The Accuser

One woman has spent decades documenting crimes against humanity in Iraq. Now Saddam and his circle are facing justice
Related Material
Excerpts from Amnesty International reports detailing torture by Saddam's regime, along with links to material on the Web about human-rights abuses in Iraq.

The trials of the former leaders of Iraq will begin this spring. They will take place in the intact chambers of a bombed-out building at the center of Baghdad. The court that will hold them is an Iraqi national court but an American invention. It is called the Iraqi Special Tribunal. It has no function beyond these trials. It is staffed by Iraqi judges and prosecutors who after thirty-five years of totalitarian rule have no experience with the evolved legal concepts and procedures that they will be asked to use here. In the background stands a team of American government lawyers whose own experience in such matters is thin. If the purpose of these trials is to promote courtroom justice as an alternative to the Arab tradition of vengeance, the best one can hope for is that the tribunal will be able to learn on the job. The first of the trials should be the simplest, at least. It will be of Ali Hassan al-Majid, the man known as Chemical Ali, who is Saddam Hussein's cousin, and was a trusted agent of the regime. The evidence against him is clear. He organized the systematic extermination of the Kurds in Iraq's north, then turned south and oversaw the rape of Kuwait. Subsequently he oversaw the suppression of an Iraqi uprising by directing overwhelming military force against civilian populations in flagrant violation of the laws of war. Like Saddam Hussein, he will be prosecuted for genocide, among other crimes. Almost certainly he will be convicted and sentenced to die.

In practice if not by intent, this will be the end product of a decades-long campaign by international human-rights activists to document the atrocities of the Baathist regime, and to hold the leaders responsible. As it happens, the same activists have now turned against the special tribunal, because they believe that as constituted, as a national court, it cannot deliver justice. They also abhor capital punishment, which the tribunal is set up to impose. So be it. The activists are sticking to their principles, as they must. They are idealists, no doubt. But they are also hardened realists—not to be confused with the volunteers one sees distributing pamphlets on the streets of Europe and the United States, or blindly advocating peace. The veterans of the Iraq campaign are powerful players, cagey and brave, and effective on dangerous terrain. They are used to maneuver and compromise, and to war. Little wonder, therefore, that despite their opposition to the trials in their current form, they remain engaged in the process, still trying to shape it, in the chaos of Iraq.

Of those veterans there is one who by common agreement can stand for all the rest. She is Hania Mufti, a Jordanian by birth and upbringing but a longtime Londoner, and recently a resident of Iraq. Mufti is forty-seven. She is a tall, gaunt woman, with dark blue eyes, cropped hair, and usually a cigarette in hand. Her experience in life has made her spare, reserved, and judgmental. As such she is no apologist for the occupying Americans. Indeed, much of her time now is spent looking into abuses by U.S. forces and the Iraqi government they installed. But for twenty years she has been the most persistent investigator of the former regime's crimes. It is because of her efforts—along with those of a few people like her, a small circle of her friends—that the war makers of Great Britain and the United States were able to cite human-rights violations as a justification for their invasion, and that Saddam Hussein and his lieutenants will now be brought to trial. Mufti is an unusually private person, who shuns public attention and exerts her influence increasingly through backroom discussion as well as through published reports. But whether she desires this credit or not, there is no escaping the fact that behind the headlines about crimes and justice stands the mass of work that she and her associates have done.

At a late point in that work, in the fall of 2002, Hania Mufti rode in a hired car through the mountains of Iran toward the border with Iraq. This was half a year before the American invasion. As a woman traveling in Iran, Mufti was relegated to the car's back seat, swathed in heavy clothes, and forced to wear a scarf. The smothering annoyed her, but she did not complain. Personal discomfort and the oppression of women seemed minor compared with what lay ahead in Iraq: a nightmare filled with the most brutal political horrors, including severe torture and indiscriminate human slaughter. After a long career with Amnesty International, Mufti was now working for Human Rights Watch, a powerful New York—based organization, where she held the grand title London Director of the Middle East and North African Division. Effectively this meant Iraq. In the early 1990s Human Rights Watch had collected the crucial documents and testimony pertaining to Ali Hassan al-Majid's extermination campaign, and after sober legal consideration had been the first to define it as genocide and to call for international prosecution, in absentia if necessary. The organization lobbied governments in Europe and the United States to secure sponsorship for a trial. For practical as well as political reasons, that idea never took hold, and after a while Human Rights Watch turned to other matters. Iraq, however, was not a subject that could be abandoned for long—nor could the idea that it was justice, and not merely regime change, that had to be accomplished there. When the organization decided, in 2000, to try to turn up the heat, Hania Mufti was the natural person to enlist.

With Mufti in the car now, two years later, was another experienced Human Rights Watch employee, a fresh-faced Belgian-American named Peter Bouckaert, age thirty-two, who served as the organization's "senior emergencies researcher" and made his living by traveling to trouble spots around the globe, usually alone. Mufti and Bouckaert had never worked together before. Because entry into central Iraq at that time would have been pointless and quite likely fatal, their destination was Kurdistan, the mountainous enclave in the northern part of the country, where Ali Hassan al-Majid had unleashed his terrors. With assistance from the West, Kurdistan had fought its way clear of the central government's control in 1991, and had functioned as a Kurdish proto-state ever since, providing a haven within Iraq where human-rights investigators could gather evidence. Mufti knew it well. She and Bouckaert planned to spend three weeks there, where they would interview recent refugees about the latest horrors to the south, including extra-judicial killings, widespread torture, and the continuing expulsion of non-Arabs from the oil fields of Kirkuk. Frankly, such behavior was ordinary governmental fare in Iraq, and might not in itself have justified the expense and effort of the trip. But there was more in the air by that fall, because the carefully gathered record of Iraqi atrocities was being used by American and British leaders not to build a case for justice but to provide an emotional foundation for the claim that Saddam Hussein would use the weapons of mass destruction he was said to possess. Suddenly it was war that appeared ahead.

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William Langewiesche

"Enclosed are Two Pieces on Algeria." With those words, typed on plain white bond, William Langewiesche introduced himself to the editors of The Atlantic Monthly. Although neither piece quite stood on its own, the editors were drawn to the unusual grace and power of Langewiesche's writing and sent him on assignment to North Africa for a more ambitious piece of reporting. The result was the November 1991, cover story, "The World in Its Extreme"—his first article to appear in a general-interest magazine. (He had, however, written frequently for aviation magazines; he is a professional pilot and first sat at the controls of an airplane at the age of five.) Since that article, from which his book Sahara Unveiled: A Journey Across the Desert (1996) grew, Langewiesche has reported on a diversity of subjects and published four more books.

A large part of Mr. Langewiesche's reporting experience centers around the Middle East and the Islamic world. He has traveled widely throughout the Middle East and Northern Africa, reporting on such topics as the implementation of the shari'a in Sudan under Hassan al-Tarabi, North Africa's Islamic culture, and the American occupation of Iraq. Other recent assignments have taken him to Egypt, the Balkans, India, and Central and South America. In 2004 he won a National Magazine Award for excellence in reporting.

In 2002 his book American Ground: Unbuilding The World Trade Center was published. It is based on a series of three cover stories he wrote for The Atlantic as the only American reporter granted full access to the World Trade Center clean-up effort. His latest book, The Outlaw Sea: A World of Freedom, Chaos, and Crime, was published in May 2004.

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