Mastermind of Hassan killing escaped a year ago

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The convicted Iraqi mastermind of the killing of British aid worker Margaret Hassan escaped from prison almost one year ago, a government minister admitted for the first time on Sunday.

Ali Lutfi Jassar al-Rawi, sentenced to life last year for Hassan's murder, busted out of Central Baghdad Prison, formerly known as the infamous Abu Ghraib jail, on September 10, 2009, the same day a riot broke out there.

Judicial officials have in recent months said Rawi was "missing," forcing several postponements of his retrial for the killing.

But after another aborted court hearing on Sunday, Iraq's Deputy Justice Minister Busho Ibrahim told AFP that Rawi was officially on the run.

"This guy, he escaped from prison," Ibrahim said, disclosing the date of Rawi's breakout. "People facilitated his escape, he is gone."

The minister said he learned of Rawi's escape "20 or 30 days ago."

"At that time, he seized the opportunity of the riots in the prison in September 2009 and he escaped. He was the only one who escaped.

Ibrahim added that authorities had "investigated the groups that facilitated his escape" and added that several people "were arrested and going to court," but did not detail how many conspirators had been involved.

Inmates clashed repeatedly with warders engaged on a search operation at Abu Ghraib, a former torture facility under dictator Saddam Hussein, last September 10, resulting in many casualties.

The jail became notorious as the place where American soldiers were pictured humiliating Iraqi prisoners in the wake of the US-led invasion in 2003 that ousted Saddam from power.

Hassan's kidnap and murder, one of the most high-profile killings to follow the invasion, sparked international revulsion and widespread sympathy among Iraqis.

Born in Dublin, she had lived in Iraq for 30 years when she was taken hostage in October 2004 and shot a month later. Her body has never been found.

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.

One of the most experienced aid workers in Iraq, she had opted to stay on to continue her work after the invasion.

Hassan, who was married to an Iraqi and held British, Irish and Iraqi citizenship, was shown in several video messages pleading for her life and calling for British forces to withdraw from the country.

Her family had been counting on Rawi to reveal where her body had been disposed of after the appeal proceedings had been exhausted so that they could give her a proper burial.

Earlier on Sunday, Rawi's retrial at Baghdad's Central Criminal Court was adjourned until September 19, with a justice official and a lawyer for Hassan's family saying authorities had been unable to find him.

The lawyer for the victim's family, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the court had sent a letter to the justice ministry to inquire about Rawi's whereabouts.

"Until now, the justice ministry has not sent a reply, so the case was delayed," the lawyer said.

Rawi, from Baghdad's Jamaa district where Hassan was abducted, was jailed after being sentenced to life in prison on June 2 last year. He was found guilty of "participating in the killing and kidnapping of Margaret Hassan, and of attempting to blackmail her family."

Arrested in May 2008, he had pleaded not guilty to her murder, although his defence acknowledged he may have played a part in a blackmail plot.

His lawyers have claimed that an alleged confession put before the court of first instance was extracted under torture, and his retrial had originally been scheduled to begin in April, but has repeatedly been delayed.

In a telephone conversation on July 23 between Foreign Secretary William Hague and his Iraqi counterpart Hoshyar Zebari, Britain voiced concern over Rawi's apparent disappearance.

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.

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

© 2010 AFP

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