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Profile: Huda al-Azzawi

Huda al-Azzawi was a participant or observer in the following events:

Huda al-Azzawi, said to be Iraq’s richest woman after Saddam Hussein’s wife Sajida, and owner of the Ishtar Mercedes import company, becomes a victim of blackmail. An informant working for the US military demands that she gives him 10,000 dollar or else he will report to the Americans that she and her family are working for the Iraqi resistance. She does not give in. That month the blackmailer follows up with his threat. US soldiers interrogate Al-Azzawi’s brother, Ali, and her older sister, Nahla. The informant also leads a number of raids with US soldiers on her family’s properties. (Harding 9/20/2004; Hennion 10/12/2004)

On December 22 (Hennion 10/12/2004) or 23 (Harding 9/20/2004) , Ayad, one of Huda al-Azzawi’s brothers is arrested by US troops, apparently as a result of her ignoring an Iraqi who is trying to blackmail her (see November 2003). In an effort to get Al-Azzawi out, she goes to the US base in Adhamiya, one of Saddam Hussein’s former palaces, where Ayad is presumably being held. (Hennion 10/12/2004) “A US captain,” she recalls, “told me to come back with my two other brothers. He said we could talk after that.” She did what she was told and returned, on Christmas Eve, together with her brothers Ali and Mu’taz. After waiting four hours, an American captain begins interrogating her. (Harding 9/20/2004) “An officer listened to me politely for ten minutes. Then we were interrupted by a soldier who brought in a document. The officer read it. One second later, I wasn’t ‘Mrs.’ anymore, but ‘terrorist.’” (Hennion 10/12/2004) The captain says she is under arrest. (Harding 9/20/2004) Her brothers, as well as her sister, Nahla, are detained. But she is not aware of this at this time. (Hennion 10/12/2004) “They handcuffed me and blindfolded me and put a piece of white cloth over my eyes. They bundled me into a Humvee and took me to a place inside the palace. I was dumped in a room with a single wooden chair. It was extremely cold. After five hours they brought my sister in. I couldn’t see anything but I could recognize her from her crying.” That whole night US guards keep her sitting on the chair. (Harding 9/20/2004)

The day after her arrest, Huda al-Azzawi is taken from her cell to another room, which other detainees call “the torturing place,” she says. “The US officer told us: ‘If you don’t confess we will torture you. So you have to confess.’ My hands were handcuffed. They took off my boots and stood me in the mud with my face against the wall. I could hear women and men shouting and weeping. I recognized one of the cries as my brother Mu’taz. I wanted to see what was going on so I tried to move the cloth from my eyes. When I did, I fainted.” She allegedly sees her brother being sexually assaulted. After that she is questioned. “The informant and an American officer were both in the room. The informant started talking. He said, ‘You are the lady who funds your brothers to attack the Americans.’ I speak some English so I replied: ‘He is a liar.’ The American officer then hit me on both cheeks. I fell to the ground.” (Harding 9/20/2004) For the next 12 hours, US guards make her stand with her face against the wall. Approaching midnight she and her sister are returned to a cell. “The cell had no ceiling. It was raining,” she later tells the Guardian. The Americans have another surprise in store for her. “At midnight they threw something at my sister’s feet.” (Harding 9/20/2004) Both women are blindfolded. “I heard a muffled noise and my sister’s screams,” Al-Azzawi says. “The naked body of a man had been thrown across her. She was panicking. She then realized that the body didn’t move. With my hands cuffed in front of me, I was able to lift a corner of my blindfold. The naked man was Ayad, my brother, and his face was covered in blood.” (Hennion 10/12/2004) Ayad, she remembers, “was bleeding from his legs, knees, and forehead. I told my sister: ‘Find out if he’s still breathing.’ She said: ‘No. Nothing.’ I started crying.” (Harding 9/20/2004) Nahla “spent the night with Ayad’s corpse on her knees.” (Hennion 10/12/2004) “The next day they took away his body.” (Harding 9/20/2004) A death certificate is later issued by the US military. It cites the cause of death as “cardiac arrest of unknown etiology [cause].” (Hennion 10/12/2004)

After her brother’s dead body has been taken away, Huda al-Azzawi and 18 other Iraqi detainees at the US base in Adhamiya are put inside a minibus. “The Americans told us: ‘Nobody is going to sleep tonight.’ They played scary music continuously with loud voices. As soon as someone fell asleep they started beating on the door. It was Christmas. They kept us there for three days. Many of the US soldiers were drunk.” (Harding 9/20/2004) During the coming days, she is subjected to severe physical violence when a US guard either breaks (Harding 9/20/2004) or dislocates her shoulder. It leads to her being examined by a doctor. “Paradoxically, that was the best thing that happened to me. The doctor was furious with the guard and demanded that they cuff my hands in front of me, instead of behind my back, a less painful position.” For a week she is kicked or hit with rifle butts in her breasts and her stomach. She is forced to squat or stand up for hours. She is denied sufficient food and sleep, and is forced to listen to “terrifying” music. (Hennion 10/12/2004)

Huda al-Azzawi and her siblings are detained at Abu Ghraib. Numbered 156283, she is to spend a total of 197 days in the prison, (Hennion 10/12/2004) of which 156 days will be in solitary confinement at the Hard Site in one of the upstairs cells. (Harding 9/20/2004) She will be interrogated thirty times. (Hennion 10/12/2004) Her cell at the Hard Site measures two square meters, and initially it has no bed and just a bucket for a loo. For the first three weeks she is forbidden to talk. Guards give her a Koran. With a stolen pen, she records her experiences in its margins. In the first weeks at Abu Ghraib, Al-Azzawi witnesses many instances of torture. “The guards used wild dogs. I saw one of the guards allow his dog to bite a 14-year-old boy on the leg. The boy’s name was Adil. Other guards frequently beat the men. I could see the blood running from their noses. They would also take them for compulsory cold showers even though it was January and February. From the very beginning, it was mental and psychological war.” (Harding 9/20/2004) Possibly the worst she sees, are incidents of rape. “I saw men that had water bottles forced up their butt by soldiers.” To the question whether women also ran the risk of rape, she says, “the women were relatively sheltered.” But it may also be more difficult to learn of women being raped. “You won’t find a single one who will testify to having been raped. A rape, for a man, is the supreme humiliation, but for a woman, it is a death sentence by her own family.” (Hennion 10/12/2004)

“There was never enough food and one day,” Huda al-Azzawi, detained at Abu Ghraib (see January 4, 2004), recalls, “I came across an old woman who had collapsed from hunger. The Americans were always eating lots of hot food. I found some in a packet in a bin and gave it to her. They caught me and threw me in a one-meter-square punishment cell. They then poured cold water on me for four hours.” (Harding 9/20/2004)

News of the commotion surrounding the Abu Ghraib scandal apparently does not reach prisoners at the Hard Site. Huda al-Azzawi says she heard about the scandal only after her release in July 2004. “Retrospectively, I realize that after the scandal broke, our situation improved,” she later recalls. (Hennion 10/12/2004) She is now allowed to exercise in the yard outside for 10 minutes a day. She is given a bed, and assigned a new female guard, “Mrs. Palmer,” who tries to learn Arabic. Later, as hundreds of detainees are released, Al-Azzawi and her sister are moved from their cells to a tent. Three US generals will come to interview her in an apparent investigation of the death of her brother Ayad (see December 24, 2003). But according to her, no apology is offered. (Harding 9/20/2004)

MPs evacuate all the prisoners from the Hard Site at Abu Ghraib, except Huda al-Azzawi and a small number of other women in the upstairs cells. The guard assigned to her, “Mrs. Palmer,” tells them, according to Al-Azzawi, that during the inspection prisoners must lie quietly on their beds. They are promised with more time outside of their cells if they behave well. (Harding 9/20/2004)

For the first time, Maj. Gen. Geoffrey D. Miller leads a group of journalists around the Abu Ghraib prison. When prisoner Huda al-Azzawi sees Miller with the group of reporters, she shouts out: “We are not the killers. You are the killers. This is our country. You have invaded it.” (Harding 9/20/2004) Journalists notice five women screaming and waving their arms through the iron bars. One of them, possibly Al-Azzawi, shouts in Arabic: “I’ve been here five months. I don’t belong to the resistance. I have children at home.” (CBS News 5/5/2004) The women had been instructed the day before to keep quiet (see May 4, 2004). Al-Azzawi recalls: “After that they didn’t let me out of my cell for an entire month. A US officer came to me and said: ‘Because of you we have all been punished.’” (Harding 9/20/2004) Elsewhere at Abu Ghraib, prisoners run out shouting as the bus with journalists drives by. A man with one leg waves his prosthetic leg in the air, shouting in Arabic: “Why? Why? Nobody has told me why I am here.” (CBS News 5/5/2004)

Huda al-Azzawi is the last female detainee to be released from the Hard Site at Abu Ghraib. She is flown by a helicopter to Al Taji, a US military base north of Baghdad.“After eight months in prison they suddenly treated me like a queen,” she later recalls. “It was weird. They offered me some Pepsi. I could take a shower. There was air conditioning. There were four female soldiers to look after me. The doctor came to see me four times in 24 hours. They made me sign a piece of paper promising not to leave the country. And then I was free.” (Harding 9/20/2004) Her release is reportedly due to intervention by Sheik Hicham al-Duleimi. During her stay in prison, her husband had filed for divorce. After her release, she became the Sheik’s nineteenth wife. “I would have liked,” she said looking back, “at the moment I was leaving my cell, to have had a profound thought or to have pronounced a meaningful sentence. I was the last woman in the prison! But my head was empty. Bizarrely, the only words that came to my mind were English: ‘Bye-bye.’ But, I believe I have still not completely left Abu Ghraib.” (Hennion 10/12/2004) Asked what she thinks of Americans now, after the terrible ordeal of her and her family, she answers, “I hate them.” (Harding 9/20/2004)


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