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Wife: American in Iraqi prison is on hunger strike

Wednesday - 4/24/2013, 9:04am  ET

This 2004 photo released by the Omar family shows 51-year-old Shawki Omar in the United Arab Emirates. Omar, a naturalized American citizen, is being mistreated in Iraqi custody, his wife says. She says Omar has been on some form of hunger strike for more than two months to protest his condition. (AP Photo/Sandra Omar)

RAPHAEL SATTER
Associated Press

BAGHDAD (AP) -- In Baghdad's maximum-security Karkh prison, Shawki Omar is triply damned, his supporters say.

He's a Sunni prisoner in a Shiite-dominated jail. A foreigner in a country where outsiders are blamed for fueling an insurgency. And to top it off, an American in a nation struggling with the bloody legacy of the U.S.-led invasion.

"He is discriminated against on three different levels there," Omar's wife, Sandra, said in an interview. She said Shawki -- a naturalized American citizen of Jordanian-Palestinian descent who was apprehended by U.S.-led forces in Baghdad nearly a decade ago on suspicion of fomenting jihad -- had been beaten and denied medication.

In emails and phone calls from her home in Raleigh, North Carolina, Sandra Omar said that her 51-year-old husband shared a poorly heated shipping container with a dozen other inmates. She said he and other Sunni prisoners were denied care packages, refused exercise and repeatedly beaten. She said Omar had been on some form of hunger strike for more than two months to protest his condition.

The U.S. government claimed that Omar was unlikely to be tortured when it handed him to the Iraqi justice system, whose prisons are notorious for rights abuses. But Omar says he was brutalized soon after he was turned over. American officials say they are aware of Shawki's allegations and of his hunger strike. In a statement, it said it had raised the issue of abuse with Iraqi officials and that they were investigating.

"We are in regular contact with him and the prison authorities concerning his health," the statement said.

Omar's case is unique in one way: He was the first known American to be slated for trial in Iraq's post-Saddam Hussein courts. He is also one of only five American citizens in Iraqi custody. But his allegations of mistreatment are far from unusual. Erin Evers, a Middle East researcher with Human Rights Watch, said she knew of similar claims, and that they were symptomatic of a shaky criminal justice system shot through with corruption.

"It's one of the biggest problems in Iraq today," she said, noting that the Sunni protest movement, which has threatened the government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, has prisoners' rights at the heart of its demands.

Iraqi officials deny mistreating their American prisoner; Deputy Justice Minister Busho Ibrahim said the allegations were "absolutely not true." But Omar's Iraqi lawyer, Zeina Ahmad, told The Associated Press that when she saw her client late last year his feet had been so badly beaten they had swelled up and turned blue.

Omar's path to U.S. citizenship began when the Kuwaiti-born Jordanian visited South Dakota more than three decades ago. In 1982, he met Sandra, a student at the Pierre School of Practical Nursing in Pierre, South Dakota. The couple married the following year, moving around the country as their family grew.

Sandra Omar, who was put in touch with The Associated Press though the London-based prisoners' advocacy group CagePrisoners, said she grew up "firmly Christian." When the two wed, she still held on to the hope that Shawki would convert.

"It didn't turn out that way," she said.

Instead, she converted to Islam, eventually moving to Jordan in 1995 in a bid to familiarize the couple's children with the Arabic language and Muslim culture. Shawki Omar, who had become increasingly devout, took a second wife -- a Jordanian -- and brought the entire family to Iraq in 2002 in an attempt to get his eldest son into university there. He then took a third wife -- an Iraqi. The family left as the U.S.-led invasion was looming, but Sandra said that Shawki returned to the country after the war.

What happens next is in dispute.

In a statement, U.S. Maj. Gen. John Gardner alleged that Omar was an al-Qaida emissary whose second marriage had made him a member of terror kingpin Abu Musab Zarqawi's extended family. Gardner said that multinational forces had arrested four Jordanian jihadists and an Iraqi insurgent at Omar's home in October 2004. Under questioning, the general said, the arrested jihadists accused Omar of trying to organize the kidnapping of foreigners in Baghdad.

Sandra Omar said the allegations are bogus, suggesting that the information had been squeezed out of Omar's alleged associates under duress.

"This is the kind of faulty intelligence you get when you torture people," she said of the allegations.

From U.S. detention, Omar sent a series of desperate-sounding letters to his wife and son, saying he was being kept in solitary confinement and would be refusing food until he saw a lawyer.

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