Fifteen men were recently sentenced to death in Iraq for mass rape and murder at a wedding. But did the Dujail wedding massacre ever take place?
Co-authored by RNW Arabic Desk
At the end of May, a group of men made a confession on Iraqi TV to a horrific crime. In 2006, as members of a Sunni terrorist organisation, they were said to have kidnapped the wedding entourage of a mixed Shiite and Sunni couple. Women were raped, children thrown in the river. Seventy people in total were reportedly murdered. Radio Netherlands Worldwide investigated the event that shocked even a country where brutal violence is an everyday occurrence.
One of the suspects of the Dujail wedding massacre, Firas Hassan Fleih al-Juburi, took part in demonstrations against the Iraqi government. The confessions about the wedding crimes were broadcast on 28 May, a few days before a major anti-government demonstration was planned. Firas was presented on TV as an activist who proved to be a terrorist.
Along with the human rights demonstration, there was a mass protest against terrorism, calling for the swift execution of the perpetrators. On 16 June the court announced that 15 suspects had been sentenced to death after a short trial, possibly for other crimes to which they had confessed.
Inconsistencies in the Iraqi TV footage:
Direction of the cars
State television said the wedding procession was travelling from Dujail to Tajj. The bride reportedly came from the Sunni town of Tajj. Iraqi tradition is that the groom's family (from Dujail) goes to fetch the bride (in Tajj), in which case she could not have been part of the procession when it was attacked.
The bride was reported to have been raped in the cellar of a mosque. The mosque in question does not actually have a cellar.
Contradictory witness statements
Firas stated that he stood guard while others were doing the killing. Other suspects said he took part in the killings.
The video footage shown was said to have been recorded during the events, although it was dated October rather than June. Moreover, there were no cars in the video, while the victims were said to have been abducted in their cars.
Political groups in Iraq immediately complained that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki was taking advantage of the tragedy. The confessions were highly convenient for the government. As well as being a human rights activist, Firas was also a member of the Iraqiya party, led by the prime minister's great political rival Ayad Allawi.
Amnesty International began a campaign because the confessions were broadcast before the trial had been held. On the internet, opponents of the regime expressed doubts about the truth of the wedding massacre story. But no one openly questioned whether the horrific tragedy had ever actually taken place.
Radio Netherlands Worldwide has gathered information from a range of reliable sources and found no concrete evidence that the Dujail wedding massacre really happened. There are five arguments that lead to this conclusion:
► 1. Before 2011 no one had ever heard of the incident. The Dujail wedding massacre was not reported in the media in 2006. Iraqi Body Count (IBC) records all media reports on fatal incidents since 2003. No bodies were found that were said to be victims of the incident. At RNW's request, IBC made an additional search of the media between June and October 2006. "The event is nowhere to be found until last month's confession," says researcher Josh Dougherty of IBC.
► 2. The broadcast confessions contained major inconsistencies (see box).
► 3. "There is no doubt that the news of such a large and horrific crime would have rapidly spread among ordinary people," says Muwaffek al-Ayesh, intelligence officer for the US troops in the Baghdad region from 2004 to 2010. "How is it possible that we reported nothing about this, when our task was to gather information?"
► 4. Seventy people are said to have died, yet no family members of the victims can be found. Supposed family members did appear in the TV broadcast. When a parliamentary delegation travelled to meet them, they all turned out to have lost family members in other attacks. MP Haidar al-Mulla of Ayad Allawi's political block says that the 15 men were convicted of other crimes and no victims of the wedding massacre reported to the court.
► 5. RNW spoke via a contact person to tribal leaders and officials from the Shiite village of Dujail, said to have been the home of most of the victims. They say anonymously that the massacre never took place.
The department responsible for security operations in Baghdad has not met undertakings to answer RNW's questions. A court spokesman also left the questions unanswered. Various Iraqi contact persons were outraged at the suggestion that the Dujail wedding massacre didn't take place. "It is ridiculous to doubt the story," says Ismael Zayer, chief editor of the daily al-Sabah al-Jadid. "There is video footage of the kidnapping, the suspects have confessed," he says. He rejects Radio Netherlands Worldwide's claim that the video shows other events (see box) and the footage of the wedding massacre is untraceable.
The 15 convicted men are due to be executed for a crime that may have been fabricated.