Saddam parades families of exiled critics on TV

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Saddam Hussein has started a campaign to silence members of the Iraqi opposition in exile by forcing their families to denounce them on satellite television.

The families, who appear terrified, hint that they face death or rape if their relatives abroad do not stop opposing the Iraqi government.

Faiq Sheikh Ali, a distinguished Iraqi writer and journalist living in London who has often publicly criticised Saddam Hussein, was astonished earlier this year to see his mother, two sisters and brother being interviewed on television in their home in the city of Najaf south of Baghdad.

Each of Mr Sheikh Ali's family members denounced him in turn, asked him to stop his activities and strongly hinted that they were vulnerable to retaliation by the Iraqi government.

"Your father died because of your activity," said his mother Amel, dressed in the dark robes traditionally worn by Iraqi women in the south. "You have to think about us."

Fuad, Mr Sheikh Ali's young-er brother, his eyes darting nervously from side to side as he sat beside his mother, said: "I don't want to say 'hello' to my brother. I don't know him."

At one moment in the 25-minute interview a younger sister, also called Amel, pleaded with him. She said: "Please Faiq, you have to think that you have a sister in this country before you do anything." Mr Sheikh Ali fears his sister could be raped by the Iraqi security forces unless he stops speaking against President Saddam.

The Iraqi government has in the past often imprisoned and tortured the families of their opponents. "It is this which has made it so difficult to have an organised opposition in Iraq," commented one Iraqi exile this week.

But the use of satellite television, which can be picked up in Europe, to put family members on display is a new and chillingly effective method of intimidation.

Mr Sheikh Ali, 39, a short, neatly dressed man speaking faltering English, said he will not be silenced. "If you ignore what Saddam did in the past in Iraq, he will do even worse things in future," he said.

A Shia Muslim from a prominent family in the Iraqi holy city of Najaf on the Euphrates river 110 miles south of Baghdad, he practised as a lawyer until the Shia uprising against President Saddam in 1991 in the wake of the Gulf War. After taking part in the rebellion he was forced to flee, first to Saudi Arabia, then Iran and finally London where he has lived for the past nine years.

In Britain he became a journalist, writing articles hostile to President Saddam as well as a book about assassinations carried out by the Iraqi security services. But the reason why Baghdad is now trying so hard to silence him is explained by an angry debate on al-Jezeera, the widely watched Arab satellite channel, in which he took part last December. "I said the first terrorist in the world was Saddam and not bin Laden," recalled Mr Sheikh Ali. "I said he was a butcher."

Soon afterwards, Mr Sheikh Ali's mother, two sisters and brother were arrested in Najaf and taken to Baghdad for five days by the Iraqi security services. They were finally released but still have to go to sign their names at the security headquarters in the capital once a week. It was not the family's first brush with the security police. In 1996 his father was arrested four times in Najaf and died suddenly soon after he was released the last time. His family suspect he may have been killed by poison put in a bowl of yoghurt.

In mid-January this year, a convoy of black Mercedes cars and Land Rovers suddenly drew up outside the family home in Najaf at 7am. Gunmen, some in black masks, jumped out holding Kalashnikovs and pistols and entered the house. His two sisters, Afrah and Amel, were brought with their four children from their houses. Two Iraqi TV crews with cameras were present and family members were then compelled to sit together to denounce their brother. Whenever the interviewer was dissatisfied with their replies they were forced to repeat their words. The whole process took five hours.

"It is a general message to all the Iraqi opposition in the world," said Mr Sheikh Ali. "Be careful or we will kill your family."