Seeking justice for murdered Margaret Hassan

Margaret Hassan’s family refuse to give up their quest to find her killers, writes Caroline O’Doherty

THE eight years since Margaret Hassan’s death in Iraq have been as frustrating as they have painful for her family in their efforts to secure justice for their sister.

There are more than a dozen suspects for Margaret’s kidnapping and murder, and four people have stood trial so far but no-one is serving time for the crimes. Interpol alert warrants have been issued for these people.

Three men were charged in connection with her death following raids by US and Iraqi security forces in 2005 during which Margaret’s handbag and personal effects were found in the home of Mustafa Salman al-Jabouri.

At their trial the following year, al-Jabouri’s two co-accused were acquitted but he was convicted and sentenced to life in prison. However that sentence was dramatically reduced on appeal and he was freed in 2008.

Margaret’s family were deeply upset at the turn of events but their experience of dealing with the Iraqi justice system was about to get more dispiriting.

In 2007, a series of phone calls and emails had been received by the British embassy in Iraq seeking $1m for revealing where Margaret was buried.

In 2008, Ali Lutfi Jasser al-Rawi, also known as Abu Rasha, was arrested and charged with making the demands and his trial the following year heard he had confessed to involvement in Margaret’s death.

He was sentenced to life in prison, but on the stand he had claimed the confessions were extracted from him under torture and after his conviction he lodged an appeal. That appeal was due to take place in July 2010 but although he was meant to be in custody, al-Rawi did not turn up and it emerged he had left prison months before.

The Iraqi government said he had been aided in his escape by guards but no-one has been prosecuted for facilitating him.

Margaret’s family were devastated. Al-Rawi had given convincing statements containing private details about Margaret. They believed he really did know where she was buried and that more priority should have been given to getting that information from him rather than simply prosecuting him.

Al-Rawi and al-Jabouri’s whereabouts are unknown but during his time in custody, al-Jabouri implicated a Moslem cleric, Sheikh Hussein al-Zubayi, a member of insurgent group the 1920 Revolution Brigade, who is also suspected of several other kidnappings.

He too had vanished, so it was with renewed hope that Margaret’s family discovered last September that his wife, Khaldoon Siddeeq, believed also to be a sister of al-Rawi and to have been the translator for the kidnap gang, was in custody in Egypt.

She had been stopped trying to leave Egypt, apparently for Kurdistan, and while officials were checking if this was in violation of the conditions under which she had residency in Egypt, it emerged she was wanted for questioning about other crimes in Iraq.

Margaret’s family felt it was a long-awaited breakthrough — a chance to get a hold on the kidnap gang again and reinvigorate the investigation. They informed the British Foreign Office but, to a now familiar sense of dismay, they learned last month that Siddeeq had been released before being questioned about Margaret’s kidnapping.

To add to the frustration, they also found out that at the time of her arrest Siddeeq was actually accompanied by her husband, Sheikh Hussein al-Zubayi, but he was not detained.

That the family had been able to tip-off the Foreign Office at all is thanks to an Iraqi lawyer and a British law firm, which approached them some years back offering their servicespro bono.

Margaret’s sister Geraldine Riney wishes she could put his name in lights but she can’t. “He puts his life in danger for us. I cannot tell you the work he has done for us.”

She also has high praise for the Irish government under Bertie Ahern for the swift efforts made at attempting to secure Margaret’s release and the practical behind-the-scenes help provided over the following years.

Margaret, born Margaret Fitzsimons, only spent the first four years of her life in Ireland before her Dublin father and Kerry mother relocated to London, but she carried an Irish passport and the government at the time of her kidnapping repeatedly stressed her Irishness in the hope of softening the kidnappers’ stance.

The Siddeeq situation was the first time the family had reason to call on the current Government — asking for pressure to be put on the Egyptian authorities to locate and re-arrest her — and Geraldine says they have once again been heartened by the response.

“Ireland hasn’t had an embassy in Baghdad for years [it was closed shortly before the first Gulf War] but there was always an official somewhere made available to help us.

“A letter from Geraldine Riney means nothing. A letter from a minister means everything.”

The relationship with British governments and the Foreign Office by contrast has often been frustrating and the family have been openly critical of the handling of Margaret’s case on numerous occasions.

But Britain is a bigger player in the region than Ireland and the family continue to hope that its influence there will eventually produce a breakthrough.

Geraldine had hoped that American weight would be thrown at the case but she has been disappointed. When the US still had a military presence in Iraq, she wrote to every American senator who voted against the Iraq war. “I tried all the ones with Irish names.”

The search for Margaret’s grave has been less than thorough, Geraldine believes. “We have a couple of locations identified but they have not given them the time they should have.

“The British brought some Iraqi forensic scientists to Bournemouth for training at great expense [Bournemouth University has a department specialising in forensic anthropology and archaeology] but so far they are still working on graves to do with the Kuwait war 20 years ago, retrieving Margaret’s remains is currently not a priority.”

Nevertheless, Geraldine and her three surviving siblings refuse to give up hope of giving Margaret a Christian burial, according to her beliefs, for their own peace and for that of her heartbroken husband, Tahseen Hassan, who was forced to leave Iraq and his extended family there, because of threats.

“I believe we will find her and bring those responsible to justice. Getting justice for Margaret is the only acceptable outcome as far as I am concerned.”

© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved

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