Sat, Sep 11, 2004 - Page 6 News List

Al-Sadr's religious court dispensed barbaric justice

DISAPPEARANCES Although the radical cleric's aides claimed that they brought law to a lawless society, survivors cite brutality, and many others remain missing

AP , NAJAF, IRAQ

The last time Hadi saw his brother, his hands were tied behind his back and blood was running down his swollen face.

They were both prisoners at a religious court operated by the office of rebel Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, accused of helping foreign troops. Hadi, who asked that only his first name be used because he fears retribution, was released after six days. Five months later, his brother is still missing.

"Enough!" Hadi heard his brother, Abdul Salam, plead with his captors. "By Hussein, don't hit me anymore," he said, invoking the name of a revered Shiite saint. The jailers didn't stop, Hadi said.

A symbol of the power al-Sadr's followers once wielded here, the court stopped functioning when the cleric's militia returned control of Najaf's Old City to Iraqi police late last month. Many residents who were too scared to talk about the court in the past are now sharing horror stories of its work.

To al-Sadr's aides, the court and others they ran elsewhere under its auspices were an attempt to apply their interpretation of Islamic justice to a lawless society, but they say all have been shut down. To many people in Najaf, the court was the arm that the militia used to terrorize people who opposed it.

Many outsiders heard about the Najaf court for the first time when television stations beamed images of at least 13 bodies that police said were found after many of al-Sadr's militiamen left last month.

Najaf's police chief, Ghalib al-Jazaari, said on Wednesday only two of the dead were identified before burial and they were policemen, one of whom had his eyes gouged out. The other bodies included a woman and a child, and many showed signs of torture, he said.

In Iran, a senior cleric, Sheik Hassan Hosseini, said on Sunday that al-Sadr's image had been blackened in part by the religious court.

"The excesses that Muqtada al-Sadr and his group carried out in Najaf, and the catastrophe of the religious court, provoked the anger of Muslims and Shiite leaders," said Hosseini, a lecturer at Iran's Qom Seminary.

Hadi said he was taken by militiamen who mistook him for his brother, who catered food for Iraqi government forces undergoing training. His brother was detained later.

Hadi said he was taken to the basement and beaten by five men with electrical cables and iron rods. "You are an agent of the Americans," he said they yelled. "You give the Americans alcohol."

He said he fell to the ground, blood gushing from his head as the beating continued. "Kill me and save me from this," he told the men.

Eventually, Hadi said, he was carried to a tiny room and locked inside. He lay on the floor in pain for six days. He said he heard cries of pain from other prisoners.

On the seventh day, Hadi said, he was led to a room where a turbaned cleric sat cross-legged on the floor. The judge told Hadi, whose face was bruised and robe stained with blood, that no beatings took place in the court and that he should be grateful he was alive. He was then driven to his house and warned to keep quiet.

Many like Hadi don't know the fate of loves ones.

A man interrupted a recent news conference by Najaf's governor and US officials talking about rebuilding the violence-ravaged city.

"What about the fate of those missing, such as my son?" demanded the man, Fadhil Hijab, his hands shaking. He said militiamen snatched his son, a police officer, from home four months ago and took him to the religious court.

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