America's unhappy most wanted

High-level detainees go on a hunger strike to protest their solitary confinement and impending trials in an Iraqi court.

Published December 13, 2004 3:12PM (EST)

More than 50 senior figures from Saddam Hussein's former regime have begun a hunger strike in their U.S. military jail in Baghdad, according to an Iraqi lawyer. The group includes Tariq Aziz, the former deputy prime minister, and Taha Yassin Ramadan, a former vice president, according to the lawyer, Badie Arief Izzat. Saddam, who is being kept in solitary confinement in a separate jail, is not involved in the protest.

However, the U.S. military said some detainees were still eating snacks. "It appears that some detainees have turned back some meals," said Lt. Col. Barry Johnson, spokesman for detention operations. "I'm told all have been at least snacking during the day." He said Saddam "continued to take meals and has no change in his routine. He remains in good health." Izzat, who represents Aziz, said the protest began on Saturday morning. He was told about it by a fellow lawyer who met Taha Yassin Ramadan in the jail Sunday.

The strike was in protest of what the prisoners said was bad treatment and enforced solitary confinement, he said. They were also opposed to being handed over to the Iraqi government for trial. "Instead they want a trial in an international court," Izzat said.

Those involved include 52 of the prisoners on America's 55-most-wanted list of government, military and security officials from the former regime.

Izzat said the prisoners had been asked to testify against Saddam but had refused. "They asked them to make some statements against Saddam but they refused. They said they wanted to be dealt with as a proper government. They asked to speak with Saddam himself," he said. "They all agreed they would not stand against Saddam." He said U.S. officials had offered Ramadan a deal if he agreed to cooperate."They offered Taha Yassin Ramadan that if he was cooperative they would give him a job in the new government. He said no," he said.

The prisoners are being kept in solitary confinement in a jail in the sprawling base at Baghdad's International Airport, but are able to talk to each other when they use the bathroom.

Izzat said he had not yet met his client, Aziz, but said their first meeting was due within a week. He has been acting as a lawyer for several other senior figures from within Saddam's regime and has been able to communicate with some through letters. As he spoke he took calls on his mobile telephone from relatives of some of the most senior figures in the regime.

Saddam himself and 11 other figures from the regime appeared in a court for the first time at the U.S. military's Camp Victory in Baghdad on July 1. They were read a summary of the charges against them as a symbolic beginning of their trials, but since then there have been no further court appearances. Instead there appear to have been delays in preparing the prosecution cases despite the apparently overwhelming evidence against the men.

Only one of the many mass graves in Iraq has been forensically examined, largely because of the dangerous security environment. Salem Chalabi, who was appointed to lead the Iraqi special tribunal that will run the trials, was removed from his position this summer.

By Rory McCarthy

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