An Iraqi Get-Out-of-Jail-Free Day
Bent on solidifying his base of support, Saddam Hussein grants amnesty to tens of thousands of political prisoners and common criminals.
By Michael Slackman, Times Staff Writer
ABU GHRAIB PRISON, Iraq -- President Saddam Hussein opened the doors of his nation's prisons Sunday, freeing tens of thousands of murderers and draft dodgers, political prisoners and petty thieves in a dramatic act of national reconciliation.
The sweeping amnesty was extended to offenders who fled the country, including political opposition figures in London and military deserters living in the region of northern Iraq outside Baghdad's control. Spies for the United States and the "Zionist entity," Israel, would remain behind bars, officials said.
The president's announcement at midday came as a shock to the inmates crowded into facilities all over the country, including political detainees such as Faiq Abdul Rahman, a 44-year-old Kurd who had been in prison for 13 years on a charge of espionage.
"I was so desperate that I had prepared to spend the rest of my life in prison," Abdul Rahman said a few hours after his release. He had expected to serve every last day of a 20-year sentence — until he flipped on a television set Sunday and heard the news.
"I was not expecting to be free. I am shocked," he said. "I got outside and I could not even walk."
Abdul Rahman had been held in Abu Ghraib, the nation's largest and most notorious prison, a place where human rights groups say there have been regular summary executions — and for the living, deplorable conditions.
On Sunday, the prison about 20 miles from Baghdad became the scene of a chaotic party, a near-riot, in fact, as thousands of family members rushed to see their loved ones walk free. Some people fired automatic weapons in celebration. Others sang songs, banged drums or just stood hunched over, sobbing in disbelief and joy.
Guards tried to keep the growing crowd behind wrought-iron gates and concrete walls, but they could not withstand the numbers. Soon there were people scaling the walls, pulling themselves over barbed wire, standing on the guard towers.
Inside, they found a sprawling campus of dirt, cells and murals of Hussein. An overwhelming stench came from the area where political prisoners were held, probably from sewage and garbage.
As the crowds rushed in, prisoners tried to push their way out, some dragging along metal boxes, their bedrolls and other meager possessions. Occasionally, someone would stop, there would be a moment of recognition, then hugging and crying.
Thayer Muhawish, 26, was sentenced to 135 years in prison for a robbery. He served one year and was headed home Sunday to see his daughter for the first time.
"Our president would not let me die like this," he said as he stared almost blankly at the massive crowd around him.
Malik Aboud, 35, was bound for home after serving half of an eight-year sentence for forging government payroll documents.
"Our president is very generous," he said.
That may be, but Hussein also appears to be looking out for himself. At home, the president is as powerful as he has been since crushing rebellions after the Persian Gulf War in 1991. But he is also well aware of his government's vulnerabilities, among them the restive Kurds living in the north and the Shiite Muslims in the south who rebelled against the nation's Sunni leadership a decade ago.
Amid fears that the United States will exploit those fissures and try to topple his government, Hussein has been looking to solidify his base of support. He has given weapons, money and supplies to tribes, met with religious leaders, doubled food rations for the public — and now emptied the nation's prisons.
"There is a threat of war," said A.K. Hashimi, a presidential advisor. "It's a good idea to give every Iraqi the chance to decide for himself if he wants to fight."
There was no way to know precisely how many prisoners walked free Sunday, or whether Iraqis who have fled the country would accept their pardons and come home. In the past, some returnees have been executed.
But it is telling about this nation — and how it views its own laws — that its leader could win widespread support by opening up its prisons. Many people praised Hussein for designing the decree to be comprehensive and apply to political prisoners and young draft evaders as well as common criminals.
Officially, the government said that murderers would be released only if "the families of the victims would forgive them." But one of the first men to leave the compound here said he had killed a man and been sentenced to life behind bars.
"We expect President Saddam Hussein will do good things for us," he said. "He will stand against Americans and the Zionists."
Some pockets of society questioned the wisdom of the prisoner release. Wamidh Nadhmi, a professor of political science at Baghdad University, said he had hoped for a broader endorsement of democracy and freedom of speech and for an overture to the rebel Kurds in the north. Such gestures would strengthen the regime, Nadhmi said.
But "the official line is this is not the time to talk about democracy," he added. "Democracy is desired among Iraqis. But this is supposed to be a time of steel-like unity, a time for the leader to lead the country."
Foreign convicts, including Jordanians and Kuwaitis, were expected to be released today. Iraq says it does not hold any Kuwaiti POWs from 1991 — a contention Kuwait disputes.
The amnesty extended to "all Arabs, without exception, except those that committed espionage for the Zionist entity and America," said Abdul Hussein Shendal Esa, one of Iraq's top judges, who came here Sunday to witness the release.
The amnesty was announced five days after a referendum on Hussein's presidency, which officials said garnered the support of 100% of Iraqi voters. A similar referendum in 1995 was also followed by an amnesty decree.
But this is the first amnesty to cover political prisoners like Abdul Rahman. He said Sunday that prison life was not too terrible. He even managed to start a small business, grilling meat kebabs for other inmates. Eventually, he was able to rent his stand to a fellow convict and save enough money to buy a remote-controlled television.
On Sunday, he had just started eating a piece of grilled chicken when he heard the news on the television and "the food was stuck in my throat because I was happy. This is impossible. I couldn't even imagine or dream about it."
An hour and a half later, he said, the person in charge of the political prisoners shouted: "Come on! All the doors, all the gates are open!"