British aid worker's Iraqi killer may have fled: lawyer

15th July 2010, Comments 0 comments

An Iraqi engineer convicted of kidnapping and killing British aid worker Margaret Hassan in 2004 failed to show up in court on Thursday and is thought to have escaped, a lawyer for her family said.

Ali Lutfi Jassar was sentenced to life in prison on June 2 last year for his role in one of the most high-profile murders to follow the US-led invasion of 2003, a crime which sparked international revulsion and widespread sympathy.

Lawyer Sarmad al-Sarraf told reporters outside an appeal hearing at Baghdad Central Criminal Court that the director of Iraq's prisoner transfer system told the judge the killer's whereabouts were unknown.

"We cannot tell you officially but, unofficially, this person probably escaped," Sarraf said the prison director had told the judge responsible for Jassar's appeal, which was adjourned until July 29.

Dublin-born Hassan, whose body has never been found, had lived in Iraq for 30 years before being taken hostage in October 2004 and shot a month later.

The 59-year-old was head of operations in Iraq for the humanitarian group Care International for around 12 years before she was pulled from her car by men in police uniform as she was being driven to work.

Lawyers for Jassar have claimed that an alleged confession put before the court of first instance had been extracted under torture.

The lawyers for Hassan's family said on Thursday they were told Jassar was recently transferred to a Baghdad jail, having earlier been held in northern Iraq. After checking with both facilities, however, Jassar was not found.

"This is a tragedy. How can the state not know where its detainees are," said a member of the murdered aid worker's legal team.

The judge also told Sarraf and the two other members of the legal team that visa stamps in Jassar's passport, which he had used as an alibi and which formed the basis of his appeal, had been proved to be fake.

The family had been counting on Jassar to reveal where Hassan's body had been disposed of after the appeal proceedings had been exhausted so that they could give her a proper burial.

At last year's lower court hearing, Jassar was found guilty of "participating in the killing and kidnapping of Margaret Hassan, and of attempting to blackmail her family."

In June 2006, another man, Mustafa Mohammed Salman al-Juburi, was sentenced to life in prison after being convicted of aiding and abetting the kidnappers. His sentence was later reduced on appeal.

Hassan, who held British, Irish and Iraqi citizenship, was shown in several video messages appealing for her life and calling for British forces to withdraw from Iraq.

Jassar, 26, from Baghdad's Jamaa district where Hassan was abducted, was arrested in May 2008. He had pleaded not guilty to Hassan's murder, although his defence acknowledged he may have played a part in a blackmail plot.

Relatives said in 2006 that while Hassan was being held, her husband Tahseen received four phone calls from the kidnappers on her mobile phone.

The hostage-takers, who called themselves "an armed Islamic group", later demanded one million dollars in return for her body.

Hassan was one of the most experienced aid workers in Iraq and opted to stay on to continue her work after the invasion.

She led a team working to provide essential aid to hospitals and helping to restore vital power and water supplies.

She was also an outspoken opponent of the crippling UN sanctions imposed after Iraq's 1990 invasion of Kuwait, "a man-made disaster," she said in 1998.

Shortly after Hassan died, her family accused the British government of causing her death by refusing to speak to her captors.

"We believe that the refusal by the British government to open a dialogue with the kidnappers cost our sister her life," her siblings said in a statement at the time.

© 2010 AFP

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