The Tragic Last Moments of
When a renowned British aid worker was kidnapped in Iraq, the
world was horrified. Her body was never recovered, but her
execution was captured on video and sent to Al Jazeera, the Arab
satellite channel. Robert Fisk watched it and reveals why it has
never been broadcast
By Robert Fisk
Independent" -- -
She stands in the empty room, a deplorable, terrible, pitiful
sight. Is it Margaret Hassan? Her family believe so, even though
she is blindfolded. I'm not sure if videos like this should ever
be seen – or perhaps the word is endured – but they are part of
the dark history of Iraq, and staff of the Arab Al Jazeera
satellite channel have grown used to watching some truly
atrocious acts on their screens.
The "execution" – the cold-blooded, appalling murder of Margaret
Hassan, the Care worker who was a friend as well as a contact of
mine – is among the least terrible of the scenes that lie in the
satellite channel's archives.
Kidnapped by men in police uniforms, it is now November, 2004,
and Margaret has already made her last appeal. Viewers saw her
begging Tony Blair to help her, to withdraw British troops from
southern Iraq. "I beg of you to help me," she says in a voice of
great distress. But there was then another tape which Al Jazeera
refused to show, in which Margaret was coerced into claiming
that she gave information to American officers at Baghdad
airport. A man's voice prompts her to keep to a text. "I admit
that we worked with the occupation forces ..." she says. It is
untrue, of course. Margaret was against the whole Anglo-American
invasion. She would never have spied on Iraqis.
Then comes the last tape. She is standing in that bare room in a
white blouse, a blindfold over her face, her head slightly bowed
and a man approaches her from behind holding a pistol. He points
it at her head and places what appears to be an apple over the
muzzle – a primitive form of silencer? And then squeezes the
trigger. There is a click, an apparent misfire, and the man
retreats to the right of the screen and then reappears. Margaret
Hassan doesn't move although she must have heard the click. The
man is wearing a grubby grey and black checked shirt and
ill-fitting, baggy trousers, a scarf concealing his face.
This time the gun fires and the woman utters a tiny sound, a
kind of cry, almost a squeal of shock, and falls backwards onto
the floor. The camera lingers on her. She has fallen onto a
plastic sheet. And she just lies there. There is no visible
blood, nor wound. It is over. Should such terrible things be
seen? Margaret's immensely brave Iraqi husband told me I had his
permission to watch this, but still I feel guilty. I think it
was only here, watching her death on a screen next to Al
Jazeera's studios more than three years later, that I realized
Margaret Hassan was dead.
It was Margaret who took leukaemia medicines donated by readers
of The Independent to the child cancer victims of Iraq back in
1998 after we discovered that hundreds of infants were dying in
those areas where Western forces used depleted uranium munitions
in the 1991 Gulf War. She was a proverbial tower of strength,
and it was she – and she alone – who managed to persuade Saddam
Hussein's bureaucrats to let us bring the medicine into Iraq.
The United Nations sanctions authorities had been our first
hurdle, Saddam Hussein our second. It is all history. Like
Margaret, all the children died.
"We've trained ourselves not to go to the maximum in our
feelings when we see terrible things like this," Ayman Gaballah,
Al Jazeera's deputy chief editor, says bleakly. And I can see
why. There are other tapes, other outrages too terrible to show.
George Bush wanted to bomb the station's headquarters in Doha
but staff have shown great sensitivity with what they show the
world from Iraq. There is no proof that any of Al Jazeera's
reporters was ever tipped off about anti-American attacks before
they happened – in Iraq, I investigated these claims in 2003 and
2004 – but plenty of proof that some things are too awful to
On one tape, a half-naked man is held to the floor while another
produces a small butcher's knife and slowly carves his way
through the victim's throat, the poor man's shriek of pain dying
in froths of blood until his head is eventually torn from his
Another tape shows 18 Iraqi policemen held captive against a
demand for the release of Iraqi women prisoners. They are aged
between 17 and 40 and stare at the camera hopelessly.
Al Jazeera aired the pictures and the written demands but then
cut the next scene. It shows the 18 men trussed up and
blindfolded in front of a ditch. A hooded man then fires into
the back of one of their heads and – along with other men
off-camera – goes from one body to the next, firing again and
again. Some of the victims are still alive, their legs kicking
and the hooded man goes to each one and fires again into their
heads. Then, in the background, a bearded youth approaches the
camera, holding an Islamic flag. He is singing.
For some in the Al Jazeera studios these archives are intensely
personal. "I trained Ali Khatib – he was a great reporter," I am
told. "The war was almost declared at an end in Iraq and he went
out with our cameraman to cover some story and, while he's
approaching an American checkpoint, you can hear an American
soldier on the tape say 'Stop – you have to go back'. And then
the soldier just shot at them and killed both of them. Ali had
got married two weeks earlier."
For some, the videotapes will always be too much. When I met
Margaret's husband Tahseen in his Baghdad home after her murder,
he was a picture of courage and mourning. There were terrible
times. "I would come home and sit here and weep," he told me
then. "I would sit here sometimes and go out of my mind crying
and sobbing. I don't think insurgents did this. I don't think
Iraqi people did this ... I couldn't see the video that was
released – not because she's my wife, but because I can't bear
to see anyone assassinated."
So who did murder Margaret Hassan? On the video of her apparent
execution, there are no Islamic banners, no Muslim chants, no
claim of responsibility, just the killer and the fatal shot.
After her kidnap, Margaret – who once worked as an
English-language newsreader on Saddam's government television
station in Baghdad – even found support among the anti-American
insurgents; they issued a joint appeal for her release. Even Abu
Musab Zarqawi, the al-Qa'ida leader in Iraq who was later killed
by the Americans, joined in the appeal. Margaret had worked in
Palestinian camps in the 1960s and fought tirelessly for those
thousands of Iraqis under her care in Iraq. If her husband's
suspicions were correct, then whose "foreign" hand took her
The tape leaves no clue. In Al Jazeera's archives, it is
difficult to escape this repository of death. The Americans
fired a cruise missile at Al Jazeera's Kabul office in 2001
after it had forwarded Osama bin Laden's tapes to Doha. Then an
American aircraft fired a missile at the station's Baghdad
office in 2003. That time, the Americans killed the bureau
chief, Tareq Ayoub. His jacket and his last notes are today on
the wall of Al Jazeera's Doha head office. His staff had – for
their own protection – earlier given the map coordinates of
their Baghdad office to the US State Department. Reporters asked
Tony Blair – on a post-prime-ministerial tour of the Doha
offices – if Bush had really planned to bomb them. "Blair said
something about 'the need to move on'" one of them told me. "So
we knew it was true."
If Al Jazeera's staff have paid a terrible price for their
reporting and have been the witnesses to some of the ghastlier
acts in Iraq, they appear to have the ferocious support of the
Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, who spends his
millions funding the loss-making station.
Stories abound of the day that George Tenet – then America's CIA
chief – turned up in Qatar to give the Emir a dressing down for
Al Jazeera's reporting. There was a stiff row between the two
men before the Emir walked out.
In Washington, he was invited to meet Vice-President Dick
Cheney, only to find that Mr Cheney had a thick file on his desk
when he walked in. It was Mr Cheney's list of complaints against
Al Jazeera. The Emir told him he would not discuss it. "Then
that is the end of our meeting," Mr Cheney announced. "It is,"
the Emir apparently replied. And walked out. The "meeting" had
lasted 30 seconds.
But those are the high points, the drama of Al Jazeera. The dark
moments are on those terrible tapes. I asked some of the
reporters how humans could commit such atrocities. None of them
One suggested that 11 years of UN-imposed sanctions had somehow
changed the mentality of Iraqis. And I do recall, back in 1998 –
when Saddam still ruled Baghdad – an NGO official tried to
explain to me what was happening to Iraqis. The Americans and
British "want us to rebel against Saddam," the official said.
"They think we will be so broken, so shattered by this suffering
that we will do anything – even give our own lives – to get rid
of Saddam. The uprising against the Baath party failed in 1991
so now they are using cruder methods. But they are wrong. These
people have been reduced to penury. They live in shit. And when
you have no money and no food, you don't worry about democracy
or who your leaders are."
That official was Margaret Hassan.
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