Monday, July 17, 2006

A Very Hard Case

Tell you what: you read the first three paragraphs of this, and if you're not curious to read the rest, feel free to skip it. But let me tell you, it is a complicated pill to swallow. Saddam's "poison master" -- you read that right -- may have essentially been abused to death by American soldiers. You have to read the rest to understand just how insane and evil this guy was, and what the evidence for and against the charges is, so that you know why this is an interesting (though appalling) case. Of course if we hadn't invaded, this guy would still be plying his trade and we wouldn't have to ask ourselves these questions.

Among all the former henchmen of Saddam Hussein, there may have been no man more deserving of the death penalty than Dr. Muhammad Munim al-Azmerli. For decades, he allegedly served as Iraq's poison master, brewing potions for political assassinations out of ricin, snake venom and nitrogen mustard. He tested his wares on prisoners of the Baathist regime, as many as 100 individuals altogether, including Iranians, Kurds and a Saudi Arabian, according to declassified U.S. intelligence reports. His compatriots said he would feed detainees poisoned food, test explosives on the living and give prisoners drugs that caused memory loss and sexual dysfunction. Those who survived were often killed.

But Azmerli never got the chance to face the justice he deserved. He died at the age of 65 in a U.S. military hospital near Baghdad on Jan. 31, 2004, the only Iraqi weapons scientist known to have died in American custody. The neurosurgeon who examined him in the final days of his life said he was suffering from two separate brain hemorrhages. One had been caused days earlier when he allegedly fell from his hospital bed onto the floor. The second hemorrhage, which was considered life threatening on its own, had been caused more than three weeks earlier when Azmerli was in U.S. military custody, according to doctors' statements to Army investigators. After two years, and two separate investigations, the Army's Criminal Investigation Command classified Azmerli's death as "undetermined," and closed his case in September 2005.

This summer, Salon began its own investigation into the circumstances surrounding Azmerli's death, raising new questions about the causes of his injuries and the quality of the CID criminal inquiries. In response to these questions, the Army decided this week to open a third investigation into the death of Saddam's poison master. "Your inquiry prompted us to do another review of the case," said CID spokesman Christopher Grey on Thursday. "The investigative report was prematurely closed due to operational tempo." Grey would not comment on the specific focus of the third investigation.


Blogger nolo said...

Extremely interesting article, and it raises many interesting questions. However, and I hate to say it, the counterfactual proposition that Dr. Al-Azmerli would still have been "plying his trade" had the invasion not occurred neither raises nor answers any question that is worth asking. It's true, though, that we (as in the U.S.) wouldn't be having to ask ourselves these questions if we hadn't taken the guy into custody, because once we took him into custody we became the arbiters of how these questions would be answered. And, unfortunately, by creating a situation (either intentionally or incompetently) in which al-Azmerli died in U.S. custody under murky circumstances, we have ensured that there will never be a satisfactory answer to these questions. Like one of the Salon letter-writers observed, al-Azmerli now has even more in common with Dr. Mengele since he will never stand in public trial for his actions.

10:57 AM  
Blogger Lapp said...

I don't know if "counterfactual" is the right term. The things Bush says are counterfactual in that they are demonstrably false. At worst, the idea that al-Azmerli would still have his job had we not invaded the country is hypothetical, although I would call it likely. But it's semantics. All I meant by it is what I said -- we wouldn't have to wonder how to treat the man if we hadn't invaded Iraq. And he'd probably still be mixing poisons. That's not a reason to support the invasion, but it's not counterfactual either.

7:07 PM  
Blogger nolo said...

It's counterfactual in the same way "If JFK hadn't been assassinated, Vietnam would never have happened" is a counterfactual. But we quibble, since it's clear that we're on the same page on your main point.

10:42 PM  

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