Death sentence brings justice to brutalized family
DUJAYL, Iraq – For a generation, the Mohammed family thirsted for justice but dared not imagine its taste.Sunday, the family began letting go of 24 years of pent-up anguish, if not of the harrowing memories of the torture and killings for which Saddam Hussein was convicted and sentenced to hang.”I never thought before that I would stand this way and show how Saddam was unfair and tyrannical to my family,” said Ali Hassan Mohammed, 38, who was a teenager in 1982 when his family was rounded up by Saddam’s uniformed men.”But,” he continued, “I was always reminded of the religious saying: ‘A day will come for the tyrant that is worse than how he was to the vulnerable.”‘Mohammed and a brother, Ahmad, were among more than 30 members of the extended family who were arrested after assassins tried but failed to kill Saddam in this town on July 8, 1982.Only many years later did the pair learn with certainty that their seven brothers had been killed by Saddam’s regime.The two men later testified at Saddam’s yearlong trial, which ended Sunday with a death sentence for the former leader and two other defendants in connection with the slayings of 148 people from Dujayl. One co-defendant received a life sentence, three got 15-year terms and a final defendant was acquitted.Ahmad, 39, who was 15 when he was arrested with his parents, brothers and three sisters, detailed in court a series of grisly tableaux. He told of seeing a field of half-covered bodies – his neighbors – and of peeking from a blindfold to see a grinding machine with hair and blood on it.”The death penalty is not enough to avenge on Saddam, but it is the most extreme punishment. It does not compensate the loved ones we lost,” he said by telephone after attending the sentencing hearing in Baghdad.In a nation where many people cheered the death sentence, shooting guns and honking horns in celebration, as at least partial payback for the deeds of a despot, perhaps no place had more reason than this Shiite farming town of 78,000 north of Baghdad.Soon after gunmen fired on Saddam’s convoy in 1982, the regime reacted with swiftness and brutality, according to the villagers. Helicopters swooped down, firing on homes. Bulldozers showed up to flatten the palm groves and apple orchards that helped sustain the town.Hundreds of residents were hauled from their homes during mass arrests that led to convictions and executions for many of them. Some detainees, including teenagers and pregnant women, died under interrogation; others, including surviving members of the Mohammed family, were later released.Ali Hassan was 14 at the time. He testified during the trial that he was subjected to electric shocks and saw battered family members dumped in a building with rotting bodies in a prison camp in southern Iraq. He remained in prison for years, but it would be two decades later, after the regime fell, that his brothers’ fate was known.Ahmad, who like Ali Hassan was released in 1986, expected his other brothers to be freed, but they never turned up. His hopes flickered when the regime fell after the U.S.-led invasion in 2003.”I cherished the thought that they would be alive somewhere,” he recalled Sunday. “After the ousting of the regime, I came to Baghdad and I was there at the opening of each prison to search for them.”He found only the government files containing their execution orders.”Afterward,” Ahmad said, “I decided to be the first witness against Saddam.”Unlike some witnesses who testified from behind a curtain, he appeared in the open, looking straight at the accused and even getting into a heated exchange with Saddam.In Dujayl, the Mohammed family gathered with family friends and supporters to watch the verdict on television.When the judge read Saddam’s death sentence, the house erupted: The women screamed with joy and relief; telephones began ringing almost instantly.The air of celebration grew as the family brought out soft drinks and slices of Iranian-style honey cake.Ali Hassan broke away from the commotion and the congratulatory phone calls and prayed. His was a prayer of thanks.Then he stepped outside and, overcome with emotion, fired gunshots into the sky.Times staff writer Ellingwood reported from Baghdad and special correspondent Dujayli from Dujayl. Staff writer Zeena Hamid in Baghdad contributed to this report.