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Monday, 21 October, 2002, 10:39 GMT 11:39 UK
Analysis: Scepticism over Iraqi amnesty
Iraqi death row prisoner watches release of fellow inmates from Abu Ghreib jail
Iraqi prison regimes are some of harshest on earth
Martin Asser by-line picture

The announcement of a general amnesty by Saddam Hussein - and the extraordinary scenes of liberation outside some of Iraq's forbidding penal institutions - are being greeted with scepticism outside Iraq.

Critics say it is hard to believe, looking at Iraq's appalling human rights record, that the climate of fear and repression has suddenly come to an end thanks to President Saddam's new-found magnanimity.

Detention without trial, torture and summary execution have been the principal means that have kept the Iraqi regime in power for more than two decades, according to human rights groups.

Released prisoner hugs relatives
Many inmates emerged with shouts of praise for Saddam
Amnesty International (AI) reports paint a grim picture of life for those living in Iraq who defy the regime, or who merely arouse the suspicions of the ubiquitous secret police.

In December 2000, for example, AI reported that a woman was beheaded in front of her neighbours and Baath Party officials in al-Karrada after her husband - a suspected Islamist insurgent - fled the country.

The security men took away the body and the head in a plastic bag, along with her mother-in-law and children, whose fate remains unknown.

In March 2001, two men reportedly had their tongues cut out in a public square in Diwaniya City, near Baghdad, for allegedly slandering the president.

The dispensers of this harsh treatment are usually members of the Saddam fedayeen, a militia formed in 1994 by Saddam Hussein's son Uday.

Opponents eradicated

Having documented so much brutality in Iraq over the years, AI is not surprisingly taking a "wait-and-see" approach to Sunday's general amnesty, which is intended to thank the Iraqi people for giving the Iraqi leader 100% support in last week's presidential referendum.

"We would welcome the release of political prisoners anywhere in the world," says Amnesty's Said Boumedouha. "But in this situation we don't have enough details to make a full assessment."

Hands of death row inmates at Abu Ghreib jail
There is no distinction between political prisoners and criminals
Mr Boumedouha told the BBC's Newshour programme that the crucial issue was whether the releases included tens of thousands of political prisoners arrested in the 1980s and early 1990s who have never been heard from since.

"No one knows how many political prisoners are held in Iraq, but over the years there must be thousands and thousands of people... from a wide range of political persuasions," he says.

Regime change of heart?

People who have been targeted for arrest include members of the Islamist Da'wa party, Kurdish groups, Shia groups, the Iraqi Communist Party and members of the armed forces suspected of having links with Iraqi opposition movements in exile.

Apart from the thousands of "disappeared" - AI says scores of Iraqi prisoners are executed every year from crimes ranging from plotting to overthrow the state to homosexuality, incest or procuring prostitutes.

Such cases are often dealt with without formal trial, AI says, and sometimes for political reasons.

Iraqi political prisoner Ayatollah Mohammad Taba Tabai leaves Baghdad's Abu Ghreib jail
Will the likes of Ayatollah Tabai remain at liberty?
The group also reports scores of arrests each year of people suspected of anti-government activities, or simply because they are related to people wanted by the authorities.

The climate of fear which these measures create, say Saddam Hussein's critics, will have gone a long way to securing the improbable 100% victory (with an even more improbable 100% turnout) which he won in the presidential referendum on Tuesday.


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