Unexplained Death Of
Mohamed Aboul Abbas
By Robert Fisk
12 March 2004
55-year-old Mohamed Aboul Abbas died mysteriously in a US prison camp
in Iraq on Tuesday, nobody bothered to call his family.
His American captors
had given no indication to the International Red Cross that he had been
unwell and his wife Reem first heard that he was dead when she watched
an Arab television news show.
Yet in his last
letter to his family, written just seven weeks ago and shown to The
Independent in Baghdad yesterday, the Palestinian militant wrote that,
"I am in good form and in good health", adding that he hoped
to be freed soon. So what happened to Mohamed Aboul Abbas?
Although a prominent
colleague of Yasser Arafat for more than three decades, the world will
forever link his name with the hijacking of the Achille Lauro cruise
ship in 1985, when members of his small "Palestine Liberation Front"
commandeered the vessel in the Mediterranean and, in a cruel killing
that was to cause international outrage, shot dead Leon Klinghoffer,
an elderly American Jew in a wheelchair, and tipped his corpse into
The other passengers
were eventually released in Egypt after Aboul Abbas negotiated with
the authorities in Cairo to allow the hijackers to go free.
In vain did he point
out that the hijackers' plan was to stow away on the Italian liner -
not harm the passengers - then storm ashore in Israel when the ship
made port at Haifa. It was only their discovery by a crew member that
prompted them to take over the vessel. "The media didn't tell the
world that I saved 600 passengers, only that a disabled man was killed,"
he was to complain later.
Yet, in a newspaper
interview, he was also reported to have said that Mr Klinghoffer "was
handicapped but he was inciting and provoking the other passengers.
So the decision was made to kill him".
But within 10 years,
the Israelis themselves would allow Aboul Abbas, now a member of the
Palestine National Council, to enter the occupied territories to participate
in elections in the Gaza Strip. He even visited his old family home
in Haifa in Israel.
He supported Israeli-Palestinian
peace agreements and favoured the annulment of the anti-Israeli articles
in the PLO's charter. Like so many of Mr Arafat's colleagues, he had
undergone that mystical Middle East transformation from "super-terrorist"
to peacenik. So why was he ever incarcerated in the harsh confines of
America's airport prison camp outside Baghdad? He was never charged
with any crime, never offered a lawyer, never allowed direct contact
with his wife and family, allowed to communicate with the outside world
only via the Red Cross. They were the ones who telephoned his wife Reem
in Beirut more than 24 hours ago to tell her that her husband was dead.
"I know nothing
about this, nothing," she wailed down the telephone to The Independent
from Beirut yesterday. "How did he die? Why were we told nothing?
When I first heard this terrible news on television I thought it had
to be a rumour; this happens a lot out here. But then the Red Cross
called at midnight and told me it was true." Mohamed Aboul Abbas
is the most prominent prisoner to die in US custody in Iraq ,and joins
a growing list of unexplained deaths among the 15,000 Iraqis and Palestinians
held by US military forces. The occupation authorities in Iraq would
only say yesterday that they were to hold a post-mortem examination
on Aboul Abbas's remains.
Liberation Front" has long had offices in Baghdad, along with Mr
Arafat's PLO. The head of the PLF's "political bureau", Mohamed
Sobhi, said yesterday that Mohamed Aboul Abbas's arrest by US troops
on 14 April last year had "no reason in law other than the need
of the American soldiers at that time to look for false victories".
He added: "We all knew that Aboul Abbas had been to Palestine in
1995 for the PNC elections in Gaza and that the United States and Israel
both allowed this. After that, he travelled to Palestinian areas and
to other Arab states many times. We had told all this to the Americans
here and demanded that he be released. In his last letter home, he said
he hoped to be freed soon. So what happened to him?"
Reem Aboul Abbas,
who has a child by her husband and two by an earlier marriage, says
he was still living in Baghdad when American troops entered the city
on 9 April last year.
"He was trying
to keep away from them because many people - Iraqis and Palestinians
- were being arrested, people who had done nothing. Then American troops
raided our home. Mohamed wasn't there but I saw it all on Fox Television.
believe I saw my own home on television and they had moved things around
and draped a Palestinian flag over a mirror and then invited Fox Television
to film it. On the evening of 14 April, Mohamed called me from a friend's
home. It was a big mistake. I think that's how they tracked him down
and found him. Not long afterwards, American soldiers came up the stairs."
The US occupation
authorities initially announced the capture of the "important terrorist
Aboul Abbas", making no mention of his return to the occupied territories
or that the Israelis themselves - who might have been more anxious than
the Americans to see him in prison - had freely allowed the PLF leader
to enter their territory as a peace negotiator.
"First he was
a 'terrorist'," his wife Reem says. "Then he was a man of
peace. Then when the Americans arrested him, they made him a 'terrorist'
again. What is this nonsense?"
Two years ago, Mr
Sobhi said, Aboul Abbas had suffered an attack of angina and spent 12
days undergoing treatment at the Abu Nafis Hospital in Baghdad with
Reem at his side.
He had suffered
no other health problems and in a last request to his family via the
Red Cross, he had asked them to send him two boxes of Marlboro cigarettes,
running shorts, a track suit and a dishtash robe. The Independent has
seen his request and its acknowledgment by US detention authorities;
it does not read like the list of a sick man.
For months after
the announcement of his arrest, Reem Aboul Abbas pleaded with family
friends and the Red Cross to discover his whereabouts. After she asked
The Independent for help, I discovered that he was being held in a special
security wing at Baghdad international airport along with former prominent
Baath party officials. He was in a sealed room with Saadoun Shakr, one
of Saddam's former interior ministers.
This was reconfirmed
yesterday by Issa Milhem, Aboul Abbas's 40-year-old nephew who was born
in Baghdad, the city to which the family fled from their home village
of at-Tira near Haifa in 1949. Mr Milhem holds hundreds of snapshots
of his uncle, some with Iraqi ministers - Tariq Aziz prominent among
them - and one with Saadoun Shakr, the man with whom Aboul Abbas was
later to be imprisoned.
His last letter
to his family, dated 19 January and written in neat Arabic on one side
of a Red Cross sheet of paper, gives no indication of his fate. Addressed
to his brother Khaled in the Netherlands, it is a prisoner's familiar
appeal for letters and news, of expressions of affection and hope.
it begins, "I received your letter on 17 January and on the same
day I received three letters from my wife in Beirut after a period in
which I got no letters for three months. I was very happy because of
your letter and it was a surprise because I didn't expect it. Thank
you so much for this and for your kindness in writing to me.
first I present my kisses to the head of your dear mother and I hope
she's ready to prepare the 'dolma' and the red chicken that I love for
my first lunch (in freedom) will be at her home. What is the news about
my family and my dearest Issa? ... Very special greetings to him, his
wife and children and for your brothers and sisters and their families
because they are my family, too, and my dearest ones."
In the same letter,
Aboul Abbas complains that he has received no replies to letters he
sent to Mohamed Sobhi - he uses Sobhi's patronymic "Abu Khodr"
- and urges his brother to call Reem in Beirut.
"Tell her that
I received her letters and that I have sent new letters to her,"
Aboul Abbas writes in the most important section of his message. "I
hope you can send me a dishtash ... I am in good form and in good health
and I really need to know news of my family and friends. I have great
hopes of being released soon - with God's will."
"Aboul Abbas", he includes his wife's Beirut telephone number
so Khaled can call her immediately. The letter bears the US detention
authority coding US-0039C1.
Mr Sobhi holds the
United States responsible for Aboul Abbas's death and is asking the
Palestinian Authority to institute its own inquiry into the PLF leader's
demise. "We blame the Americans for this," he says. "We
put the responsibility of his death on the US troops. No one ever said
his health was declining. I've been told the Americans want to send
the body to Palestine although his wife may want him to be buried in
Issa Milhem's archive
of photographs holds the fullest record of Mohamed Aboul Abbas's life.
Black and white snapshots show him in Lebanon, Kalashnikov AK-47 in
hand, standing amid a group of gunmen in West Beirut, another early
coloured photo in the Lebanese mountains.
Many dozens of pictures
show him in Gaza, listening to interminable lectures and speeches by
ageing Palestinian nationalists. In one, two Palestinian officials have
fallen asleep and Aboul Abbas is only just able to stay awake.
It was in the nature
of the Palestinian revolution that ideology should become as tiresome
as it was repetitive. Then there is the diplomat Aboul Abbas, dining
at the Kremlin, standing to attention as Yugoslav troops formally welcome
Arafat to Belgrade, Aboul Abbas walking past an Iraqi swimming pool
On just one occasion,
he met Saddam Hussein. He salutes, in many snapshots, the armed Palestinian
soldiers of the "Palestine Liberation Army" and you can see,
to the left of the picture, the pot-bellied Baath party officials who
gave succour to the Palestinian cause at that time.
One photo shows
Aboul Abbas with Abu Jihad, Mr Arafat's deputy, shortly before his murder
by Israelis in Tunis. Abu Jihad might have proved to be Mr Arafat's
rightful successor, a man who might have been able to control Hamas
and the other Islamic groups which Israel originally encouraged - as
a balance to the PLO - and now so bitterly hates.
Perhaps Aboul Abbas
will always be on the margins of Palestinian history. But he will be
the first Palestinian leader to die in US custody, and thus is assured
his place in "Palestine's" history.
Mohamed Aboul Abbas
appears to have had no premonition of his imminent death. But 49 days
after he wrote his letter of hope, he was dead.