Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, who ordered a general amnesty for prisoners over the weekend, is calling on exiled Iraqis to return home, saying they have no grounds to fear persecution. But the invitation is being greeted with skepticism by many Iraqis abroad, who see it as just the latest effort by Baghdad to muster world opinion against any U.S.-led attack.
Prague, 22 October 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Saddam Hussein's amnesty for prisoners on 20 October potentially includes those convicted of all crimes, be they felons or people jailed on suspicion of opposing the Iraqi regime.
It also extends to people who have fled the country, including political opposition figures in London and soldiers who have escaped from the military to take refuge in areas of northern Iraq outside Baghdad's control.
The only exception to the amnesty was for those people who Baghdad says are in prison for spying for the United States or Israel. The status of murderers is unclear, with many reportedly released but Baghdad saying officially they would be freed only if forgiven by their victims' families.
The amnesty has created scenes of joy in Iraq, as tens of thousands of prisoners were welcomed to freedom by their relatives on 20 October. But it is being met with skepticism among Iraqis outside the country, who question whether they really would be free to return without facing official punishment.
To learn more about what the amnesty means for Iraqis living in exile, RFE/RL Iraqi Service correspondent Ahmad Al-Rikaby called Iraq's diplomatic office in London for details. He spoke with a diplomat who identified himself only by a first name, Salam, but who said he would answer all questions.
Al-Rikaby said he worked for Radio Free Iraq, funded by the U.S. Congress, but that he is not a member of any Iraqi opposition group. He asked if under the amnesty he would be free to return to Baghdad.
The official assured our correspondent: "There is no problem. You can return to Iraq with dignity." Our correspondent asked, "Even if I don't agree with the policies of the regime?" The official replied: "Well, this is about democracy, and that is a different issue. Does Saudi Arabia, for example, accept dissent? We are also an Arab country. Can anyone criticize [President Hosni] Mubarak in Egypt or say that he is wrong?"
Our correspondent pointed out that there are, in fact, opposition parties in Egypt. But the official answered that "the opposition there is state-approved. We in Iraq also once had a Democratic Front [which included communists and some Arab nationalist parties under the leadership of the ruling Ba'th Party in the early 1970s]. But it was only state-approved. Can anyone even breathe freely in Arab countries? Why [do you expect] only Iraq [to be an exception]?"
In the course of the conversation, Al-Rikaby also asked the official why one should trust the new amnesty when previous presidential amnesties have been violated. One example of a violated amnesty concerned two of Saddam Hussein's sons-in-law, Hussein Kamal Al Majid and Saddam Kamal Al Majid, who defected to Jordan in August 1995 with secrets about Iraq's chemical-weapons program. Six months later, they received an official pardon from the Iraqi president and returned to Baghdad. But shortly after returning, they were killed in their homes by what Baghdad called angry relatives. The Iraqi opposition has reported they were killed on Hussein's orders.
The official replied that the deaths of Hussein's sons-in-law did not violate the amnesty they received. "No, [Hussein Kamal] was not executed. The state pardoned him. But his family killed him because he was a traitor. So it has nothing to do with the government. The government usually executes and hangs people in prisons. Hussein Kamal was not executed in prison. His family went to his home and killed him there," the official said.
As Iraq claimed to have opened all its jails this weekend, it remains unclear how many of those who were freed are political prisoners. The London-based human rights group Amnesty International called on Iraq yesterday to provide the names of released political prisoners and to clarify the fate of thousands of other people who have disappeared in Iraq since the 1980s.
Ghassan Al-Attiyah, a former Iraqi diplomat and the editor of the London-based publication "Iraqi File," called the amnesty the largest in the history of Hussein's regime. But he said many political prisoners may yet remain behind bars. It is unclear how many of Iraq's hundreds of jails were opened because Baghdad has provided no list, and Western journalists witnessed events at just one, the sprawling Abu Ghraib prison west of Baghdad. "It is the largest [amnesty], from a practical point of view, yes, the largest [ever]. Actually, a lot of people have been let out, but the question is that there are hundreds of prisons. And then there are those who are apprehended without a jail sentence being passed on them. And then there are those whom Baghdad never declared as prisoners at all and who are simply vanished people, and some of them are in prison," Al-Attiyah said.
Speculation as to why Hussein declared the amnesty varies.
Baghdad has described the move as a gesture of gratitude by Hussein to the Iraqi people for endorsing him as president in a referendum last week that, by official count, gave him 100 percent of the vote.
But some observers say the primary motivation may have been to counter U.S. charges that Hussein's regime is so repressive that it deserves to be overthrown, not only to destroy Iraqi weapons-of-mass-destruction programs but also to liberate the Iraqi people. U.S. President George W. Bush in a speech two weeks ago called Hussein a "dictator," a "student of Stalin," and a man who uses "murder as a tool of terror."
Al-Attiyah said the Iraqi regime "would like to genuinely give the impression that: 'We are changing. We would like to open a new page.' It is a ploy."
He said Hussein "is trying to give those elements who are against a change of regime in Iraq more weapons, more arguments, not necessarily supporting Saddam but at least to oppose an American attempt to change the regime by force."
Both Baghdad and Washington are waging a war for global public opinion over the possibility of U.S.-led military action against Iraq.
That battle continued this week with Bush, who is seeking United Nations approval for a new resolution putting tough disarmament demands on Baghdad, appearing yesterday to soften his stance on overthrowing Hussein. He said that if Baghdad complies with all UN resolutions, that in itself would be a change in the regime.