- The Washington Times - Friday, September 10, 2004

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 Shi’ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and both 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 Shi’ite saint.

The jailers didn’t stop, Hadi said.

A symbol of the power Sheik 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 — too scared to talk about the court in the past — are now sharing horror stories of its work.

“By God, they are monsters,” said Muslim al-Senobli, who was taken to the court on unfounded accusations of helping police. “They destroyed me,” he said, punching the air with his fists to mimic his jailers, adding he was released only after his tribe threatened to cause problems for Sheik al-Sadr’s followers.

To aides of the baleful, black-turbaned sheik, the court and others they conducted elsewhere were an attempt to apply their interpretation of Islamic justice to a lawless society.

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 Sheik al-Sadr’s militiamen left last month.

Eager to discredit Sheik al-Sadr and his group, police said the bodies were victims of the court’s summary justice. The cleric’s aides insisted the corpses were people who died during the fighting in Najaf.

Najaf’s police chief, Maj. Gen. Ghalib al-Jazaari, said Wednesday that 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.

A U.S. military intelligence report obtained by The Washington Times late last month said followers of the angry young sheik had killed Iraqis who opposed his insurrection and mutilated their bodies.

A U.S. military officer told The Times after Sheik al Sadr’s fighters had left Najaf that the command had acquired photos of 15 to 20 mutilated bodies that appear to be Iraqis lying in a courtyard.

Yesterday, about 1,000 protesters marched through Najaf’s old quarter to demand that the Iraqi government investigate the court and punish those in charge of it. They also demanded that Sheik al-Sadr leave Najaf.

Chanting, “Muqtada, the trash, is a leader of looters,” the demonstrators walked past buildings battered by three weeks of fighting and insisted that Sheik al-Sadr’s office be shut down. Iraqi soldiers kept the protesters from marching to Sheik al-Sadr’s office.

Sheik Ali Smeisim, an aide to Sheik al-Sadr, said the demonstration was an attempt to create tension.

“We were expecting such things,” he said. “Whenever there is a chance for peaceful solutions, some people hold protests to escalate the situation.”

In its heyday, the court issued accreditation to foreign journalists. Women swathed in black squatted in a narrow alley outside the two-story, dust-covered tan building to ask about detained relatives.

Plaintiffs could file complaints with the court, whose judges ruled on family issues and personal disputes. People accused of theft, drinking alcohol or selling CDs deemed immoral were dragged there by Sheik al-Sadr’s militiamen.

Militiamen acknowledge that flogging was one of the sentences meted out by the court. They also say the court never sentenced offenders to death, but Mr. al-Senobli and others say they know people who died from torture.

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 cleric 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.

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