UNITED NATIONS

Press Release



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SPECIAL RAPPORTEUR FOR IRAQ EXPRESSES CONCERN OVER KILLINGS OF SHI'A RELIGIOUS LEADERS
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HR/98/45
2 July 1998



The Special Rapporteur on human rights in Iraq has condemned the recent assassinations of two internationally respected religious scholars from Najaf, Iraq, expressing concern that the killings may be part of an organized attack by Iraqi officials on the independent leadership of the country's Shi'a community.

The investigator, Max van der Stoel, says in a statement issued today that information he has received indicates that Grand Ayatollah Shaykh Mirza Ali al-Gharawi and Ayatollah Shaykh Murtada al-Burujerdi were killed after suffering harassment at the hands of Iraqi authorities. Officials had reportedly warned the two clerics to stop leading prayers for Shi'a Muslims, and the Government has been said to favour other scholars to lead the Shi'a community.

In his statement, Mr. van der Stoel, Special Rapporteur of the Commission on Human Rights, recalls that Grand Ayatollah Sayed Ali Seestani, the current Shi'a spiritual leader, was attacked in his home in Najaf in November 1996, resulting in the death of one of his employees. "Grand Ayatollah Seestani was effectively harassed into stopping his prayers," says Mr. van der Stoel, adding that the Iraqi authorities have been associated with a series of previous fatal accidents.

The Special Rapporteur urges the Government of Iraq to make every effort to investigate thoroughly the recent incidents and to "bring to justice those responsible for these heinous crimes".


Below is the full text of Mr. van der Stoel's statement:


"The Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Iraq, Max van der Stoel, condemns the recent assassinations of Grand Ayatollah Shaykh Mirza Ali al-Gharawi and Ayatollah Shaykh Murtada al-Burujerdi, two internationally respected religious scholars residing in Najaf, Iraq. The Special Rapporteur expresses his concern that these deaths may be part of an organized attack by Iraqi officials against the independent leadership of the Shi'a religious community in Iraq.

According to information received, Grand Ayatollah Shaykh Mirza Ali al-Gharawi (68 years old) was assassinated on 18 June 1998 in his car on the route between the holy cities of Karbala and Najaf. He was accompanied by his son-in-law, driver and another companion. According to information from persons claiming to have been witnesses, the car of Ayatollah al-Gharawi was stopped and all four passengers of the car were then shot dead on the spot.

Ayatollah al-Gharawi was a well-respected religious scholar and was also a senior spiritual leader (or Marja) of Shi'a Muslims. The Iraqi Government is reported to favour another scholar whom many clerics feel is unqualified. Just one month prior to his assassination, it was reported that Ayatollah al-Gharawi had been harassed and warned by the Iraqi authorities to cease leading the prayers, despite the fact that Ayatollah al-Gharawi had never been involved in political activity. The Iraqi Government has denied any involvement in the attack, calling the murders "a treacherous crime behind which stand malicious foreign-based elements".

The assassination of Ayatollah al-Gharawi follows the recent assassination of Ayatollah Shaykh Murtada al-Burujerdi (67 years old), another leading religious scholar and jurist residing in the holy city of Najaf, who was shot dead in the evening of 21 April 1998 while he was walking home with two companions after he had led congregational evening prayers at the shrine of Imam Ali.

Reliable sources claim that Ayatollah al-Burujerdi had suffered various forms of harassment by Iraqi officials in the two years prior to his death. In particular, the Ayatollah had previously survived two serious attacks. In the first (two years ago), he was severely beaten and, in the second (a little over a year ago), a hand grenade was thrown at him causing injuries to his legs which forced him to remain at home for two months.

Following the 1991 Shi'a uprising in southern Iraq, Ayatollah al-Burujerdi, who at that time had been arrested for three days, began leading the daily prayers in the sacred enclosure of Imam Ali. As well as being a leader of the congregational prayers, Ayatollah al-Burujerdi was a serious candidate for the position of Marja. It was reported that Ayatollah al-Burujerdi had been asked by the Iraqi authorities to give up his post as leader of the prayers at the shrine of Imam Ali, but he refused. Two months prior to his death, al-Burujerdi was reportedly visited by Iraqi officials who ordered him to stop leading the prayers, but he said he would only agree to do so if he received an order in writing from the Government. He was apparently opposed to the Iraqi Government's interference with the religious community, including the Government's support for another cleric.

The Special Rapporteur fears that these murders are part of a systematic attack on the independent leadership of Shi'a Muslims in Iraq. The Special Rapporteur notes that Grand Ayatollah Sayed Ali Seestani (the current Shi'a Islamic spiritual leader who succeeded Grand Ayatollah Sayed al-Khoei who died under house arrest in 1992) was attacked at his home in Najaf in November 1996, resulting in the death of one of his employees. Grand Ayatollah Seestani was effectively harassed into stopping his prayers at the al-Khadra mosque. The Special Rapporteur also recalls that Iraqi Governmental authorities have been associated with a series of previous fatal accidents, apparently engineered, such as the well known case of Sayed Muhammed Taqi al-Khoei, son of the Grand Ayatollah al-Khoei, who died on 21 July 1994 in a suspicious car accident while returning from his weekly visit to Karbala. He was accompanied by his brother-in-law, Amin Khalkhali, his six-year-old nephew and his driver, when they crashed into an unlit truck blocking the divided highway on flat ground at around 11 p.m. His driver and nephew died instantly. Al-Khoei and his brother-in-law were not taken to the hospital immediately and bled to death on the side of the road. An ambulance arrived only around 4 a.m. to pick up the bodies. As with Ayatollahs al-Burujerdi and al-Gharawi, Muhammad Taqi al-Khoei had previously been harassed by Iraqi security agents and had received threats aimed to stop his independent activities within the Shi'a religious community.

In each of the cases of Ayatollah al-Gharawi, Ayatollah al-Burujerdi and Sayed al-Khoei, the Iraqi authorities took the bodies and had them buried immediately. The burial of Ayatollah al-Gharawi was in the presence of his son who was prohibited from engaging in any funeral procession as well as the traditional ritual prayer over his father's body in a mosque. The Iraqi authorities have also failed to carry out thorough investigations into the murders and suspicious accident.

The Special Rapporteur believes that the deaths of the religious leaders described above must be viewed in the context of the previous threats against them, their special roles as leading members of the Shi'a religious establishment in Iraq, and the history of similar terrorist acts committed against any person who might be perceived as a threat to the Iraqi Government - in particular because of their independence or their popularity among ordinary Iraqis.

As reprehensible as they are as violations of the individual victims' right to life, such killings are most notable because of their apparent intent to violate, by means of terror, the freedoms of opinion and expression of particular groups or the population as a whole. Although the cases concern the killing of particular persons, the aim of the killings appears to be a political one with the objective of silencing dissent and suppressing opposition. Such political killings constitute a gross violation of the human rights of entire groups of people and, indeed, the population as a whole.

The Special Rapporteur urges the Government of Iraq to make every effort to investigate thoroughly the recent incidents and to bring to justice those responsible for these heinous crimes.

The Special Rapporteur extends his sincere condolences to the families of Ayatollah Shaykh Murtada al-Burujerdi and Ayatollah Sahyk Mirza Ali al-Gharawi for their recent loss.

The Special Rapporteur further calls upon the Government of Iraq to respect the religious independence of the Shi'a community and to ensure the personal integrity and freedoms of the Shi'a religious leadership".