Kurds bring killer of Britons to justice: Iraqi 'peshmerga' were determined to clear their name of the murder of three television reporters

Click to follow
THE wheels of Iraqi Kurdish justice may turn as slowly as the ceiling fans over the hot, crowded courtrooms, but there is no doubting the determination of the team winding up an investigation into the deaths in 1991 of three British television reporters - Nick della Casa, his wife, Rosanna, and Charles Maxwell.

At his metal desk in a spartan court office, the Prosecuting Judge, Azad al- Muallah, said in an interview yesterday that a second Turkish Kurd had been arrested for helping rob the dead reporters' bodies after they were killed attempting to enter northern Iraq to cover the Kurdish uprising against Baghdad in March 1991.

The suspect, Ubeidullah Sarif, a slight man in the traditional Kurdish dress of baggy trousers, cummerbund and head-dress, was apparently abducted from Turkey by Iraqi Kurdish guerrillas before his detention and questioning in the Iraqi Kurdish capital, Arbil, on Saturday. Judge al- Nuallah said Mr Sarif's role in the case had been known for some time and the main suspect in the killings remains their would-be guide, Hasem Ciftci, another Turkish Kurd now jailed in Arbil.

'There is little doubt that Hasem killed the two men. Of the four, only he was armed. The question is whether it was premeditated or, as he claims, an accident that happened during a scuffle over the question of payment,' Judge al-Muallah said. 'After the killings, Hasem went back home to Ubeidullah's house to ask for help in collecting their money, cameras and so on. They went to get the things together, divided them up and sold them off.'

Statements made by Mr Sarif raised new questions over whether there was really an argument, the judge said. But they did not alter his essential understanding of what happened on or about 25 March, 1991 in a remote, lawless valley on the Iraqi-Turkish border. According to Mr Ciftci, Nick della Casa was shot first, then Charles Maxwell. The fate of Rosanna is still not certain. Mr Ciftci claimed in statements that he did not shoot at her but she fled the scene, possibly having been hit by a bullet while hiding behind Mr Maxwell.

Some light on what happened to Rosanna may be gleaned from statements to be taken in the coming days from a mountain unit of peshmerga guerrillas, who came across a decayed body of a woman fitting her description, the judge said. Thinking her to be a dead guerrilla from a Turkish Kurdish faction, they had simply rolled the body into a stream.

Judge al-Muallah, a rigorous, straight-backed man of 44, took over two weeks ago as head of a three-man investigative committee that will eventually present the prosecution's case to a three-judge court. There are no juries in the Iraqi system preserved by the new Iraqi Kurdish federal government. Appeal is possible, but the penalty for multiple, premeditated murder is death. It will probably take at least two months to finish preparing the case.

'We have no money, no facilities. I have to write to the Minister of the Interior himself to get the use of a car,' said Judge al-Muallah, working on the thick dossiers full of handwritten statements in Arabic signed by thumb-prints, and photocopied documents from the Thames Valley Police. 'Two major things remain to be done: first to go with the suspects to the scene of the crime, the second to find the murder weapon.'

Neither of these tasks will be easy. The whereabouts of the weapon is a mystery, and ultimately the prosecution has only to show it has made every effort to prove the suspected cause of death. But there must be a visit to the valley where a squad of British soldiers found the scattered remains of the group, a ride of eight hours by mule from the nearest road.

'For our safety, we must talk to the Turks to make sure they have no anti-guerrilla operations in the area. We have also pleaded with the British to lend us a helicopter for a day from the allied military mission in northern Iraq, but they say they can do nothing,' Mr al-Muallah said.

No progress at all would have been made in the case if Masoud Barzani's Kurdistan Democratic Party had not been determined to clear the name of Iraqi Kurds. They found Mr Sarif and Mr Ciftci, who had bribed his way out of a Turkish jail to hide in a village in Iran. Rough and ready though their methods and initial interrogations may have been, they were the ones who brought the suspects to justice.

(Photograph omitted)