Journalists Tell of Captivity in Infamous Iraqi Prison.
By Colin Nickerson, The Boston Globe Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News
Apr. 3--AMMAN, Jordan--The terrifying ordeal of the four Western journalists began before dawn March 24. Iraqi intelligence officers rounded them up at their Baghdad hotel and bundled them off to Iraq's notorious Abu Ghraib prison, where screams of torture victims rang through corridors and the walls reverberated to the blast of American bombs.
They were held incommunicado in separate cells for seven days and nights before they were released Tuesday night.
"From the time we realized we were being taken to prison until the time we crossed into Jordan, we felt our lives were in danger," said Matthew McAllester, Middle East bureau chief for Newsday.
"At times, the Iraqi antiaircraft artillery and surface-to-air missiles were going off incredibly close, and the bombs would shake the walls and the floors where we slept," he said during a press conference in the Jordanian capital yesterday. "But we were more concerned about being killed by our hosts."
Iraqi officials never explained why they arrested McAllester; Newsday photographer Moises Saman, 29; freelance photographer Molly Bingham of Louisville, Ky.; and Danish photographer Johan Rydeng Spanner. American peace activist Philip Latasha was also held with the group, which was freed at the Jordanian border late Tuesday.
Almost daily, they were each led blindfolded from their dingy 6-foot by 10-foot cells to interrogation rooms, where they were questioned closely about their activities in Iraq.
"We had no idea what they were going to do to us," said Bingham. "They kept blindfolding us and taking us away. Every day it was a question of, 'Are they going to kill me or just ask questions?' "
The journalists stressed that they were never beaten or otherwise physically abused.
"They wanted to know if I was a spy," Bingham said. "I told them I was a journalist who came to Baghdad to cover the situation of the Iraqis in the war. But I was not physically harmed in any way."
Iraqis held in the same prison block were not so lucky, according to the journalists.
The four described Iraqi prisoners being led off to torture chambers. Other prisoners bore bruises, cuts, and other signs of beatings. Some hobbled about as if the soles of their feet had been whipped.
"We could hear screams, especially at night," McAllester recounted. "They were being beaten a few yards from my cell, beaten with some sort of implements."
Meanwhile, Newsday was making frantic efforts to locate them and secure their release, making appeals for help to world figures including Pope John Paul II and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, who called Iraq authorities on the journalists' behalf, according to Newsday's deputy editor for foreign news, Jim Rupert.
On the eighth night of their incarceration, the four journalists and the peace activist were allowed to stay together in a single cell, apparently because officials of the regime had decided to grant them release.
But during the first seven days, the Westerners were not allowed to speak to one another, although Bingham and McAllester, in adjoining cells, devised a crude code system of knocks on the wall.
"It was basically just a way to say: 'Are you there? Are you OK?' " said Bingham, who was in Baghdad on assignment for Esquire magazine, along with journalist Nate Thayer.
She credited Thayer, who was questioned and released the same morning of her incarceration, with raising the alarm. "Nate Thayer saw me taken off and said, 'I promise I will do something," " said Bingham, who served as photographer for Al Gore during his presidential campaign. "It was bad being led off at 4:45 in the morning by men with guns. Knowing that someone knew I was missing was all that gave me hope."
Abu Ghraib is the largest prison in the Arab world and is infamous as the place of torture and murder of enemies of the Iraqi regime.
McAllester and Saman entered Iraq legitimately as journalists, but had been issued visas restricting them to covering the activities of so-called human shields, Western peace activists who camp outside Iraqi water pumping stations, hospitals, and other facilities with the idea that their presence will deter attacks from warplanes of the British-American coalition.
McAllester admitted that he and his photographer colleague "stretched the envelope" by covering the war from Baghdad in a broader way. "We were there to tell a story," he said. "But we knew we were breaking a rule."
Bingham and Spanner, who have no professional connection, entered Iraq as tourists, an infraction that would result in rebuke and perhaps expulsion from most countries, not imprisonment.
The journalists slept on the concrete floors of their individual cells and were fed three meals a day.
"Breakfast was hard boiled eggs and chai," said Bingham, using the word for tea most commonly used in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia. "Lunch was rice or potatoes. Dinner was chicken broth and bread."
During their confinement, they said, they were forced to wear prison uniforms and instructed to sign confessions that were essentially transcripts of their interrogations.
"They quoted passages that I had never written, they said I'd described Iraq as a 'devil regime,' a term I've never used," said McAllester, who refused to sign an Arabic language confession but instead wrote out a statement stating that he was a journalist and not an agent of the CIA or any government.
Especially frightening to the journalists was hearing the sound of B-52s and other coalition warplanes and the nearby blast of bombs and missiles.
"We didn't know if anyone knew we were there," Bingham said. "We didn't know if the prison might be targeted as a military facility."
As a woman, Bingham received slightly preferential treatment, she wryly acknowledged. "I was given a towel and a piece of soap," she said. "In that, I fared better than the gentlemen."
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(c) 2003, The Boston Globe. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News.