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Iraqi reality TV puts ‘terrorists’ face-to-face with victims
ISIL terrorist Haider Ali Motar, in yellow, is confronted in Baghdad by a bombing victim in front of the cameras. Hadi Mizban / AP Photo
December 22, 2014 Updated: December 22, 2014 06:16 PM
BAGHDAD // Haider Ali Motar was convicted of terrorism charges about a month ago for helping to carry out a string of Baghdad car bombings on behalf of the ISIL extremist group.
Now, the 21-year old i
In the Grip of the Law brings convicted terrorists face-to-face with victims in surreal encounters and celebrates the country’s beleaguered security forces.
The show, produced by state-run Iraqiyya TV, is among dozens of programmes, cartoons and musical public service announcements aimed at shoring up support for the troops after their humiliating defeat last summer at the hands of ISIL, which now controls about a third of the country.
On a chilly, overcast day last week, the crew arrived at the scene of one of the attacks for which Motar was convicted, with a heavily armed escort in eight military pick-up trucks and Humvees. Passing cars clogged the road to watch the drama unfold, but were quickly chased away by soldiers.
After being pulled from an armoured vehicle, a shackled Motar found himself face-to-face with the seething relatives of the victims of the attack.
“Give him to me – I’ll tear him to pieces,” one of the relatives roared from behind a barbed wire barrier.
A cameraman pinned a microphone on Motar’s bright yellow prison jumpsuit as he stood alongside a busy Baghdad highway looking bewildered.
“Say something,” the cameraman said to him.
“What am I supposed to say?” a visibly panicked Motar asked.
“It’s a mic check! Just count: 1,2,3,4...”
Once the cameras were rolling, the show’s host Ahmed Hassan began questioning the still-shackled prisoner. When Motar was confronted by one of the victims, a young man in a wheelchair who lost his father in one of the attacks, the convict began weeping while the cameras rolled on.
Iraq has seen near-daily car bombs and other attacks for more than a decade, both before and after the withdrawal of US-led troops at the end of 2011. But the central message of the show is that the security forces will bring perpetrators to justice.
“We show our audiences the pictures, along with hard evidence, to leave no doubts that this person is a criminal and paying for his crimes,” Mr Hassan said.
The episodes often detail the trail of evidence that led security forces to make the arrest. Police allow the camera crew to film the evidence – explosive belts, bomb-making equipment or fingerprints and other DNA samples.
“We wanted to produce a programme that offers clear and conclusive evidence, with the complete story, presented and shown to Iraqi audiences,” Mr Hassan said. “Through surveillance videos, we show how the accused parked the car, how he blew it up, how he carries out an assassination.”
The alleged terrorists are shown confessing to their crimes in one-on-one interviews. Mr Hassan said the episodes are only filmed after the men have confessed to a judge, insisting it is “impossible” that any of them are innocent.
Human rights groups have long expressed concern over the airing of confessions by prisoners, many of whom have been held incommunicado in secret facilities.
“The justice system is so flawed and the rights of detainees, especially those accused of terrorism are so routinely violated that it is virtually impossible to be confident that they would be able to speak freely,” said Donatella Rovera from Amnesty International.
“Virtually every family I have met who has a relative detained has complained that they do not have access to them, and the same is true for lawyers.”
In September, Amnesty cited longstanding concerns about the Iraqi justice system “where many accused of terrorism have been convicted and sentenced to long prison terms and even to death on the basis of ‘confessions’ extracted under torture”.
Such concerns are rarely if ever aired on Iraqi TV, where wall-to-wall programming exalts the security forces. Singers embedded with the troops sing nationalist songs during commercial breaks.
Iraqi forces backed by Shiite and Kurdish militias, as well as US-led coalition airstrikes, have clawed back some territory following the army’s route last summer, when commanders disappeared, calls for reinforcements went unanswered and many soldiers stripped off their uniforms and fled.
But around a third of the country – including its second largest city, Mosul – remains under the firm control of militants, and nearly every day brings new bombings in and around the capital.
Back at the makeshift barricade set up for In the Grip of the Law, security officials insist they are nevertheless sending a message of deterrence.
“Many of these terrorists feel a lot of remorse when they see the victims,” said an undercover intelligence officer overseeing the shoot. “When people see that, it makes them think twice about crossing the law.”
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