|Filed October 20, 2002 By Jeremy Scahill
|ABU GHRAIB, IRAQ—It was a scene
that sounds unthinkable and Iraq is still in a state of stunned
jubilation. Thousands of people jammed the streets in front of one
of Iraq's most notorious prisons today just moments after Iraqi
President Saddam Hussein announced a "complete, comprehensive and
final amnesty" for all prisoners, including those accused of political
crimes and crimes against the state.
Earlier in the day word spread through Baghdad that the Iraqi president
was going to address the nation with what several people said was
"good news." Shortly after noon, regular programming on all of Iraq's
television stations was interrupted by an announcement by Iraq's
Information Minister Mohammed Sahaf.
"Prisoners, detainees will be set free immediately," Sahaf said
in a statement attributed to the Iraqi President. He said the amnesty
applied to "anyone imprisoned or arrested for political or any other
In another decree, the amnesty was extended to Arab prisoners, excluding
those held or sentenced on charges of spying for Israel and the United
|Outside the prison gates, thousands of
people danced and sang, mainly songs of praise to Saddam Hussein.
Many people had looks of total disbelief on their faces, clearly
shocked at the scene. Photo by Nathan Mauger.
Sahaf said the amnesty was intended as a gift to the Iraqi people
for their support of Saddam in last week's referendum, in which the
president claimed a 100-percent 'yes' vote.
"It's a unanimity that others are incapable of believing and
it is the greatest truth of this age from this great, honest, warm
people," the statement said. "The referendum honored us before the
Throughout Baghdad, cars stopped in traffic as horns blared throughout
the main streets of the Iraqi capital. The highway soon filled with
caravans of cars heading west toward Abu Ghraib.
Outside the prison gates, thousands of people danced and sang, mainly
songs of praise to Saddam Hussein. Many people had looks of total
disbelief on their faces, clearly shocked at the scene. Cars stopped
in the middle of the highway in front of the prison, as many simply
abandoned their vehicles to join the crowd. Eventually the mob swelled
to such a size that the prison guards had to open the main gate. Floods
of people began scattering throughout the massive complex, scaling
walls and climbing poles to make their way inside the cells. Mothers
and wives frantically wandered around looking for their imprisoned
In almost any other country, this scene would have undoubtedly erupted
into a riot. No one here we spoke with could ever remember a time
when such a massive group of people was permitted to run freely as
part of anything other than a pro-government rally. And at times that
is exactly what the scene looked like. Deafening chants of "Our blood,
our souls, we'll give for you Saddam" rang out throughout the compound.
Some of the newly released prisoners cut their own forearms with knives
as they chanted.
|"It's a happy bright new day," one of
the released prisoners told IraqJournal. Photo by Nathan Mauger.
In one wing of the prison, the crowd massively outnumbered the guards
and began running through wings of the prison that had not yet been
opened. Gun shots rang out and guards began beating people with large
sticks. The crowd began to scatter, but ultimately shouts of "salaam"
calmed the situation. It was an incredible scene: Prisoners kissing
their onetime jailers, dancing in joy in a place that for most of
the men represented pure misery.
Inside the emptied prison, huge dormitories contained the abandoned
belongings of the newly liberated men. Potato sacks and filthy blankets
laid out in straight lines, with metal bowls, shoes, photographs of
loved ones. Guards smiled as they repeated "Finished, finished, finished."
|Inside the emptied prison, huge dormitories
contained the abandoned belongings of the newly liberated men.
Photo by Nathan Mauger.
One of the most shocking events of the day (and this is saying a lot),
did not happen at Abu Ghraib. It happened in Washington. US Secretary
of State Colin Powell, interviewed Sunday on ABC's "This Week," said
the amnesty was a political ploy by Saddam.
"This is typical of this man's use of human beings for these
political purposes of his,'' Powell said. "This is the kind of manipulation
he uses to try to paint himself as something other than what he is,
a brutal dictator."
It almost sounded as if Powell was suggesting that the men should
have remained in "Saddam's prisons." Standing in the midst of the
prison compound, watching thousands of men pour out of the cells it
was impossible to imagine such a scene taking place in the US.
At Abu Ghraib, people didn't seem too concerned with "political purposes."
Throughout the prison compound, mothers hugged their sons. Fathers
carried their children. Tears were shed, songs were sung. One prisoner
had to be restrained by his brothers after learning that his mother
had died while he was in jail. Three hours after the prison gates
burst open, a massive column of prisoners stretched for what seemed
like a mile. Many men carried huge plastic sacks on their backs, others
dragged large metal chests. Others seemed to have abandoned everything
and walked quickly toward the exit. Every one of them with a look
of tired astonishment on their faces.
"It's a happy bright new day," one of the released prisoners
told IraqJournal. "I want to say thank you to our President Saddam
Hussein for his gift and presenting a new life for a new people, opening
a new page in the new future. I'm very, very happy because I am going
home to my people, to my family, my friends-to my beautiful wife and
|One of the released prisoners told IraqJournal.
"I'm very, very happy because I am going home to my people,
to my family, my friends-to my beautiful wife and babies." Photo
by Nathan Mauger.
As the day wound down, a camouflage Iraqi Army helicopter descended
on the prison. Rumor spread that Saddam was actually on board. Not
likely. But that wouldn't have been necessary. The disbelief was already
Scahill is an independent journalist, who reports for the nationally
syndicated Radio and TV show Democracy Now! He is currently based
in Baghdad, Iraq, where he and filmmaker Jacquie
Soohen are coordinating Iraqjournal.org,
the only website providing regular independent reporting from the
ground in Baghdad.
Back to the Index.