Revealed: The women who suffered Saddam’s tyranny

The women’s faces are all veiled. They are mostly young. They are all Iraqi Shia Muslims. And their terrible fate – their vicious torture and deliberately cruel executions – should place their deaths on the list of barbarities for which Saddam Hussein could be tried, although almost all were put to death when the United States was supporting Saddam’s regime.

For only now has a newly formed “Documentation Centre for the Female Martyrs of the Islamic Movement” at last produced the chronicle of these women’s suffering. It is not for the faint-hearted.

Wives were forced to watch their husbands hanged before being placed in the electric chair, were burned with acid, tied naked to ceiling fans, sexually abused. In several cases, women were poisoned or used as guinea pigs for chemical substances at a plant near Samarra believed to be making chemical weapons.

Their names – along with the names of their torturers and executioners – are at last known. One man, Abu Widad, once boasted that he had hanged 70 female prisoners in one night at the Abu Ghraib jail outside Baghdad. In many cases, women were put to death for the crime of being the sisters or wives of a wanted man. Most were associated with the forbidden al-Dawa party, whose members were routinely tortured and killed by the Baathist government.

A typical entry in Imprisoned Memories: Red Pages from a Forgotten History – compiled by Ali al-Iraq in the Iranian city of Qum – reads as follows: “Samira Awdah al-Mansouri (Um Iman), born 1951, Basra, teacher at Haritha Intermediate School … married to the martyr Abdul Ameer, a cadre of the Islamic movement military wing … member of Islamic Dawa party … Torturers: Major Mehdi al-Dulaymi who tortured while drunk, Lieutenant Hussain al-Tikriti, who specialised in breaking the rib cages of his victims by stamping on them … Lieutenant Ibrahim al-Lamee who beat victims on their feet … Um Iman was beaten … hung by her hair from a ceiling fan and and suffered torture by electricity. Having spent two months in the prison cells in Basra without giving way, al-Dulaymi recommended she be executed for carrying unlicensed arms and belonging to the al-Dawa party.”

In fact, Um Iman was transferred to the Public Security Division in Baghdad, where further torture took place over 11 months. She subsequently appeared before the Revolutionary Military Security Court, which sentenced her to death by hanging. She spent another six months in the Rashid prison west of Baghdad, until – when she might have hoped that her life would be spared – she was, on a Sunday evening, transferred to Abu Graib and executed by Abu Widad.

There are frequent accounts of women and children tortured in front of their husbands and fathers. In 1982, for instance, a Lieutenant Kareem in Basra reportedly brought the wife of an insurgent to the prison, stripped and tortured her in front of her husband, then threatened to kill their infant child. When both refused to talk, the security man “threw the baby against the wall and killed him”.

Ahlam al-Ayashi was arrested in 1982 at the age of 20 because she was married to Imad al-Kirawee, a senior Dawa member. When he refused to give information to the security police, two torturers – named in the report as Fadil Hamidi al-Zarakani and Faysal al-Hilali – attacked Ahlam in front of the prisoner and his child, torturing her to death. Three of Ahlam’s five brothers were executed along with her husband, and another brother was killed in the insurrection that followed the liberation of Kuwait in 1991. But her child Ala, who witnessed her mother’s torture, was taken to Iran, where she married and is now about to enter university.

Awatif Nour al-Hamadani, 21, was betrayed by her own husband, who – under extreme torture – named his wife and several colleagues as gun-runners.

Awatif was pregnant but was set upon by a man called Major Amer who beat her with a metal chair and then sexually abused her. At her trial, Judge Mussalam al-Jabouri suggested that “a miniature gallows should be found for her baby daughter because she had sucked on her mother’s hate-filled milk”. Awatif was taken to be executed for the first time with two female colleagues and forced to watch the hanging of 150 men, 10 at a time; as their corpses were taken away, she recognised one of them as her husband. She was then returned to her cell. She was later executed in an electric chair.

Maysoon al-Assadi was an 18-year-old university student when she was arrested for membership of a banned Islamic organisation. During her interrogation, she was hanged by her hair and beaten on the soles of her feet and then sentenced to hang by Judge Awad Mohamed Amin al-Bandar. Her last wish – to say goodbye to her fiance – was granted, and the two married in the prison. But while saying goodbye to other prisoners, she made speeches condemning the leadership of the Iraqi regime, and the prison governor decided that she should be put to death slowly. She was strapped into the jail’s electric chair and took two hours to die.

Salwa al-Bahrani, the mother of a small boy, had been caught distributing weapons to Islamic fighters in 1980.

She was allegedly administered poisoned yoghurt during interrogation by a doctor, Fahid al-Dannouk, who experimented in poisons that could be used against Iranian troops. Salwa died at home 45 days after being forced to eat the yoghurt.

The 550-page report is no literary work. Some of its prose is florid and occasionally appears to describe women’s martyrdom as a fate to be emulated. Nor is this a work which will make easy reading for Americans anxious to use it as evidence against Saddam. The book repeatedly states that the chemicals used on women prisoners were originally purchased from Western countries. But the detail is compelling – the names and fates of at least 50 women are recorded, along with the names of their torturers – and the activities of the “Monster of Abu Ghraib”, Abu Widad, have been confirmed by the few prisoners who survived the jail. He carried out executions between 8pm and 4am and would hit condemned men and women on the back of the head with a hatchet if they praised a murdered imam before they were hanged. In the end, 41-year-old Abu Widad was caught after accepting a bribe to put a reprieved prisoner to death instead of the condemned man. He was hanged on his own gallows in 1985.
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Correspondent for the Independent, Robert Fisk is resident in the Middle East and comments on events unfolding there