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Last Updated: Saturday, 19 March 2005, 14:12 GMT
Iraqi 'justice' by television
By Jim Muir
BBC News, Baghdad

An Iraqi confesses on TV to attacking US forces
'Self-confessed' insurgents are portrayed as morally bankrupt
Looking cowed and frightened, a young man, identified by his full name and sitting directly in front of the camera, is being bullied and browbeaten by an interrogator who remains out of the picture.

"By what authority did you do these things?"

"Sir, they led us astray with their fatwas and offering us money."

"Do you realise that everything you did is perfidy?"

"Yes, sir."

"This Mullah Mahdi who gave you fatwas is a dog. He is scum. I'll get him within 72 hours and put him on TV, God willing."

"God willing, sir."

Ibrahim confesses to involvement in a series of attacks, and abducting and killing Iraqi policemen, national guards and others.

He says he was paid $100 (52) per operation by his commander, or emir, who, he says, is homosexual.

Foreign unease

It is all part of the battle to quell the insurgency in Iraq, with the interim Iraqi authorities making use of all their weapons, including propaganda.

Every night the government-run al-Iraqiya television station carries lengthy confessions, under interrogation, from people like Ibrahim, who it says are captured insurgents.

The broadcasts have stirred a lot of interest among the Iraqi people, but unease among foreign observers who see it as an echo of the ousted Baathist regime's discredited practices.

We have to understand where they're coming from... and the understandable urge by people here to see retribution
Simon Haselock
British media adviser

The televised confessions, on a programme called "Terror in the Hands of Justice", are shown at prime time every night, and are clearly aimed at shocking the Iraqi public.

They portray the insurgents as bloodthirsty, venal, morally deviant, and religiously bankrupt.

The broadcasts also include interviews with some of the Iraqi victims of the insurgency.

"They fired at the door seven times," sobs one man. "Then they shot my little daughter in the hand."

Obvious bruises

For many ordinary Iraqis, accustomed for three decades to the ways of the old regime, such televised confessions - a local form of reality TV - are normal, and they find them compulsive viewing. Few seem to doubt their authenticity.

But the practice of parading prisoners making confessions obtained in questionable circumstances is way out of line with international standards of justice.

An Iraqi child watches Terror in the Hands of Justice
The programme has attracted wide interest in Iraq

Some of the men being interrogated have obvious facial bruises.

Simon Haselock, a media development adviser seconded by the British Foreign Office to the Iraqi authorities, has for the past 18 months been helping them set up their broadcasting systems.

"We have to understand where they're coming from here," he told the BBC.

"And of course to draw the right balance between the independent, professional public approach that we would be familiar with, and the understandable urge by people here to see retribution for things that have been done to them."

"I think this is something that's going to take some time to put right. It's all very well for us casting a frowning eye at it, but I think it's very understandable at this stage, and we have to be careful about how we approach it."

Human rights advocates may not be happy about it. But such practices are deeply rooted in Iraqi culture and tradition - and a very effective propaganda tool for the authorities in their battle with the insurgents.

TV weapon

International human rights groups have also drawn attention to what they say is brutal treatment and torture meted out to detainees held by the interim Iraqi authorities.

"This is a serious human rights issue that the international community will want to address with the new Iraqi government," said a senior Western diplomat.

"Part of our job is to encourage the Iraqis to reach the international standards to which we all aspire, but it will obviously be a lengthy process."

While the insurgents are unable to respond in kind, not having access to television stations, they are making widespread use of internet websites to propagate their own message.

Islamist websites, which frequently change their addresses, publish claims of responsibility for attacks carried out in Iraq and elsewhere, and calls for recruits to join the cause of jihad - holy war against the infidels.


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