Remains of Alec Collett found in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley

This is an ugly and traumatic story.

Alec Collett, a former colleague accredited as a journalist at UNHQ/NY in the early to mid-1980s, was one of those internationals kidnapped during the long Lebanese civil war.  Alec was taken from a car near Beirut airport in March  1985, while on a temporary assignment for UNRWA in Lebanon.  The car’s driver was also seized, but later released

After the U.S. attack on Libya in the spring of 1986, there were reports that those holding Alec had executed him in retaliation. A video was released, showing his body hanging from the limb of a leafy tree.

But, for unclear reasons, the UN did not want to acknowledge Alec’s execution. The UN Secretary-General Javier Perez de Cuellar, expressed anger but offered no explanation when asked directly by this journalist — at the time, the President of the UN Correspondents Association (UNCA) why the UN was not accepting the reports of Alec’s death.  UNCA issued a statement condemning the reported execution, and asking for a prompt return of the body, to help ease the anguish of Alec’s family.

Though there was no apparent reason to disbelieve the claims about the execution, nothing was entirely sure about Alec’s fate until this week, when British DNA tests reportedly conducted in London confirmed that a body unearthed recently in the Bekaa Valley by a British forensics team was, indeed, that of Alec Collett.

Photo from Daily Mail - Officials inspect the place where the remains of Alec Collett were found

[Months before the execution, as the BBC reported in a profile published on their website, “the United Nations Correspondents’ Association … made him [Alec Collett] their honorary president, a title he has retained ever since”… The BBC report, posted here, is wrong in a couple of respects, including these: (1) the decision to name Alec as “honorary president” of UNCA was taken at the end of 1985, and not in 1986; UNCA is not, as the BBC wrote, an “organisation for journalists based around the world” — it is an organization for journalists accredited to UNHQ in New York. And, this decision, taken at the urging of some colleagues, was not popular with all of the journalists. Some, who had not hesitated to use his captivity for their own political purposes in the UNCA elections held at the end of 1985, were nevertheless opposed to making Alec Collett “honorary president” on the grounds that (as they argued) he had been on a temporary assignment to UNRWA, and not working strictly as a journalist, at the time he was kidnapped …]

The Times of London reported on 19 November that “Seven British police officers and two forensic archaeologists are excavating near the village of Aitta al-Fuqar in the Bekaa Valley. It is the site of a base belonging to Fatah — the Revolutionary Council. The radical and violent Palestinian group was led by Sabri al-Banna, better known as Abu Nidal.  The team found two bodies, one of them an unidentified man who was first found during an earlier attempt to find Mr Collett 11 years ago. It was reinterred by Lebanese authorities. The second body is undergoing DNA tests to discover if it is Mr Collett.  Lebanese troops have sealed off the site to reporters and onlookers”.  This report can be found here

A second report by the Times of London, published on 24 November, said that “The UN confirmed yesterday that remains unearthed by British investigators in Lebanon’s eastern Bekaa Valley are those of Alec Collett, a British journalist kidnapped in 1985 and killed a year later. A spokesman said that Ban Ki Moon, the UN Secretary-General, while saddened by the news, ‘hopes the actions taken to find his remains can provide a measure of comfort to his loved ones’. The remains were identified with the help of DNA tests conducted in London by the Metropolitan Police. Collett, who was 64 when he was abducted, was on assignment with the UN reporting on Palestinian refugees in April 1985. He was kidnapped by Fatah Revolutionary Council, a radical Palestinian group headed by Abu Nidal. Collett is survived by his wife, Elaine, who also worked for the UN and lives in New York. Last week’s search was the fourth attempt in 11 years to recover his remains. The hunt had been narrowed to an isolated military base, once run by Abu Nidal militants, between the village of Aitta al-Fukhar and the Syrian border. The camp consists of a handful of derelict single-storey concrete buildings scattered on the slopes of a steep rocky valley. The walls of one abandoned building were daubed with sketches of the huge wooden water wheels in the Syrian city of Hama, and of Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian president, and his father Hafez al-Assad. The camp housed a small detachment of Syrian troops until 2005. One of the buildings was half-buried beneath bulldozed earth and rock for protection against attack, and it was here that Mr Collett spent his last weeks in captivity. The cell block consisted of three small rooms and a simple latrine. The doors and any furniture and fittings inside the cramped building long ago disappeared and today it appears to be a shelter for goats that scramble over the surrounding slopes. Mr Collett’ fate was sealed after US aircraft bombed Tripoli, in Libya on April 15, 1986. In retaliation, eight days later, the Libyan-backed militants took Mr Collett from his bleak cell and hanged him, then shot him in the back of the head — according to a Palestinian eyewitness whose testimony in 2005 provided additional confirmation that the British journalist had been buried on the site. A team from the Metropolitan police counterterrorist department and two forensic archaeologists began excavating a section of the camp on November 14. A digger scraped away the surface layer of stony soil, then investigators worked the ground by hand. Small red flags marked the spot of each dig. The operation was conducted amid tight security, with Lebanese troops keeping reporters and onlookers away, but The Times was able to gain access to the site. ‘We looked for signs of disturbance in the soil and focussed on those areas’, said one of the investigators. Two bodies were discovered. One of them was that of a suspected Palestinian militant whose remains were first uncovered during an earlier search for Mr Collett’s body in 1998, and subsequently re-interred by Lebanese authorities. The second body was that of Mr Collett, the bullet hole in the skull convincing the investigators that they had found their man pending the final result of the DNA tests”. This Times of London report is posted here

While the Times of London report, above, said that “Last week’s search was the fourth attempt in 11 years to recover his remains”, a BBC report here said that the UN “tried three times between 1995 and 2000 to find his body and there have been numerous false alarms”.

Two UN officials were trying to get Alec Collett’s release much earlier — in the months immediately after his abduction, and after the reports of the execution: Perez de Cuellar’s aide Gianni Picco, who got involved in some of the hostage negotiations as part of larger regional efforts, and the Lebanese-Palestinian information official, Samir Sanbar. They operated, apparently, on different tracks. I was also told, at the time, that the high-ranking British UN official Brian Urquhart, was also involved on another separate track. And, UNCA made several quiet attempts, at the time, to contact various personalities in Lebanon to seek their help, without result…

My friend and mentor Promeneur, who did not speak to me for more than a year because of the UNCA election and its results, wrote me this week from London and said: “They did the DNA and yes it’s Alec. Any suggestion how I might contact Elaine? She with the UN still I wonder? Gosh their son will be in his mid-30s … and Alec he would now be 87 I think I got that right, double-gosh … Turns out it was … a retaliatory gesture after Reagan bombed Tripoli (remember how it was timed to run live on the 10 o’clock news) … otherwise they figure he was about to be released. All those years I’d imagined it must have been a Lebanese group, reasoning that Alec’s strong PLO sympathies must have tripped him up. Then I reasoned that he wouldn’t have lasted long without his medication – he had diabetes and other stuff, but no seems they did hang him. A guy doing life in the US has given an eye-witness account. The assignment had been a gift from UNRWA who knew how broke he was – it was going to clear his credit card debts etc.”…

Iraqi execution apparently imminent

It is the first execution of Iraq’s former leaders that has been approved by Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, and two Iraqi vice presidents, apparently fulfilling all the legal requirements in the present Iraqi penal code in a way that the executions of (1) Saddam Hussein and (2) his half-brother Barzan Ibrahim al-Tikriti (whose head was yanked off by the rope during the force of his fall from the gallows), (3) former judge Awad Hamed al-Bandar, as well as (4) former Vice President Taha Yassin Ramadan (who was originally only sentenced to life imprisonment, but whose punishment was upgraded during an automatic appeal), did not. (Talabani somehow made himself absent for at least Saddam’s and Taha Yassin Ramadan’s executions.)

Ali Hassan al-Majid, known as “Chemical Ali” for his role in the air attacks with chemical weapons that killed thousands of Iraqi Kurds in Halabja and elsewhere, and a cousin of Saddam Hussein, will now die within the 30-day limit specified by Iraqi law — but, it will probably happen much sooner, and maybe even as early as tomorrow.

UPDATE: Reuters is now reporting that the Presidency Council (the president and the two vice-presidents) actually approved the sentence two days ago, and that there was no explanation of why this decision has been kept secret. This Reuters report is here.

The verdicts were upheld on appeal last September. It was earlier reported that they had been approved by the Iraqi president (and the two vice presidents) today (Friday).

Another new element today is that the death sentences passed and upheld on appeal on two other former senior officials — including one who had reportedly been promised amnesty by senior U.S. military officials, apparently for his covert assistance — has not been approved, or at least not yet.

It is not yet clear whether the death sentences for these two men — Hussein Rashid Mohammed, described as a former deputy director of operations for the Iraqi armed forces, and Sultan Hashim al-Taie, a former defense minister — will be commuted. Iraqi officials are reportedly saying that both men were really only career military officers who were simply carrying out orders

If their sentences are commuted, the imminent execution of Ali Hassan al-Majid would be the last of the capital punishments carried out on the former leaders of Iraq’s Baathist regime.

UN Human Rights experts call on Iran to halt execution of seven Arab-Iranians

Three independent experts appointed by the UN Human Rights Council have called on the Iranian Government to “stop the imminent execution of seven men belonging to the Ahwazi Arab minority and grant them a fair and public hearing”.

The families of the seven men were notified by Iranian authorities on Monday 8 January that the executions would be carried out within the next few days.

In mid-December, three other Arab-Iranians were executed, after their conviction in a secret trial of all ten men.

The Geneva-based UN Human Rights Council had previously expressed its strong concern about the trial.  The three independent human rights experts appointed by the Human Rights Council said on Thursday that they had previously written to the Iranian Government in August and in November 2006 about these cases — but received no reply, the experts said.

“We are fully aware that these men are accused of serious crimes, including having tried to overthrow the Government after having received military training by US and UK forces.  However, this cannot justify their conviction and execution after trials that made a mockery of due process requirements,” the experts said Thursday.

Manfred Nowak, the Special Rapporteur on Torture, Philip Alston, the Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, and Leandro Despouy, the Special Rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers, said that the ten men were sentenced to death after a secret trial before a court in Ahvaz, the capital of the south-western Iranian province of Khuzestan, bordering Iraq — but their lawyers were not allowed to see the defendants prior to their trial, and were given access to the prosecution case only hours before the start of the trial. The lawyers were also intimidated by charges of ‘threatening national security’ being brought against them.

The human rights experts say that the convictions were reportedly based on confessions extorted under torture. “The only element of the cases of these men not shrouded in secrecy was the broadcast on public television of their so-called confessions”, Mr. Nowak said.

“The three men executed in mid-December (named Malek Banitamim, Abdullah Solymani and Ali Matorizadeh) and the seven reportedly at imminent risk of execution are part of a larger group of Ahwazi Arab activists arrested in June 2006 on charges of having received training in Iraq by officials of the United States of America, the United Kingdom and Israel, and of having returned to Iran with the intent to destabilize the country, to sabotage oil installations and to overthrow the Government”, the experts noted.

Another independent expert appointed by the UN Human Rights Council, the Special Rapporteur on summary executions, has expressed concerns regarding unfair trials on capital charges also with regard to ten other Ahwazi Arabs, as well as other Iranians accused of violently opposing the Government.

The UN says that the human rights experts believe that the Government of Iran is violating its obligations under the procedures of the Human Rights Council by systematically refusing to provide information and engage in a dialogue on these matters with the independent experts.

One of the most important international human rights treaties, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights — to which Iran is a party — says that capital punishment can only be imposed after a trial satisfying the strictest fair trial guarantees. These include the right to a fair and public hearing, the right not to be compelled to confess guilt, and the right to ‘adequate time and facilities for the preparation of ones defence’ with the assistance of a lawyer of ones’ own choosing.

In their correspondence with the Government of Iran, the UN independent experts also expressed their concerns about the charges of ‘mohareb’ — translated as ‘being at war with God’ –which Iranian media say triggered the application of the death penalty in these cases.  The UN independent human rights experts say that this charge is too vague to satisfy the very strict standards of legality set by international human rights law for the imposition and execution of the death penalty.  In addition, they say, it is a charge frequently filed against political dissidents, critics of the Government and persons accused of espionage.

Khuzestan is one of the Iranian areas most affected by the devastating 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq war.

Much of the reporting over the past year about a possible military attack on Iran to stop its nuclear program has also mentioned active clandestine infiltration of agents in areas along the Iraq-Iran border.

The seven men at imminent risk of execution, according to a UN press release, are Ghasem Salami, Mohammad Lazem Kaabpour, Abdolamir Farjolah Kaab, Alireza Asakereh, Majad Albughbish, Abdolreza Sanawati, and Khalaf Dohrab Khanafereh.