Starved of Justice in Iraq: American Prisoner on Hunger Strike

Above: Shawki Ahmed Omar — US military photo made available to family for legal purposes. Other photos by Aisha Maniar.

Shawki Omar went on hunger strike on February 4, 2013, just days before prisoners at Guantánamo Bay started a similar protest. Both hunger strikes are still ongoing more than five months later.

Shawki Ahmed Omar is a 52 year old American citizen born in Kuwait to Palestinian-Jordanian parents.

In the ten years since the war in Iraq began, in March 2003, the ramifications have been enormous for many people, particularly ordinary Iraqis and their families, for whom the consequences of the invasion and occupation continue to pervade their day-to-day lives.

Narmeen Al Rubaye

For Narmeen Saleh Al Rubaye, the nightmare began in October 2004. One evening, during a family party in Baghdad, US soldiers surrounded a relative’s house, broke down the front door, entering by force to remove her and her husband. They were both beaten, her husband with weapons and on his head, before they were taken away in a military van to the Camp Nama detention facility near Baghdad Airport.

Shawki Omar’s daughter has never met her dad

Shawki Omar’s daughter has never met her dad

In response to the occupation the year before, an insurgency had arisen, followed by the US military counter-insurgency. At the time, it was not uncommon at all for US soldiers to storm private homes and public places, kill alleged insurgents on the spot and arrest others.

Mrs. Al Rubaye reports that she and her husband were held in dark rooms and subject to forms of torture also reported by other victims, and British and American soldiers, including electric shocks, having their heads plunged into cold water and being subjected to extremes of hot and cold. She was four months pregnant; informing her torturers of that, they intensified their attacks on her.

She was released after 16 days. Following further harassment, she managed to leave Iraq in 2006, and currently lives in the United Kingdom, where I met her. As a result of her torture, her daughter was born with cerebral palsy. A bright and charming little girl, she has difficulty in her speech and movement. Now aged eight, she has never met her father. Her father has yet to be released.

Shawki Omar

In Camp Nama, the couple was held incommunicado and without their family knowing of their whereabouts. Camp Nama “was the first stop for many insurgents on their way to the Abu Ghraib prison a few miles away”; her husband was also later held at Camp Bucca and Camp Cropper, and subject to the various forms of torture these prisons were notorious for.  He is alleged to have been subject to waterboarding.Shawki-Ahmed-Omar

His story is similar to those of thousands of other prisoners of the multinational coalition force in Iraq (MNF-I) who were subjected to humiliating torture, anddetention without charge. Where the similarities end is that Shawki Ahmed Omar, 52, is an American-Jordanian dual national. He is one of only five American citizens held in Iraqi jails. Born in Kuwait to Palestinian parents, he is a naturalized American who has lived in the US since the 1970s, and was once a member of the Minnesota National Guard.

He claims he moved to Iraq to look for work in the reconstruction industry, whereas theUS military accused him of being an associate of Abu Musab Al Zarqawi, the alleged leader of Al Qaeda and the insurgency in Iraq, and of “harboring foreign fighters intent on engaging in jihad.” One of the “foreign fighters” he is alleged to have recruited, upon release and return to his native Jordan, signed a court-certified statement retracting statements he had made in Iraq about Omar’s actions and associates, declaring he had been forced to make them through torture by American troops.

In spite of the accusations, the US never charged him. Instead, it sought to have his case transferred to the Iraqi courts for hearing. In a successful motion to suspend his transfer filed before the US district court by his family, he claims the US military “decided to refer him to the Central Criminal Court of Iraq in an attempt to evade judicial review.” There was a credible risk of torture if he was handed over to the Iraqi authorities that his family sought to prevent through an injunction.

The handover was suspended while the US courts decided whether they had the jurisdiction to consider habeas corpus petitions filed by American citizens held abroad, by a multinational force, and if they did, whether they could prevent that multinational force from transferring the petitioner to Iraqi custody or being tried before the Iraqi courts. The Supreme Court handed down its judgment in June 2008 in the Munaf v Geren case, combining Omar’s case with that of another American prisoner.

The prisoners won an important victory as the Supreme Court ruled that they and others could challenge their detention in US courts, but the US courts could not prevent their handover to a foreign jurisdiction.

In July 2011, Shawki Omar lost a case in the lower US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit further to his habeas petition. He claimed that he could not be transferred due to the risk of torture, but his case was dismissed as the court accepted the US government’s assurances that he would not be “likely to be tortured if transferred to Iraqi custody”. Fresh revelations of further abuses of prisoners by the Iraqi authorities were emerging at the time. On July 15, 2011, a week later, he was handed over to the Iraqi authorities, in whose control he remains.

Life, liberty and the pursuit of justice…

The US has provided Omar with little assistance. Arrested, beaten and tortured by the US military, it alleges he entered Iraq illegally. He claims he entered legally on his American passport; however, all his identity documents were confiscated when he was arrested and have not been returned. His family allege that many provisions of the Third Geneva Convention have been breached in his treatment, whereas the US holds that such legal safeguards do not apply to “enemy combatants”, as he was classified by the MNF-I.

Following the accusation of involvement in terrorism in 2005, Mr. Omar had to wait years for his case to actually be referred for trial to the Iraqis. In 2010, when he was served notice of a court appearance, no charges were listed. Notified that his hearing was scheduled for July, this was then changed to June 24 without his lawyer being informed. As a result, he appeared in court on June 24 without any legal representation or paperwork. He also discovered that the charges against him, for which he was given a 15-year conviction, related to illegal entry into the country. This was the first time Mr. Omar had heard of this claim. Furthermore, he was “convicted” as Shawki AhmedSharif, not Omar, his family name, and as a Palestinian national, something he has never been.

The case was appealed by his lawyers and in February 2011 the Iraqi Court of Cassation reduced the sentence to 7 years. All the while he continued to be held in US custody pending the outcome of his US court case. The judgment did not take into consideration that he had been detained for the previous 6 years either.

…in an Iraqi jail

Shawki Omar was handed over to the Iraqi authorities exactly five months before the US withdrew its military forces from Iraq at the end of 2011. As part of its planned withdrawal in 2009-2011, Camp Cropper was the last detention center to be handed over to the Iraqis in July 2010. It retained control over 200 of the 1800 prisoners held there, however, who were alleged members of Al Qaeda. Shawki Omar continued to be held there under US control until he was handed over to the Iraqis. He then remained in the same place, under Iraqi control, with its new name of the maximum-security Al Karkh Prison. According to Amnesty International, the handover agreement for the facility “contained no human rights safeguards despite the well-established record of torture and other ill-treatment of detainees by Iraqi security forces.”

The situation in Iraqi jails and the security situation in general have not improved at all in recent years. Mr. Omar’s family believes he is discriminated against for three reasons: he is an American, a national of the state that occupied and devastated the country; he is of Palestinian origin, a group who were given preferential treatment under the regime of Saddam Hussein and who consequently lost favor with the fall of his regime; and as aSunni Muslim. Mrs. Al Rubaye reported that non-Iraqi Arab prisoners face the worst treatment in prisons.

She said that her husband is held in a metal shipping container with 11 other prisoners. He is regularly moved to different places within the prison, is subject to abuse both by guards and other prisoners for the reasons given above, and is often prevented from accessing packages of medicine sent for him by his family for his illnesses. Furthermore, he has never been seen by an independent doctor to assess his claims of abuse.

Legal access has been difficult too throughout his ordeal. Under US imprisonment, all legal visits and correspondence were monitored and lawyers changed frequently due to harassment. He has so far been represented by seven different lawyers. Since being held in Iraqi detention, he has only met his lawyer once: following a visit in December 2012 by representatives from the US Embassy to check on his situation. A week later he was attacked and beaten savagely. She met him shortly thereafter and reported that he was very pale, and his legs were blue and very swollen as a result of his beatings. Mrs. Al Rubaye said that she and her husband do not understand why he continues to be interrogated on a regular basis even though he has been convicted and sentenced. What more is there to say after almost a decade of imprisonment, she asks.

Hunger Strike

With the worsening situation at Al Karkh Prison, Shawki Omar went on hunger strike on February 4, 2013, just days before prisoners at Guantánamo Bay started a similar protest. Both hunger strikes are still ongoing more than five months later.

Mrs. Al Rubaye stated that her husband is protesting against the abuse and torture he and other prisoners face, the unfair trial he faced and his illegal detention, particularly in light of the fact that he has now been imprisoned for over eight and a half years, serving a longer period than his sentence. She said that as a result of his hunger strike, he has lost more than 60lb in weight and has difficulty walking, standing and finds it hard to talk. He has mainly only been accepting water, although at times he has refused that too, when conditions worsen. Communication with his family has remained sporadic as well.

Unlike the prisoners at Guantánamo Bay, Mr. Omar will not be force fed to keep him alive and the prison authorities are not bothered by his hunger strike. When she contacted the Iraqi Human Rights Minister to intervene in view of her husband’s drastic action, Mrs. Al Rubaye was told not to worry, “he is not on hunger strike or he would be dead by now.” The US response has been a non-committal assurance that it is monitoring his situation; he was visited by Embassy staff in March and they tried unsuccessfully to visit him in May as well.

Narmeen Al Rubaye would like the US government to take responsibility in this case, particularly as it has a duty to care for “the wellbeing of its citizens held in foreign prisons”. For her part, her demands are quite simple, that “the American government intervenes on Shawki Ahmed Omar’s behalf to secure his release from Iraqi custody and allow him to return to his family.” She is not taking this injustice sitting down either; for the past few months, during her husband’s hunger strikes, she and her daughter have maintained a weekly vigil outside the US Embassy in London.

Take action:

Please write immediately in Arabic, English or your own language to the Iraqi authorities:

Demand that they:

-          Grant Shawki Omar access to medical care and treatment for his illnesses and any aggravated medical issues caused by his hunger strike

-          Take measures to release him, in view of him not being subject to a fair trial and having served the sentence for which he was convicted

-          Take measures to ensure that the abuse of prisoners of Al Karkh Prison ends and prisoners are held in humane conditions. Furthermore, allegations of torture made by former prisoners and human rights organizations must be investigated.

Send your letters to:

His Excellency Jalal Talabani, President        Minister of Human Rights

Convention Centre (Qasr al-Ma’aridh)           Mohammad Shayaa al-Sudani

Baghdad, Iraq                                                       Convention Centre (Qasr al-Ma’aridh)

Salutation: Your Excellency                               Baghdad, Iraq

Salutation: Your Excellency

shakawa@humanrights.gov.iq

Minister of Justice

Hassan al-Shammari

Convention Centre (Qasr al-Ma’aridh)

Baghdad, Iraq

Salutation: Your Excellency

You can also e-mail Dr Salim Abdulla Al-Jabouri of the Human Rights Committee of the Iraqi Council of Representatives (COR) at hrc@parliament.iq andhumanrightscom2007@yahoo.com

Write to the US authorities:

Demand that they:

-          Ensure that Shawki Omar, as an American citizen, is being held in humane conditions with access to medical care and legal representation

-          In view of his ongoing hunger strike, take immediate measures to seek his release from the Iraqi authorities

-          Investigate his claims that he was tortured while in US custody

Write to:

President Obama

The White House

1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW Washington, DC 20500, USAhttp://www.whitehouse.gov/contact/submit-questions-and-comments

In the US, find your:

Congressman/woman http://www.house.gov/representatives/find/

Senator http://www.senate.gov/general/contact_information/senators_cfm.cfm

Abroad: write to the US Embassy in your country:

For the UK:

Barbara J Stephenson, Chargé d’Affaires,

Embassy of the United States of America,

24 Grosvenor Square, London W1A 1AE

  • Jay Wenk, Town Councilman, Woodstock, NY

    Difficult times such as war and civic upheavals are no excuse for abandoning the human rights of people, citizens or not. I demand the the US Government immediately intercede forcefully on behalf of Mr. Omar.