom Arif called a “bank of information on the Halabja crime”, could be executed for his multiple other murder convictions before the trial ends.

Halabja residents watched with bittersweet emotions as top Ba’ath regime officials were convicted – and, as in the case of former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, executed - over the past several years for other atrocities against Iraqi civilians.

"We believe that executing Ali Hasan Majid [before the end of the Halabja trial] will complicate our case,” Abdul-Qadir said. “By executing such criminals, great secrets are buried with them, and many companies that were involved will be spared prosecution."

Iraqi law mandates that executions be carried out within 30 days of the president signing off on a sentencing, but so far the courts have ignored the provision, enabling trials to continue.

Prosecutors and survivors said they hope the truth about the attack will emerge from the trial, which is expected to continue for several more weeks. And they said they hope western countries are watching.

“The area’s environment remains unhealthy and unsuitable for living,” Halabja resident Zana Ahmed said. “The effects of the chemical bombardment will be there for years.”

Rebaz Mahmoud is an IWPR-trained journalist in Sulaimainiyah. Khabat Nawzad is an IWPR trainee in Halabja.
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