"We want our dad back"

Four young British children refuse to leave Iraq without their imprisoned father, an Iraqi-born Briton who has been held without charge for eight months.

Published June 3, 2005 3:55PM (EDT)

It was meant to be nothing more than a family gathering, a chance for Hilal Jedda's four London-based children to meet their Iraqi relatives. Last September they flew to United Arab Emirates, sailed to Basra and drove to Baghdad. The relatives did not have British visas and Iraq was the only place they could be together.

An unconventional choice given the violence, but Jedda, a naturalized Briton, also planned to use the monthlong visit to lobby the British Embassy for visas for his two Iraq-based wives, hoping to return with them to London.

But on Oct. 10 American and Iraqi troops stormed the family's house in Baghdad, put a hood over Jedda and flew him to Shaiba, a British military base outside Basra, Iraq. The British military, it turned out, had deemed the 48-year-old father of six a dangerous terrorist who had plotted weapons smuggling and bomb attacks and said jailing him was "necessary for imperative reasons of security." Eight months later he has not been charged nor seen a lawyer but he is still interned at Shaiba.

"We want our dad back," his son Abdullah, 11, told the Guardian Thursday. "If he has done something bad why don't they tell us?"

It is a question the high court in London will be asked next week when lawyers acting for Jedda seek a writ of habeas corpus to have him returned to Britain.

The Iraqi League, a U.K.-based human rights advocacy group, has dubbed the case "Belmarsh in the desert," a reference to the controversial long-term detentions at the London jail that embarrassed the government earlier this year.

"This is not about my client's guilt or innocence. It's about bringing him back to Britain where he can be questioned in the presence of a lawyer and be either charged or released," said Phil Shiner of Public Interest Lawyers.

According to his family, Jedda, who is half Arab and half Turkoman, left his hometown of Kirkuk in northern Iraq at age 18 to play and coach basketball in the United Arab Emirates. A decade later he moved to Pakistan and worked at an orphanage in Peshawar before moving to Britain in 1992 and claiming political asylum. He became British in 1998 and with help from his brother Saad, also a naturalized Briton, became a small-time property developer and honey merchant selling boxes of it from his London home.

While visiting relatives in Syria in 2001 he was detained for 11 months but released without charge. The same year he divorced his Syrian-born wife, Ehssan, but kept custody of their four children. He later married another Syrian, Eman, and took a second wife, Asma, 25, a Jordanian.

Authorities at Shaiba declined to speak about the case, but in a letter to Jedda dated May 6 the British army said he was suspected of membership in a terrorist group involved in weapons smuggling and bombings. "Accordingly, on the balance of probabilities, your internment remains necessary for imperative reasons of security," said the letter, signed by Maj. Gen. J.P. Riley.

A separate letter said the U.N. Security Council, at the Iraqi government's request, had authorized multinational forces to intern people without trial without necessarily disclosing the reason why. "The justification for internment in each case, including your own, is reviewed very carefully at least once a month and a decision taken by the commanding general which is then communicated to each internee with specific reasons if he or she is to remain in custody," said the second letter.

Shiner is confident Jedda will be flown home soon. "The government doesn't have the beginnings of a defense," he said. Until then Jedda's family will continue the weekly ritual they performed Thursday. Weary from the previous day's drive from Baghdad, they queued with relatives of other detainees to enter the base, a sprawling complex of sand, razor wire and watchtowers. Carrying cakes, pita bread and mutton, the family spent an hour inside the base.

"He is not well, not sleeping. He is very stressed. His hands shook when he drank from a glass," said the Jedda's sister, Huda Razaq, 48, a retired engineer. "I swear he is innocent. He is more interested in women than politics."

Jedda's cell is air conditioned against temperatures exceeding 104 degrees Fahrenheit, but he complained of pain in his left knee, an old basketball injury that has had him on crutches for years. He said he had lost 62 pounds since his arrest.

His four children, Abdullah, Khadija, 13, Himan, 12, and Hesan, 8, have British passports and speak with London accents. They dread the drive from Baghdad, a perilous route during which they have seen corpses and insurgent attacks, but insist on visiting their father. Razaq hosts them in her Baghdad home but worries that their nationality makes them kidnap targets. Threats have been made against the family and a shot was fired at the house.

The children pine for London but refuse to return without their father. "He takes us for walks in Hyde Park. He's a great dad," said Himan.

By Rory Carroll

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