Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein's regime has often attacked its domestic opponents by punishing family members with detention and physical abuse. Now, it has found another channel for threatening challengers. In recent months, Baghdad has begun forcing exiled opposition members' families to appear on Iraqi satellite television to beg their relatives not to endanger them.
Prague, 24 April 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The phone call that Faiq Sheikh Ali, an exiled writer in London, received from Iraq early this year should have been a happy one.
On the line was one of his close relatives telling him to watch Iraqi satellite TV because family members would be appearing on it soon. That would give him a rare chance to see and hear his loved ones, whom he has not met in person for more than 10 years.
But if the message sounded appealing, the tone of the caller's voice -- flat and emotionless -- assured Ali that seeing his family on TV would be anything but pleasant.
Ali described the call in a recent interview with Radio Free Iraq correspondent Sami Shoresh:
"I have two brothers with me in London. The Iraqi security forces arrested my family [in Iraq] and spoke with them about my situation. They told my family members: 'Contact your sons in London and tell them that you will appear on Iraqi satellite television on such-and-such a day.'"
When Ali watched the Iraqi satellite channel at the appointed time, he saw his mother, two sisters and a brother nervously take turns denouncing him in a video made in their house in Najaf, south of Baghdad.
His mother, dressed in the dark robes traditionally worn by women in the south, said, "Your father died because of your activity...you have to think about us."
His younger brother sat uncomfortably beside his mother. "I don't want to say 'hello' to my brother...I don't know him," he said.
At another point in the 25-minute ordeal, a younger sister also spoke up. "Please Faiq, you have to think that you have a sister in this country before you do anything," she begged.
Ali recalls his relatives also said that they no longer regard him as part of their family and that the government can kill him without any regrets or anger on their part.
The frightened family members then disappeared from the screen and the satellite channel resumed its usual programming, which mostly features idyllic portraits of Iraq under President Saddam Hussein.
The Ali family's brief moment on TV marked the third time Baghdad has used its satellite television channel to reach out and intimidate exiled opponents. In recent months, the families of the London and Damascus representatives of the largest armed opposition group operating in southern Iraq -- the Iran-based Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) -- have also been shown on the channel. Those families, too, called on their kinsmen to give up politics.
The television broadcasts are the latest twist in a long-standing Baghdad policy of pressuring political opponents by attacking their families.
In the past, the most common method has been to arrest and imprison the relatives of those the regime deems a threat. Thousands of families with sons or fathers active in Kurdish, Islamist, communist, or other opposition groups have been routinely put in prison for varying lengths of time -- with women and children jailed apart from men. The detentions can include beatings as well as other forms of abuse.
At times, the regime has also used rape of female relatives to intimidate opposition figures. In June last year, Najib al-Salihi, a former army general who fled Iraq in 1995 and joined the Iraqi opposition, received a videotape showing the rape of a close relative by intelligence agents.
Immediately afterward, the general received a call from the Iraqi intelligence service threatening to publicize the tape if he continued opposition activities. Instead of complying, Al-Salihi publicly denounced the regime for using rape as a political tactic. In doing so, he broke with the more usual custom of keeping silence over the rape of relatives because it is often seen as a shame to the family.
Britain's daily "Independent" newspaper reports that the video of the Ali family was taped in mid-January when a convoy of black Mercedes cars and Land Rovers suddenly appeared in front of the family home at 7 am. The visitors included a group of armed men -- some in black masks -- and two Iraqi TV crews. The paper, which does not divulge its source of information, reports that "whenever the interviewer was dissatisfied with [the family members'] replies, they were forced to repeat their words. The whole process took five hours."
Despite the threats to his family which were implicit in the events, Ali says that he refuses to be intimidated by the broadcast. He told Radio Free Iraq that he will continue to criticize the regime of Saddam Hussein for its human rights record.
"Saddam's regime thinks that after this crime against my family, I will give up the struggle and stay at home and give up any political and media activities against the regime. But that conception is wrong and unrealistic because I will continue my struggle."
Ali has written newspaper articles critical of Saddam Hussein and a book about assassinations by the Iraqi security services. He recently participated in a debate on the widely watched Arab satellite channel Al-Jazeera -- based in Qatar -- in which he said that the "first terrorist in the world is Saddam, not Osama bin Laden" -- a statement which may have prompted the action against his family.
Ali practiced law in Iraq until the failed Shiia uprising against the Iraqi leader in the south of the country following the 1991 Gulf war. After taking part in the rebellion he was forced to flee and has lived the past nine years in London. In 1996, his father was arrested four times and died soon after his last release. The "Independent" reports that his family suspects he was poisoned.