An Iraqi father confronts militia in search for missing son

Jasb Hattab Aboud, father of the kidnapped protester Ali Jasb, cries as he holds his son’s picture in his home in the town of Amara, Iraq. (AP)
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Updated 03 October 2020

An Iraqi father confronts militia in search for missing son

  • Curtailing the power of militias was a key promise of Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi when he took office in May, following months of political deadlock when former premier Adel Abdul Mahdi resigned under pressure from protests

BAGHDAD: In the span of 30 seconds, Ali Jasb, a young rights lawyer, vanished into the night in southern Iraq.
On an evening a year ago, a woman emerged from a dimly lit street in the city of Amara and greeted Jasb. Almost immediately a black SUV pulled up, two men forced him in, and the vehicle sped away. The woman climbed into a waiting pickup truck and left.
The fateful moment, captured by a surveillance camera at 6:22 p.m. on Oct. 8, 2019, was the last sighting of the 21-year-old Jasb.
Since that day, Jasb’s father has been on a search for justice that has run repeatedly against one major obstacle: The increasing helplessness of Iraq’s government in the face of powerful, Iranian-backed Shiite militias. Judicial investigations, seen by The Associated Press, show a clear connection between Jasb’s abduction and the most powerful militia group in his home city.
Still, his father, Jasb Aboud is determined to bring the head of that militia to court.
“I am afraid,” he told the AP. “But I lost what was most valuable to me, so I’ve got nothing else to lose.”
Jasb was abducted a week into historic protests that had erupted on Oct. 1 and saw tens of thousands of youth rallying against corruption and the ruling class. Hope for change inspired many, including Jasb, to speak out against the influence of militias.
He is among 53 protesters still missing since the movement began on Oct. 1, according to the semi-official Iraqi High Commission for Human Rights.
When the nationwide protests erupted, Jasb participated and used his legal expertise to form a committee to help those detained. He also openly criticized militias.
In his home city of Amara, capital of Missan province, that meant Ansar Allah Al-Awfia, one of the more extreme pro-Iranian militias, led by a local commander, Haidar Al-Gharawi. It was incorporated under the state-sponsored umbrella group, the Popular Mobilization Forces, created to fight Daesh in 2014.
Over the years, it came to control important offices in the provincial government and many businesses in Missan, while being notorious for illicit dealings along the border with Iran.
There was no response to repeated emails by the AP to the PMF seeking comment for this story, and calls and messages to Al-Awfia were not answered.
Curtailing the power of militias was a key promise of Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi when he took office in May, following months of political deadlock when former premier Adel Abdul Mahdi resigned under pressure from protests.

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53 protesters still missing since the movement began on Oct. 1, according to the semi-official Iraqi High Commission for Human Rights.

But he was soon faced with the limits of his administration. Abdul Mahdi had allowed militias’ power to grow so much that “now, we almost don’t have a state,” said a high-level official, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.
Frequent rocket attacks targeted Al-Kadhimi’s seat of power in Baghdad, straining relations with the US raid on the Iranian-backed Kataib Hezbollah, suspected of firing the rockets, backfired when most of those detained were set free — lack of evidence, the court said.
Activists continue to be targeted. The July shooting death of a high-profile commentator and critic of Iran, Hisham Al-Hashimi, stunned Baghdad. Two leading activists in Basra were assassinated.
In the case of Jasb’s disappearance, investigators in Missan quickly came across evidence of a link to Al-Gharawi, the Al-Awfia militia commander, according to court documents seen by the AP.
Hours before his abduction, Jasb received a phone call from a woman seeking legal help who asked to meet him later that evening, his father said. It was when he went to meet her that he was snatched.
Key to the case was the mobile number that had called Jasb.
Investigators found it belonged to an illegally acquired SIM not registered with the authorities. There is a thriving black market for such unregistered SIMs, which cannot be traced to a user.
Police identified other numbers that had called the unknown SIM. Among them was a man named Sadam Hamed. He told investigators that he knew nothing about the unknown number, but said his wife, Fatima Saeed, sometimes used his phone to call a relative. That relative is married to Al-Awfia’s commander, Al-Gharawi, according to his testimony.
The judge summoned Saeed for questioning but she never showed up. Both she and Hamed had fled.
There the investigation ground to a halt. For nine long months, Jasb’s father waited for developments. Nothing happened. So Aboud went to Baghdad and met a new lawyer, Wala Al-Ameri.
They decided to attempt a bold gambit: To seek an arrest warrant against Al-Gharawi from a court in the capital, which would hopefully be far from the militia’s sway in Missan.
“The accused is a militia that has power in Missan, so it could be that it has influence over witnesses, even the law,” Al-Ameri said.
But again they hit a dead end.
The Baghdad judge deemed there was insufficient evidence for a warrant against Al-Gharawi. He dismissed Hamed’s testimony and said only a statement from someone who had seen the kidnapping could advance the case.
“Now it’s a case against the unknown,” Aboud said.
In September, Prime Minister Al-Kadhimi visited Missan and gave Jasb’s father an audience. During their 15-minute meeting, Aboud laid out the court documents, explained the details of the case and named the militia he believes took his son.
Al-Kadhimi “put his hand to his chest and promised he would deliver him to me,” Aboud said.
The premier might be Aboud’s last hope. There are witnesses to his son’s abduction, but none dare speak out.
One man told the AP he was near a shop that night and saw everything. He belongs to a powerful local tribe but spoke on condition of anonymity out of fear.
He recounted seeing the woman emerge and the men push Jasb into the vehicle. He also saw police arrive afterward and search Jasb’s car. The AP confirmed that the shop he named had a view of the site. But would he testify? “It would be my funeral the next day.”


A Lebanese nonprofit helps refugees develop confidence through the creative arts

Updated 27 min 55 sec ago

A Lebanese nonprofit helps refugees develop confidence through the creative arts

  • Seenaryo has brought imaginative new learning techniques to hundreds of classrooms across Jordan and Lebanon
  • Youngsters take the stage as part of drive to use drama and song to strengthen community ties

BEIRUT: Lebanese theatrical nonprofit Seenaryo teaches drama, dance and song to marginalized communities, building confidence and self-esteem through the creative arts, while its teacher-support app has brought imaginative new learning techniques to hundreds of classrooms across Jordan and Lebanon.

Founded in 2015 by British expat duo Victoria Lupton and Oscar Wood, Seenaryo’s five-day intensive theater workshops are still operating despite the coronavirus pandemic, with the group’s most recent — socially distanced — project staged at Beirut’s Dar Al-Aytam Al-Islamiya orphanage in September.

Up to 30 boys and girls, or even a group of adults, participate in each workshop where, through improvisation exercises, they brainstorm ideas to create a musical play, write a script and song lyrics, and master dance routines. Each play includes five original songs set to professionally made backing tracks. The group then performs its play to a local audience.

Up to 30 boys and girls, or even adults, participate in each workshop where, through improvisation exercises, they brainstorm ideas to create a musical play, write a script and song lyrics, and master dance routines. (Supplied)

“What we’re trying to do is support our participants to feel a sense of agency and ownership over their own lives, to feel that they can contribute to their communities and have an impact on their own lives and those around them,” Lupton said. “Play-based learning and theater does that by building life skills — that might be communication skills and empathy or building confidence and a sense of self-worth.”

Initially, Seenaryo worked solely with Syrian and Palestinian refugees. “Very quickly, within a year, we realized it was neither particularly helpful in terms of existing tensions between communities nor reaching the neediest beneficiaries if we just focused on refugees, so we widened the focus to work with all marginalized people regardless of nationality,” Lupton said.

“Theater has the power to bring a community together and feel like a family.”

In 2019 alone, Seenaryo staged 15 original theater productions in Jordan and Lebanon. Aside from the co-founders, most staff are from the local community. The non-profit also runs several choirs for children and women singing music from around the world as well as original songs written by participants in two-part harmony.

The influx of refugee children has strained the education systems of Lebanon and Jordan, with low quality teaching causing children to drop out of school, while stressed teachers often quit. In response, Seenaryo created a teacher training book that this year launched as an app, Playkit, to support educators teaching children aged three to eight.

“We fit into the national strategies of dealing with this new population by helping to increase teaching quality, Lupton said. “The Playkit is a shortcut to 21st century learning techniques. Just this small intervention can have a transformative impact on classrooms and helps keep children in school.”

On the app, there are hundreds of play-based activities available including games, songs, interactive stories and tools to help classroom management. These take the form of how-to videos, flashcards, music tracks and step-by-step teaching instructions. Among the subjects covered are languages, mathematics, health, the natural and human worlds, and social and emotional learning. The app is available in Arabic, English and French.

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As of early September, 113 schools were using the app along with 1,075 teachers and 28,875 children.

Usually, teachers would first undertake a three-day training course before incorporating the app into their classroom activities, but the coronavirus pandemic has halted in-person instruction as schools shut. So, Seenaryo created short, instructive three-minute videos that it sends to parents and caregivers via WhatsApp to help them home school children.

This distance-learning program, “I Learn from Home,” dispatches three new videos each week to around 2,500 families. “These lesson plans needed to be accessible to even people who are illiterate or have low educational attainment, which is why we went for video,” said Lupton. “These are a very engaging set of instructions as to how to teach that day’s lesson, whether it’s on health or maths or whatever was in the curriculum that day.”

Seenaryo is funded through various government and non-government agencies, while the organization hopes subscriptions to Playkit will enable it to provide the app to schools. Now, with Lebanon facing new hardships and traumas, Seenaryo’s community-building projects are needed more than ever and Lupton’s team is ready and determined to help.

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This report is being published by Arab News as a partner of the Middle East Exchange, which was launched by the Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum Global Initiatives to reflect the vision of the UAE prime minister and ruler of Dubai to explore the possibility of changing the status of the Arab region.