No release from house of cards

August 19, 2005

The AAAS is calling on the US to free scientist Huda Ammash, aka 'Mrs Anthrax'. Steve Farrar reports

When Huda Ammash turned herself in to the US authorities in May 2003, the Pentagon was jubilant. The capture of the microbiologist ranked 53 on the "most wanted" list of Baath party officials - five of hearts in the famous pack of cards - was regarded as a major success in the hunt for supposed weapons of mass destruction.

But more than two years on, with no hint of any bioweapons emerging in Iraq, members of the international academic community are beginning to ask why she is still locked up. And now the prestigious American Association for the Advancement of Science has added its weight to the growing campaign, calling on the US authorities either to try Ammash - whose release had been demanded by the terrorists who beheaded Briton Ken Bigley in Iraq last year - or to let her go. A carefully worded statement, issued a week ago, urged academics around the world to voice their concern about her directly to President George W. Bush.

"Although she has neither been charged with a crime nor brought to trial, the Iraqi scientist remains in prison today, accused by the US Government of being the head of Saddam Hussein's biowarfare programme - a programme of which no evidence has been found," the statement notes.

Ammash spent some of her childhood years in the US, growing up in Washington where her father worked in the Iraqi embassy. She later returned to study for an MSc in microbiology at Texas Women's University and spent four years at the University of Missouri-Columbia to gain her PhD. She was a powerful figure in Saddam's Iraq, where her father was a member of the Government until he was executed by the dictator in the 1980s. When the Baathist regime was toppled in 2003, the former dean of Baghdad University's College of Science was the only woman in the top ranks of Baath Party.

According to the AAAS: "Dr Ammash's research has focused on investigating the aftereffects of depleted uranium contamination left by American bombing in the first Gulf War in 1991. She has written extensively on environmental health in Iraq and its relations to war and sanctions."

But US intelligence officials believe Ammash played a key role in rebuilding Iraq's bioweapons capability after the first Gulf War and dubbed her "Mrs Anthrax".

Despite no sign of such a programme, Ammash has been imprisoned in Camp Cropper, a makeshift prison on the edge of Baghdad airport, where she is reported to be suffering from a relapse of breast cancer. Indeed, the US experts who searched Iraq for weapons of mass destruction urged their Government to let Ammash go as the pretext for her arrest had proved baseless.

Her plight was raised by the World Tribunal on Iraq, an activists' network that met in Istanbul in June. Scientists started discussing the case via e-mail and some contacted the AAAS's human rights action network. One Turkish physicist, a member of the WTI, wrote: "Her 'crime' was to do extensive research on depleted uranium contamination."

Sarah Olmstead, project co-ordinator for the AAAS's science and human rights programme, says the organisation is usually hesitant to get involved in "domestic cases". But she adds that the nature of Ammash's detention and the number of academics who were raising the matter had persuaded it to venture into the sensitive area of US involvement in Iraq. "We rely heavily on scientists around the world to tell us when their friends and colleagues are in trouble," Olmstead says.

The organisation has not issued the statement lightly. Senior figures including Alan Leshner, chief executive officer of the AAAS, were involved in drawing it up. Despite the charged atmosphere in the US, Olmstead, believes that many Americans will sympathise with Ammash. Furthermore, she says the AAAS's statement is unlikely to be the last concerning Iraqi scientists being held without trial by the US.

Other detainees include Rihab Taha, who gained a PhD in plant toxins in the early 1980s at the University of East Anglia and was nicknamed "Dr Germ" by US intelligence, and Amer Al Saadi, Saddam Hussein's chief scientific adviser, who studied at Battersea College of Technology, which is now part of Surrey University.

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