Olympic kidnap, cover up, and one woman’s lone battle
Colin Powell, Dr. Iman Sabeeh (NOCI) and Ahmed Al-Samarrai in Washington DC, 2004.
Photo: Michael Gross, reproduced under a CC license.
As the triumphalism and self-congratulatory lauding of the Olympics winds down (at least until the start of the Paralympics on 20 August), for one woman the event has been one of searing heartache.
Niran Al Samarrai is the wife of the former President of the National Olympic Committee of Iraq (NOCI), Ahmed Al Samarrai, who was kidnapped at a major conference at the Oil Cultural Centre in the centre of Baghdad on 15 July 2006.
Thirty-six of his colleagues were also taken, but after 10 days 12 of them were released, exhibiting signs of torture. The others, including Ahmed Al Samarrai, have disappeared without trace.
The Cultural Centre is situated in the fortified and well protected ‘Green Zone’ (now the ‘International Centre’) near to the Ministry of the Interior. In November 2005, US troops found more than 160 whipped, beaten and starved prisoners there – most of whom were Sunni.
The Ministry was alleged to have been under the direct control of the highly sectarian Shi’a Prime Minister, Nuri Al Maliki, under whom Shi’a death squads were rampant and multiplying.
On the day of the kidnapping, Ahmed Al Samarrai had just finished addressing 500 members of the NOCI, alleging a plot against the Committee and naming names, when more than 60 gunmen in police uniforms stormed the meeting, having shot dead security men who tried to stop them. The area was ‘besieged’ by police vehicles, says Niran Al Samarrai.
The Committee members, and others, were forcibly ‘arrested’ by the armed ‘police’ and bundled into a ‘fleet of police cars’ seen driving away in the direction of the Shi’a enclave of Al Sadr city.
Incredibly, in September 2006, Iraq’s Minister of Youth and Sport, Jassim Mohammed Jaafer, in an interview with Arabic newspaper Al-Riyadhi Al-Jadeed (5 September 2006, Issue 420), stated that the abductors were from within the sports fraternity and he understood their grievances, indicating that the government was aware of who was responsible.
It is noteworthy that Ahmed Al Samarrai, who in 2004 had been the target of an ambush attempt in Athens, had ‘done his utmost to persuade the Minister or his advisors to attend the conference’. They had refused.
It must also be noted that the election of Ahmed Al Samarrai and his colleagues to the NOCI was organized with help from the International Olympic Committee (IOC), the Ministry of Youth and Sport and other parliamentarians, in the presence of numerous monitors, IOC members, members of the Coalition Provisional Authority and the media (both international and local).
Since the abductions, Niran Al Samarrai has fought a relentless battle for answers. In spite of the fact that she is a British citizen and her husband had defected from Iraq and lived in Britain from 1983 – until returning to Iraq after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein’s government – even chairing London’s Swiss Cottage Islamic Association, and with a degree from the British Military Academy, she has been met with a wall of silence and obfuscation.
In 2008, Niran Al Samarrai met with the President of the IOC, Jacques Rogge, who promised all assistance. Nothing has happened.
With Rogge in London for the Olympics and Paralympics, she has again appealed to him for help.
In an open letter, she writes:
‘In our meeting with you in 2008, you assured us that the IOC will do its utmost to pressurize the Iraqi government to tell us the fate of our men, but instead the IOC stood by the Iraqi government who announced your support prior to the Beijing Games. The Beijing Games then passed without any word at all from your side regarding the savage crime which attacked the NOCI, and the lack of investigation by the Iraqi authorities.’
She continues to say that she believes the ‘Olympic Family’ should be doing more to investigate the kidnap of someone who worked so hard for the Games.
‘As you know, we believe the government itself was responsible for that crime and then kept its silence and failed to conduct any proper investigation. Indeed, they didn’t bother even to meet those few who were released within 10 days of the abduction. We had asked you to meet them in order to see the torture marks on their bodies, but sadly we received no response from your side.’
She says Rogge should use the Olympic Games, just finished in London, to help her as a British citizen, especially given her husband was on duty for the ‘Olympic Family’ when he was abducted.
‘I believe the recently established NOCI, which replaced Ahmed and his colleagues, should also bear responsibility for ignoring the crime and not demanding any investigations. They are also responsible for holding [back] the salaries of the kidnapped, which left their families starving, although I believe they are entitled to receive salaries until the Beijing Games and the proper election of a new NOCI in 2009.
‘15 July 2012 was the sixth anniversary of the kidnapping. We are counting on your help, Sir, in the spirit of the Olympic values and out of humanitarian concern, to help all the families of those abducted to reach closure after six awful years of suffering. The London Games is a chance for any person with conscience to raise their voice and use their influence to bring about a resolution to this crime.’
Niran Al Samarrai has written a book about what happened to her husband and his colleagues called A Homeland Kidnapped, which has been published in Arabic and English. She is hoping that this will prompt action from those who she feels could have done more.
Help us keep this site free for all
New Internationalist is a lifeline for activists, campaigners and readers who value independent journalism. Please support us with a small recurring donation so we can keep it free to read online.