Suspicion Surrounds Death of Iraqi Scientist in U.S. Custody
The death certificate issued by the U.S. military indicated that a prominent Iraqi government scientist in American custody for nine months had died of natural causes.
Doubtful, his family ordered an independent autopsy, which concluded that blunt-force injury caused the 65-year-old man’s death.
For the record:
12:00 a.m. May 29, 2004 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday May 29, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 44 words Type of Material: Correction
Scientist -- An article Friday in Section A about an Iraqi scientist who died in U.S. custody said the man might have been suspected of taking part in the country’s nuclear weapons program. He was a chemist who had worked for Saddam Hussein’s government.
And Mohammed Abdelmonaem Mahmoud Hamdi Alazmirli’s body bore suspicious marks: He had a bruise on his nose, an abrasion on his cheek, a cut near his eye and a fractured skull.
The Pentagon has named 23 of 37 detainees who died while in U.S. custody in Iraq and Afghanistan. Alazmirli was not among those named, and the military declined to say whether he was among the other 14.
Responding to a Times query, the Pentagon’s criminal investigation division declined to comment on Alazmirli’s death. A spokesman for the Army’s Criminal Investigative Division, Christopher Grey, issued a six-word response: “No releasable information at this time.”
Alazmirli’s case raises questions about whether similar ones exist -- suspicious deaths that are not on any official U.S. lists -- and what method the military is using to determine which cases are worthy of review.
But Alazmirli’s family members say they believe that the U.S. military is engaging in a cover-up. They noted that although Alazmirli died on Jan. 31, the military waited for more than two weeks before U.S. soldiers delivered his body -- naked in a zipped black body bag -- to a Baghdad hospital.
“Why did they leave him in the morgue for 17 days before they told us?” asked his daughter Rana, 23, a medical student at Baghdad University. “I think they didn’t inform us because they were trying to hide something, and they kept him to make the evidence disappear.”
The U.S. military’s death certificate omits any reference to the injuries cited in the Iraqi autopsy.
Dr. Qaiss Hassan, who performed the autopsy at Iraq’s Forensic Medical Institute, noted in his report that Alazmirli had a massive amount of blood under his scalp.
Flipping through photographs and diagrams of Alazmirli’s head, Hassan said: “It was definitely a blunt-trauma injury. There’s no question. You can get this kind of injury if you are in a car accident or if you fall from a height or if someone hits your head hard.”
The U.S. military undoubtedly considered the scientist a “high-value target.” In making its case for invading Iraq, the Bush administration said that President Saddam Hussein had amassed weapons of mass destruction.
U.S. officials appeared to have suspected initially that the Egyptian-born Alazmirli was involved with Hussein’s purported nuclear weapons program; Alazmirli had worked in the office of the presidency, serving as a science advisor to Hussein’s feared intelligence agency. He retired from government work in 1995 to teach at Al Haithem University.
On April 24, 2003, about two weeks after the Americans captured Baghdad, U.S. soldiers burst into Alazmirli’s home. The scientist was not there. His wife, Saharaa, recounted that a U.S. soldier demanded, “Where are the weapons of mass destruction?” She said she replied that she did not know.
“He did not have anything to do with weapons of mass destruction,” she said, adding that U.N. weapons inspectors interviewed Alazmirli during the 1990s and found that he was not involved in any arms program.
According to Saharaa and TV coverage at the time, the U.S. military came prepared for a fight.
Tanks and armored vehicles moved into the neighborhood, closing off streets. Dozens of soldiers leaped over her garden wall, blasted locks off the doors and broke into every cupboard, she said. They carted away boxes of belongings, she said, including all of Alazmirli’s books, Saharaa’s perfumes and all her gold jewelry -- the Iraqi equivalent of a life’s savings.
Saharaa said she was frightened, but an interpreter for the soldiers assured her that “we only want to talk to your husband for one hour because we know he’s busy, and we’ll even pay him because his time is important.”
A day after the soldiers arrived, Alazmirli returned home and surrendered. The troops handcuffed and hooded him and put him in a military vehicle.
Reluctant to be parted from her husband, Saharaa said, she told the soldiers that she was a chemist too. They detained her as well. She is a retired high school chemistry teacher. She was taken to the airport detention center but was released after U.S. interrogators apparently concluded that she was of no use to them.
Alazmirli’s whereabouts remained a mystery to his family.
A month after his detention, the family received the first communication from him via letter delivered by the International Committee of the Red Cross. He was not permitted to write anything other than his name. A stamp in the middle of the page declared, “SAFE and WELL.”
Later, Alazmirli sent letters regularly to his family. Occasionally he requested clothes, but often he complained that he was not receiving letters from his family members even though they wrote every week.
Saharaa, her daughters and a son spoke about Alazmirli’s death as they sat in their neat living room. The scientist -- a tall, thin, balding man with a thin mustache and a serious look -- stared from photographs on the wall and a side table.
“I went to the Red Cross and complained that our letters weren’t reaching him, and they said, ‘We’re hearing this all over and we’re trying to get the Americans to do something about it,’ ” Saharaa said.
The Red Cross declined to comment on the case.
The family received its first phone call from Alazmirli four months after his arrest. He spoke for about three minutes, just enough time to inquire about family members’ health.
Rewarding detainees with letters and telephone calls was typical of the treatment high-value inmates received from interrogators. Twice during the fall of 2003, the family received telephone calls from Alazmirli.
Then, family members said, an American who identified himself on the phone as Mr. Jeeki told them to show up at 2 p.m. Jan. 11 at a checkpoint near Baghdad international airport.
At least two detention facilities are located at the airport, including a separate prison for many of those detainees the Pentagon had identified among its 55 most-wanted Iraqis. When the family members arrived, they were blindfolded, driven around in loops for about 10 minutes and brought to a building where they were told that Alazmirli would meet them.
The family asked “Mr. Jeeki” why Alazmirli was being held and with what crimes he had been charged.
“They said, ‘Your father doesn’t have any charges,’ ” said his son Ashraf, 21, a college chemistry major. “ ‘He is only needed as a witness because he was a member of the Mukhabarat [intelligence agency]. On the contrary, your father is a nice man, a scientist, and he’s useful to the United States and to the Iraqi people.’
“From that we concluded he was cooperating with them,” Ashraf said.
When Alazmirli came into the room, he was surprised to see them, family members said.
Rana said she learned then that although her father was a diabetic, the military had taken away his insulin and substituted an oral medication.
“You cannot take away insulin from someone who has taken it for many years. He took three injections per day; the pills are not sufficient,” she said. “I think they were trying to kill him slowly.”
Nonetheless, all four family members said that Alazmirli looked like his old self. But one thing worried them. On his wrist was a plastic band with the now infamous photograph of a disheveled Saddam Hussein when he was arrested while hiding in a hole near Tikrit.
“I didn’t ask him about it because I didn’t want to upset him,” Rana said.
As they said their farewells, Rana said, Alazmirli appeared strong, although his parting words seemed cryptic: “I don’t know what my fate will be. I may be released tomorrow, in a few weeks or maybe never.”
Then, on Feb. 17, two Red Cross staffers knocked at the family’s door, Alazmirli’s wife said. Saharaa said she was glad to see them because the Red Cross had been the bearer of good news: letters from Alazmirli.
But this time the news was grim. “They told me his body was at the Al Karkh hospital. I couldn’t believe it because I had just seen him. I thought maybe they had a different man,” she said.
The Red Cross told her that he had been in the military hospital for two weeks before he died.
“I think he knew he was dying,” Rana said. “Other people get to sit at their father’s bedside when he is dying.”
Ashraf went to the hospital to identify the body. Unzipping the bag, he was shocked to find his father without any clothes and with a gash to his head.
According to the American death certificate, Alazmirli died in Ebensina Hospital, the medical facility inside the Green Zone -- the security perimeter around the U.S. headquarters in Baghdad -- that is used to treat Americans and some Iraqi prisoners.
Ashraf said he and other family members concluded that shortly after their visit, the Americans had killed Alazmirli.
Rana held in her lap all that the Alazmirli family had to remember of her father’s last nine months: a brown plastic envelope in which he kept the letters from his family and a handwritten calendar on which he marked off the days.
Times staff writer John Hendren in Washington contributed to this report.