The Disappearance of Ammar al-Saffar

This piece first aired in July, 2010, as part of the show, “State of Privilege”

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    Host Intro: The kidnapping of government officials has been a serious problem in Iraq since the conflict started. Many incidents go uninvestigated, often due to a lack of evidence. In 2006, Ammar al-Saffar, a deputy minister of health, was abducted. In this case,  many officials within the ministry were certain that Hakim al-Zaamili, another deputy health minister, was responsible. Still, no indictments were made. Ali al-Saffar, the kidnapped minister’s son, spoke to  War News Radio about his frustration and the ordeal he and his family have gone through. Karim Sariahmed reports.

    ALI AL-SAFFAR: My name is Ali Alsaffar. I’m 25 year old, I live in London. I’m a political and economic analyst working for a British company. I’ve been living here for 23 years. I was born in Dubai, raised in the UK.

    KARIM SARIAHMED: Ali Al-Saffar is the son of Ammar Alsaffar, who was a deputy minister of health from 2003 until his kidnapping in 2006. He had been part of the Iraqi opposition, based in London, and was appointed to the ministry position when he returned to Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein. With an accounting background, he was put in charge of administration, primarily negotiating and coordinating international donor activity. But corruption in the Sadrist-controlled ministry of health complicated his work. Ali’s father was working on an investigative report, which would effectively expose the ministry’s corruption. Ministry officials tried bribing him not to release the report at first, and when that failed, he received threats of murder and kidnapping. Ali said that, to an extent, his father had seen it coming when he was kidnapped from his home on November 19th, 2006.

    ALI-AL-SAFFAR: He didn’t live with gods, he didn’t live in the green zone. He didn’t live with you know, personnel got in the house, and he didn’t have an armored car or anything like that, or a security detail. So he was at his home, and he was actually speaking to my niece, so his granddaughter, on the phone, came downstairs, and that’s when it happened. They kidnapped him. As you alluded to earlier, people in official uniform stormed the house, fired shots, frightened the hell out of my 80 year-old- grandmother, my aunties and my cousins, and took him then. Since then very little information has been released.

    KARIM SARIAHMED: Adel Abdullah, the inspector general for the Ministry of Health, identified the cars in which Ammar Alsaffar was taken as those which had been stolen from the ministry a few weeks prior. He also unequivocally implicated Hakim al Zamili, another deputy health minister, as the man behind the kidnapping. However, Ali says the investigation that followed was mishandled.

    ALI-AL-SAFFAR: It’s not been consistent, it’s not been coherent. but most of the reports we’ve heard have implicated Hakim Azamiri. There was no outward investigation conducted by one person or one government body. So what happened was basically people from the prime minister’s office and people from the Dawa party office conducted their own sort of investigations, like I said rather haphazardly, without direction. To describe it, in a word, it would be farcical. It was a farcical investigation.

    KARIM SARIAHMED: Al Zamili was brought to court,  however the proceedings were concluded in only two days, which is highly unusual in Iraq, especially for a case with such serious allegations.

    ALI-AL-SAFFAR: In Iraq, if you go to court, try to settle a family dispute over inheritance, it’s going to take more than 2 days. That’s on multiple cases of corruption, of embezzlement, of kidnapping and murder. Again, it was, there was something very fishy going on in court that to be completed in two days, for Hakim Azamri to be released on what was literally the day after that.

    KARIM SARIAHMED: And no one at the ministry had much to say on the matter after that. In fact, Adel Abdullah, the very same person who implicated Hakim al Zamili, sent a guard to congratulate him on his release, and then invited him to rejoin the ministry. Al Zamili did not go back, however. Instead he ran for Parliament and won a seat with the Iraqi National Alliance in 2010, one of the most influential blocs in Parliament.

    ALI AL-SAFFAR: So I’m not sure I entirely trust that he can do his job properly and that he has presented that my father effectively lost his life, he hasn’t presented it. If I want to be blunt, my father was kidnapped because he was doing the job that the inspector general wasn’t doing and should have been doing. It’s not the job of the deputy minister to expose corruption it’s the job of the inspector general to expose corruption, and to expose irregularities in the ministry of health. He didn’t. My father did, and that’s why my father is no longer alive.

    KARIM SARIAHMED: Alsaffar’s family received videos of Ali’s father from the kidnappers, the last of which showed him being shot. And even after all this time and with his father dead, Alsaffar has never been able to get access to the full investigative report his father was writing. He says he has begged for the file, but it has not been released. Ali spoke so reverently of his father’s initial idealism when he first went to Iraq. He said his father had incredible patience, but even he eventually got fed up with the ministry’s politics.

    ALI AL-SAFFAR: He does not believe in sectarianism, and he is one of the least sectarian people I know. To see sectarianism infest the ministry of health was deeply painful to him, and he complained to my mother about this. He also complained about the large-scale corruption that was going on.

    KARIM SARIAHMED: The Sadrist influence in the ministry made it a vehicle for sectarian operations. Hakim al Azamili was implicated and arrested for running sectarian militias out of hospitals. They would often refuse to treat Sunnis, and ambulances would be used to smuggle weapons. The fact that such a man now sits in Parliament is incredibly frustrating for Ali.

    ALI AL-SAFFAR: I feel that parliament is populated with a lot of people with blood on their hands. I think it always has been in Iraq….Now, that’s a travesty of the highest order for me. Not only because my father was kidnapped by this man, but because Iraq is a country that’s endowed with millions of brilliant minds. And I just, I find it depressing to think that, you know, out of the millions of people that could have represented Iraqis in parliament we have people like HA, who have blood on their hands, who are incompetent, who are corrupt, who cannot run a country, have no vision for a country.

    KARIM SARIAHMED: The kidnappers of Alsaffar’s father who work for these corrupt officials wanted ransom money. Incidents like this one are often attributed to sectarianism as well, but Alsaffar stressed that the sophistication of Iraqi militias is not to be underestimated.

    ALI AL-SAFFAR: In my mind it’s quite clear that the whole issue of ransom was almost a diversion tactic to kind of throw the, throw the authorities off the center, make it seem like, it’s a money motivated kidnapping rather than a political, corruption-based one.  I think a lot of stuff that happens in Iraq is explained in this very narrow scope of sectarianism and I think quite often it misses the nuanced aspects that really need to be understood to explain the true reasons behind what is happening now. My father wasn’t kidnapped for ransom, you don’t kidnap a deputy minister, you don’t take that risk if money is the issue. There’s far more important reasons for the kidnapping, and that was to stifle the investigation.

    KARIM SARIAHMED: For War News Radio, I’m Karim Sariahmed.