Deborah Orr: The kidnap and murder of Margaret Hassan was chilling. So was the British response...

The fact that her husband was so comprehensively left to deal with the drama alone is immensely bleak
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The Independent Online

The figures, it could be argued, speak for themselves. In 2004, the year that Margaret Hassan was abducted and murdered in Iraq, 40 other foreign hostages were killed in a similar manner. Last year, only 13 foreign nationals died at the hands of kidnappers. This year, so far, only one - Norman Kember's American colleague Tom Fox - has been confirmed as dead. The hardline stance of the US and Britain, which stipulates that kidnappers must never be negotiated with, is pretty much the only policy in Iraq that appears to be working.

The US, in particular, has remained resolute in its determination not to be seen to be negotiating with kidnappers. So much so, indeed, that when Christian Science Monitor journalist Jill Carroll was kidnapped this year, George Bush was reported to have delayed the release of a group of innocent women prisoners simply in case it sparked speculation on the matter.

Other nations have not been quite so resolute. Italy and France are believed to have paid money in return for the release of hostages, and so is Germany. The Philippines even withdrew their troops early in order to secure a national's release. None of these countries, however, has been particularly targeted by ransom hunters either, which may or may not be of relevance.

Anyway, whether or not the coalitions' success in persuading its nationals that they will not step in to save them has been an achievement, or simply another example of the foolish macho posturing that has characterised the whole invasion, is a moot point. It is well known, after all, that most Westerners now confine themselves to Baghdad's Green Zone, rather than risk the sort of summary abduction and slaughter that remains the fate of large numbers of Iraqi citizens.

The idea that entrepreneurs from the West would be by now flooding into Iraq, joining in with the joyous rebuilding of a liberated nation, and sharing in the hefty rewards for doing so, has been well and truly scotched. The fates of Margaret Hassan and Ken Bigley, their pleas for mercy filmed and broadcast on al-Jazeera, cannot have persuaded many Britons that the prizes were worth the risks. The Government's propaganda war may or may not be sending the right message out to opportunist criminals and political insurgents. But the propaganda message sent by political insurgents to the West has definitely found its mark.

The execution of Ken Bigley was shocking enough to Britons. But the killing of Margaret Hassan was yet more so. Married to an Iraqi, she had lived there for 30 years, and had worked since 1991 for Care International, a large and highly respected humanitarian charity, in Baghdad.

She had been vociferous in her condemnation of the sanctions against Iraq after the first Gulf War, and had told a House of Commons briefing prior to the present occupation that "The Iraqi people are already living through a terrible emergency. They do not have the resources to withstand an additional crisis brought about by military action."

She was so well thought of in Iraq that when her kidnappers - who have never identified themselves - threatened to pass her on to known insurgent groups - including that led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who has admitted to beheading Bigley - they all declared that they would set her free, and urged her captors do do the same. They did not, and instead released two films of Margaret pleading desperately for the release of women prisoners, the withdrawal of troops and her own life.

Whatever one thinks about the British policy of non-negotiation, though, new information about the background to Margaret's abduction and death is truly chilling. Her case has been in the news this week because, more than a year and a half after her death, Mustafa Salman al-Jabouri has been imprisoned for life for "aiding and abetting her kidnappers".

He and a number of other men were arrested last May by US forces, after they were found to be in possession of her handbag and make-up. Her relatives have expressed bitterness at the failure to bring anyone to justice for Mrs Hassan's murder, or even to recover her body.

Margaret's sister, Deirdre Fitzsimmons, has gone further and suggested on BBC radio that the failure of the British government adequately to respond to Margaret's abduction helped to seal her fate. In this, she expresses the kind of helpless frustration that anyone might when faced with a loss like hers. But it is in the detail of her complaint that the true scale of the incompetence and sheer indifference of the government becomes clear.

The meat of Ms Fitzsimmons's complaint is that Margaret's husband, Tahsine Ali Hassan, received four telephone calls from Margaret's abductors, all of which were dismissed by officials as hoaxes, even though they had been made from Margaret's own mobile phone.

Yet it is the wider situation she describes that is so different to what one might imagine. Ms Fitzsimmons says: "My brother-in-law was left in the house on his own without any recording equipment. He was given the advice to say that the British didn't want to be involved ... I don't think he knew what to do. He did the best he could. After all, this was a man in a house on his own. His wife had been taken hostage. he had seen terrible videos of her and he was really left on his own with this advice."

One would imagine that those recruited at the sharp end of Britain's non-negotiation strategy - the loved ones of British citizens captured - might be given help and advice and support. The fact that Mr Hassan was so comprehensively "cut loose" and left to deal with the whole drama alone is immensely bleak.

It was only after 7 November - when two calls came from her phone - that there was a meeting between Mr Hassan, Care International, the British Embassy and Scotland Yard officials flown out to work on the investigation. It was agreed then that after the next call, a mobile number would be given that would connect the kidnappers with a Care International worker. There was no next call, just a video sent to al-Jazeera depicting Margaret being shot dead.

The Foreign Office stands by its strategy of minimising links between Margaret and the UK to make her "less vulnerable". Deirdre Fitzsimmons even claims that the family were advised to emphasise Margaret's "Iraqiness" - which may be a good strategy as far as warning Iraq that there is nothing to be gained from kidnapping Brits is concerned, but was perhaps a less good strategy at a time when insurgents were already slaughtering middle-class Iraqis with impunity.

The Government's disengagement from this particular human tragedy, along with all the millions of other human tragedies created by this invasion, is disturbing beyond words