NAJAF, Iraq—In a vault three stories beneath the sprawling Shiite Muslim cemetery in the holy city of Najaf, Hatem Khashan awaited his execution.
The 56-year-old Iraqi border policeman's crime was collaborating with the Americans. His judge and jury were henchmen of radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al Sadr, the head of the largest Iraqi-bred insurgency, which had been battling U.S. troops in the center of the city. His sentence, handed down in al Sadr's religious court, would be swift with no appeal.
Khashan was to be tied facedown on a rickety bed frame in the vault. He would then be beaten with a rock-filled section of garden hose until he was dead.
It takes only three blows, Khashan recalled counting, watching his black-clad captors bludgeon one prisoner after another to death with the rubber tube. "I kept thinking, this same thing is going to happen to me," he said recently. "All I could do is pray and ask for God's forgiveness."
Khashan was spared that fate on July 28. A last-minute deal between his commander and al Sadr's Mahdi Army militia prompted his release.
Hundreds weren't so lucky. Police are still counting the number of Iraqis who were dragged before al Sadr's religious courts and executed. As many as 300 victims arrested from April to August in Najaf alone are missing, said Capt. Mohammed Abdul Hussein, the head liaison between the Iraqi Interior Ministry and Najaf authorities investigating the court's activities, who asked that his last name not be used.
When police first entered the court, on Aug. 27, they found at least a dozen mutilated and burned bodies inside.
The identities of the dead remain a matter of debate. Authorities declared them to be victims of al Sadr's summary justice. The cleric's advisers claimed they were Mahdi gunmen killed in battles with the Americans.
A top al Sadr confidant, Sheik Ali Smeisim, dismissed as lies accusations that the missing were al Sadr's victims.
"The missing people were likely taken by a number of groups, who continue to prowl the countryside," he said. "They use the Mahdi Army and the court as a place to hang their dirty laundry."
Al Sadr's courts existed in a handful of Iraqi cities and towns. They were originally created by the cleric's late father during Saddam Hussein's era to mediate civil and familial disputes, but had no power to punish.
"What we were trying to do when we established this court was to build something for this society in the Islamic way," said Smeisim, who added that he was one of the original judges.
Other al Sadr advisers who are now in U.S. custody said they resurrected the courts to restore order to a society left lawless by the American invasion. But Capt. Hussein and officials from the Najaf Human Rights Association said the cleric's gunmen used the courts to terrorize people who opposed them.
In April, the courts' focus narrowed to prosecuting Iraqis who were police officers or otherwise deemed to be linked to the American-led coalition.
The catalyst appeared to be a demonstration April 4 by Sadr followers in front of a Spanish military base on the outskirts of Najaf. The Spanish-led force was tasked with maintaining law and order in Najaf. Who fired first is disputed, but the gunfire exchanged by soldiers under Spanish command and al Sadr's gunmen killed at least 18 people and wounded dozens more.
Often, black-clad Mahdi militiamen would swoop down on their Iraqi targets, arresting and dragging them before the Najaf court. Khashan and many other detainees said they were held without food and water for days. Ultimately, they were taken before a cleric in one of the "courtrooms" to hear the charge, verdict and sentence.
For months after the April demonstration, al Sadr said from his Friday prayer pulpit at the Kufa Mosque that Iraqis working with the coalition or the interim government were spies who must die. Less than 3 miles away, in a two-story mud and brick building, his followers put those words into action.
Many, such as Abdul Salam, 37, and his younger brother, Hadi, were beaten bloody beforehand.
Their youngest brother, who was detained at a separate location, recounted the siblings' tale, but asked that his first name and their family name be omitted for fear of retribution from al Sadr's followers.
Abdul Salam rebuilt schools, using money provided by the coalition. On April 7, Mahdi gunmen came to the family home, taking Hadi and the youngest brother into custody and ordering relatives left behind to inform Abdul Salam that he was ordered to appear before the court.
Abdul Salam did so the same day.
Hadi was the last relative to see Abdul Salam. He told his family that he hardly recognized the bloody, battered man lying in a heap with his hands tied behind his back, some 12 hours later.
"This is your brother," their mutual captors told Hadi. They beat them both with iron rods used in construction. The bound men invoked the name of the Prophet Muhammad's descendants for their jailers to stop. The beatings continued.
Five days later, Hadi was released. The next day, the youngest brother, who was unharmed, also was let go. Neither received an explanation, nor were they told of Abdul Salam's fate.
"It's like, inside me, I know he has to be (dead)," the youngest brother said. "But unless a person sees it with his own eyes, he doesn't want to believe it. There is nothing tangible in our hands for us to believe it."
Fadhil hopes his son is still alive. Amar, his oldest son, was taken away to al Sadr's court to face charges of collaborating with the coalition. It made no sense, said Fadhil, whose last name is being withheld for his safety. He and Amar ran a hotel for Shiite pilgrims visiting the nearby Grand Imam Ali Shrine.
To illustrate his point, the elderly man thumbed through a photo album featuring pictures of Amar during the hotel's grand opening. He agreed to meet a Knight Ridder reporter again the next day to discuss his son's case—anything to bring him home alive, Fadhil said, his voice cracking and eyes filling with tears.
He soon changed his mind. Moments after the reporter left, al Sadr loyalists appeared at the hotel and threatened to hurt other members of his family, Fadhil explained apologetically on the telephone.
Like Fadhil and Abdul Salam's brothers, many relatives of the missing hope their loved ones were spared execution. They cling to rumors that prisoners were carted off to the Baghdad slum of Sadr City or other al Sadr strongholds after the cleric and his gunmen surrendered Najaf to the Iraqi police and national guard in late August.
The Najaf police captain, Hussein, said it was more likely that the victims were dead. Many, like Khashan, were taken to the Najaf cemetery. Finding their remains will be difficult, he said. The cemetery—the largest Islamic graveyard in the world, in which crypts often extend deep below ground—was badly damaged during August's battles between U.S. and al Sadr forces.
A joint investigation into the court and its victims may conclude as early as this month, Hussein said. It's unlikely to bring peace of mind to all the anguished families, he conceded.
What should happen to al Sadr's gunmen and judges? Khashan asked rhetorically. "Their only just medicine is death," he said.
In early September, a half-dozen families including that of Abdul Salam met with the son of Iraqi Shiites' top cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al Husseini al Sistani. They were told to drop the matter so that wounds from al Sadr's siege of Najaf can heal, Abdul Salam's youngest brother claimed.
"I don't expect to learn anything from the government about my brother," he said. "The loss of human life here is not important enough."
(Special correspondent Huda Ahmed contributed to this report.)
(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): usiraq+sadrcourt