As the story unfolds in Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison, I find myself recalling Mohammad Salah, a Palestinian born in Jerusalem in 1953 who immigrated to the United States in 1971—and soon decided that America was the land of his dreams. If a man worked hard, he and his family could keep the money they earned. And there seemed to be no limit to what he and his wife, Mariam, and their three sons and daughter could do.
I first wrote about Salah’s harrowing story in December 1999, and in the five years that have elapsed since then things have not gone much better for him. Nevertheless, he still has an incurable sense of optimism. When I brought up the torture of prisoners in Iraq, Salah’s account of what had happened to him in Israel was an almost word-for-word description of the experience of Iraqi prisioners. He also added a few details that he and I had agreed were too horrific for print in 1999.
For example, Salah said, overhead cameras were always on. When he refused to undress, his Israelis jailers handcuffed his feet and hands and undressed him themselves. Sleeping pills were given to women prisoners, who were then raped, Salah said. “If they didn’t cooperate,” he added, “they were warned of future acts.”
While Salah was in prison, he said, some 14 women were raped—and their rapes filmed. Some prison personnel sold photographs of the rapes to make money on the side, and neighbors of the rape victims were forced to watch the tapes. The women were called collaborators after the films were shown. Such humiliating acts were commonplace, according to Salah.
His experience as a prisoner began in 1993—after he had become a U.S. citizen—when he decided to go back to Palestine and help his less fortunate relatives. As he was making his travel plans, members of his Chicago Muslim community asked him to help Palestinians in need, and sent $200,000 in bank transfers with him to be used as needed in the West Bank and Gaza.
Salah distributed more than $60,000 in Ramallah through Palestinian physicians who told him of needy people. Then he travelled through Israel to Gaza, where he left another $30,000 with doctors he had met in a hospital there. He planned to return to Ramallah the next morning.
Israeli security agents stormed his room in Gaza, however, and seized the $110,000 Salah had not yet distributed, his clothes and his passport. They handcuffed him and threw him on the floor of a jeep for the three- or four-hour drive to Ramallah.
In Ramallah they took him to the headquarters of Shabak, Israel’s internal security police. There, for the first time, he was accused of being a member of Hamas.
Salah was stripped naked and told that if he did not provide the names of all of the “Hamas” contacts to whom he had been giving money, he would be sexually assaulted. After he was left naked and alone for a time to think about this, his interrogators returned. When he told them he would rather die than implicate innocent people just to avoid torture, Israel’s by now well-documented physical and psychological torture began—and continued for nearly five years.
The first 48 hours of what Israeli law calls “moderate physical pressure” began when a vile-smelling hood was put over Salah’s head. Then, with his arms handcuffed behind him, he was forced into a child-sized chair, the shabah, with shorter legs in front than in back. To add to his discomfort, the handcuffs were passed through the rungs on the chair, leaving one arm pinioned behind his back and the other tied over the back of the chair. As he sat there for hour after hour, blindfolded, barely able to breathe, and unable to shift from his painful position, interrogators came and went, sometimes hitting him as they asked him questions, other times casually striking or kicking him whenever they passed his chair.
After two days on the tiny, sloping chair, Salah’s Israeli guards began to alternate the excruciatingly painful hours in the shabah with periods in a brightly lighted cell. Salah’s every move was recorded on a video camera, and loud music was played to keep him from sleeping. When Salah did fall asleep, he would be awakened and taken back to an interrogation cell for more time on the shabah, hooded and subjected to endless interrogation, punctuated by blows when he didn’t answer.
Salah’s interrogators told him they had arrested everyone with whom he had come in contact in Ramallah and Gaza and let him know that they were preparing, in Hebrew, what they first called a “routine report,” based upon his answers to interrogators, as well the testimony of those whom he had contacted. Later they described the document, which had expanded to 15 pages, as a “confession,” which he would have to sign to end his torture.
Salah refused. Eventually, because he had no idea what they were writing down, he stopped saying anything at all, no matter how hard or how often they struck him.
It was winter, and bitterly cold, in the prison, but Salah’s jailers took away the blankets in his cell. Sometimes they allowed him to sleep, uncovered, on a thin mattress, and other times forced him to lie on the cold floor. He was not able to wash for the first two months of his imprisonment.
On his 16th day in custody Salah was allowed to meet with a woman lawyer his brother had hired after reading about Salah’s arrest in the Israeli press. Salah asked her to tell the American Embassy he wanted to see an English-language translation of the “confession” the Israelis were preparing.
Members of Salah’s family were not allowed to visit him for the first four months he was in prison, although he did receive weekly visits from his lawyer and occasional visits from U.S. officials.
The first U.S. consular official “interrogated me more than he seemed to want to help,” Salah recalled. “When I said I would go on a hunger strike if my conditions did not improve, he said, ‘Don’t do it.’”
Otherwise, however, U.S. officials reiterated that “all we can do is protest” the life-threatening torture to which he continuously was being subjected.
They seemed so detached and unsympathetic, Salah said, that he gradually came to believe “the Embassy was sympathizing with the Israelis, so I became even more afraid. I felt I was being set up.”
Nor did conditions improve.
During his lengthy interrogations, Salah was not allowed to use a bathroom, and was kept tied up. The blows that accompanied the interrogators’ questions increasingly were directed at his face, leading him to believe that if he continued to remain silent, his jailers eventually would kill him.
The cruelest of his interrogators, Salah recalled, was Haim, an American-born Israeli whose family still lives in the United States. In the “good cop, bad cop” game, Haim was the bad cop. The good cop was a French Jew, who warned Salah that if he didn’t cooperate, “they plan to keep you here for life.”
Salah looked forward to his lawyer’s weekly visits. After she left, however, the guards would challenge him, saying “what can she do for you?” They laughed at his protests that he was an American citizen.
“Who cares?” they said. “We’re not afraid of the CIA. And if they ever get you out of here, we’ll kill you after you get home.”
One of his jailers even pretended to be from Chicago, Salah said, and “confided” that “the ones who told us about you are your friends in Chicago.”
After 18 days, Salah had his first court appearance, during which his lawyer asked for a continuance of his case. It was then he learned he had been formally accused of working with Hamas. At Salah’s insistence, a U.S. Embassy representative was present, but they were not allowed to speak to each other.
Salah asked for a personal appointment with the Israeli judge, who agreed, but failed to keep the appointment.
Ironically, after Israeli authorities told Salah they had “three or four secret files on me,” presumably based on fabricated reports by Palestinian collaborators, a U.S. Embassy representative assured him he could not be convicted on secret evidence. This hope was dashed at his next court hearing, however, when the judge warned the Shabak officials that, in the absence of any open evidence, he “would let the prisoner off with a sentence of only 12 years in prison.”
In desperation, Salah hired a new Israeli lawyer, Avigdor Feldman, who was highly recommended by Palestinians and Americans. This infuriated his Shabak interrogators. “You have the No. 1 lawyer,” they told him, “but we’ll see that you get life in prison.”
And, indeed, Salah’s interrogators then produced a whole new list of allegations. They also suggested that the only way he ever would get out of jail would be to agree to collaborate with them after he returned to the United States. They offered him 1.5 million Israeli shekels (U.S. $1 million ) to do so.
Finally attorney Feldman advised him, “Don’t dream of justice; the right decision is to plea bargain.” In this way, Feldman explained, instead of a minimum sentence of 12 years, his sentence would be reduced to five years, with credit for the time he already had been in custody. Salah agreed and began serving the sentence—but that did not bring an end to the uncertainties.
Salah recalls vividly now that at one point during his sentence an Israeli police captain warned him that he was “from the FBI” and that if Salah didn’t cooperate after his return to the U.S., “we will seize your house.” At the time, Salah laughed at him, saying “this couldn’t happen.”
But that is exactly what has happened.
Upon his release after 58 months in Israeli jails, Salah twice was taken to Ben-Gurion airport under Israeli custody—but was not accepted by the pilots of the airlines upon which he had booked passage. Finally, a TWA captain, after first asking to meet Salah, agreed to accept him. He passed through immigration in New York on Nov. 9, 1997, without incident and thinking his troubles were behind him.
On Dec. 5, 1997, however, Salah was served a subpoena in Chicago saying that the FBI had placed a lien on his house. It was then that he remembered the explicit threat he had received while in Israeli custody. His bank account was seized as well, and he was forbidden from working.
Since his assets have been seized, Salah has no further personal funds to defend himself in court. However, Chicago Muslims, who have raised funds and mounted protest demonstrations on his behalf, found a lawyer to represent him on the assumption that the fees will be paid by the U.S. government if it loses the case.
In the meantime, Salah has had some jobs. Each time, however, he has lost them when his history was brought up. He taught at a city college, and worked at Cisco Computer Network. He has tried to work on his own, but was not successful. Although he has a work permit, time after time he has been accused of working illegally.
Although Salah has written about some of his experiences, he finds it painful to recall them. The fact that many are being duplicated now in Iraq makes it particularly painful for him to keep abreast of the news.
Some Israelis still find ways to hurt him—although it is not clear why this maliciousness continues. One problem is that so-called “terrorism expert” Steven Emerson at least twice has brought up in his writings and on talk shows Israel’s charges against and imprisonment of Salah. Of course, the money raised by the Chicago Muslim community and seized by the Israelis probably never will be repaid. But it is not clear why the U.S. government has frozen his personal bank account and never returned the funds to him.
Salah’s eldest son is now 17. All of his children go to local schools and are doing very well. It is that that keeps him cheerful and optimistic despite his present circumstances. Whether this nightmare will ever end and the family can go back to living a normal life still—after more than a decade remains to be seen.
Richard H. Curtiss is executive editor of the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs.
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