RAFAT Abdulmajeed Muhammad is a slightly built man of 45 with a distant stare and a scarred body. He lives alone in Sulaimaniyah, northern Iraq, and owns nothing but the clothes he stands in. He spends his days trying to forget the past 14 years, which he spent in the darkness of Saddam Hussein’s most infamous political prison.
Mr Muhammad’s only crime was to sell a British journalist a roll of film, but his treatment bears ample testimony to the nature of Saddam’s regime.
Mr Muhammad was an Egyptian photography graduate who moved to Iraq in 1985 and opened a small photographic shop, Rafat’s Photography, in Baghdad. In August 1989 a foreigner visited his shop and bought a roll of film. Mr Muhammad gave him his business card and forgot about him.
The next month he encountered the man again, this time in very different circumstances. Mr Muhammad, who had been arrested the previous day and charged with espionage, was sitting blindfolded in a chair in Room 18 of the headquarters of the Iraqi secret police, the Mukhabarat.
“They pulled the blindfold up so that I could see the spy I was accused of aiding,” he said. “There, standing in silence, was the man to whom I had sold a roll of film. His name was Farzad Bazoft. The Mukhabarat had found my business card in his belongings.”
Mr Muhammad never saw Mr Bazoft again. The Iranian-born journalist, who was working for The Observer, was executed for spying the following March.
The Mukhabarat never extracted a verbal confession from Mr Muhammad during the four months he was held in a tiny cell in the headquarters. He said that he was interrogated by a Mukhabarat officer named Basim twice a day, each time being whipped with cables while suspended from the ceiling, his hands tied behind his back. He had his jaw, ribs and hands broken. Sometimes he was taken to the basement, strapped into an electric chair and given shock treatment.
“I had nothing to confess to,” he said. “They said I worked for Mossad (the Israeli intelligence agency) but my only mistake was that I sold Bazoft a roll of film.”
In January 1990, days before Mr Muhammad’s trial, the Mukhabarat inked his thumb and pressed it against a statement in lieu of a signature. He was charged under article 158 of Iraqi law and sentenced by a military court to life imprisonment. He was transferred to the notorious Abu Greeb penitentiary, west of Baghdad, where 7,000 political prisoners lived in constant fear of torture and execution.
He spent the next three years in solitary confinement. He was taken out of his cell twice a week for beatings. He said that in the prison basement were deep pits, each a metre wide. Up to ten prisoners deemed guilty of disciplinary offences would be dropped into these pits and kept there for a week at a time. “Many died in those pits,” he said.
Last summer Mr Muhammad had the top joint of the second finger of his left hand smashed off with an iron bar for insulting Saddam, an offence for which five years were added to his sentence.
Large-scale executions were a regular occurrence. The first that Mr Muhammad remembered was on March 27, 1991, during the uprisings in Iraq that followed the coalition victory in Kuwait.
“There was no rioting in the prison, just a feeling of unease,” he said. “Then that day hundreds of men from a special unit arrived. They took all the prisoners from their cells and made them parade in the yard facing the walls. It was the first time I had been in daylight since my imprisonment.When we all had our backs to them, standing in the sun, they opened fire on us. Over a hundred men lay dead and dying. The rest of us were made to stand up again and they kept us paraded there until 8pm, when we were returned to our cells.”
Mr Muhammad had some notable companions in Abu Greeb, and their identity sheds light on the broad interpretation of “political prisoner” in Iraq. In a neighbouring cell during his first year of solitary confinement was Hussain al-Shahristani, an internationally renowned Iraqi expert on neutron activity. He had been imprisoned for refusing to co-operate on Saddam’s nuclear programme.
“We used to whisper to each other through the doors of our cells when the guards were eating their supper,” Mr Muhammad said. “We even made a plan, through one of the men who gave us meals, to bribe the Mukhabarat and escape.”
He later found himself rubbing shoulders with seven Iraqi al- Qaeda inmates. “Their chief was Dr Mohammad,” he said. “He was an Iraqi from Mosul who had fought in Afghanistan and was a personal friend of Osama bin Laden. We became very close. I remember him praying specially for Osama when the Americans began to attack Afghanistan.” The seven al-Qaeda prisoners received special privileges. Dr Mohammad was allowed a bed and a private room in which to meet his wife and “special visitors”.
On October 20 last year, 400 prisoners were taken out before dawn and marched to a field inside the Abu Greeb complex, where they were shot.
“In a way it was good news for us,” Mr Muhammad said. “Though executions happened the whole time, usually mass killings preceeded an amnesty. It was a way the authorities had of culling the prison population. So that morning, after the shooting, we hoped some of us may be freed.”
An immediate amnesty announcement did indeed follow. Along with 2,000 other prisoners from Abu Greeb, many of them Kurds, Mr Muhammad was simply ejected from the gates that afternoon.
He had no money and no documentation. He had no idea where to go. He had no idea of the fate, or whereabouts, of his two brothers and two sisters in Egypt. In the end, some Kurds took him northwards and he crossed into Kurdish- controlled northern Iraq two days later. There local people put him up in a small, spartan hotel in the centre of Sulaimaniyah.
The local branch of the UN and the Red Cross appeared unwilling or unable to help him. “They were polite but firm,” he said. “They told me I was a released prisoner so was out of their jurisdiction.”
He sits alone in his bare room, waiting, and hoping that something will happen to change things.
“I am surprised to hear of all the anti-war demonstrations in the West,” he said. “I wish that the demonstrators could spend just 24 hours in the place I have come from and see the reality of Iraq.
“Fourteen lost years of my life. Nothing but bread for food — darkness, filth, beatings, torture, killings, bitterness and humiliation. I wish they could experience it for just 24 hours.”
Killed for 'spying'
In 1989 Farzad Bazoft, an Iranian-born freelance journalist, was working for The Observer. Having established close links with the Iraqi Embassy in London, Mr Bazoft was invited to cover a showpiece election in Kurdistan.
While he was in Iraq, news broke of an explosion at a secret missile plant to the south of Baghdad. Defying an official ban, Mr Bazoft went to the site disguised as a doctor. He was driven by his friend Daphne Parish, a British nurse. While there, he took photos and two soil samples, which he believed would show that the site was contaminated. When Mr Bazoft attempted to leave Iraq he was arrested by the secret police and put into solitary confinement for six weeks. When he emerged he was shown in a televised interview confessing to being an Israeli spy.
On March 10, 1990, Mr Bazoft was convicted of spying and sentenced to death. Ms Parish was jailed for 15 years but released after ten months. Despite appeals from Margaret Thatcher, the British Prime Minister, Mr Bazoft was hanged on March 15 on the orders of Saddam Hussein.