Captivity: 118 Days in Iraq and the Struggle for a World Without War - James Loney (2011)
Two months after our return, we were informed by the RCMP and Scotland Yard that an undisclosed number of men were being held in U.S. custody on charges related to our kidnapping and Tom’s murder.* They wanted us to testify in a trial that would be conducted by the Central Criminal Court of Iraq (CCCI). “The death penalty is on the table,” they said, but it was rarely applied. Only six times since the court was instituted by the United States in 2003 had it been imposed, all for high-level al Qaeda operatives.
We had many questions. How many men were there and what were their names? What was the case against them? Was anyone specifically charged with Tom’s murder? Had they seen lawyers? What stage was the investigative process at? What was the role of the American government? Would it be a public trial? Would the media be allowed to attend? Could we get a written agreement that our alleged captors would be spared execution in exchange for our testimony?
No, such an agreement was not possible, they said, but we could ask for leniency in the course of testifying. They said our testimony was crucial, witnesses have the loudest voice in the Iraqi system, and the trial might not be able to proceed without us. They hoped we would participate so as to ensure no one else would be kidnapped or killed. They didn’t want these men walking free. But they also said a trial could still proceed without us, that a complainant was not necessary when terrorism was involved. Beyond that they told us very little.
It was a difficult and complex decision, whether or not to participate. We certainly didn’t want anyone else to go through what we did, and we thought it important that whoever murdered Tom should be held accountable in some way. On the other hand, we had no desire for punishment. There had been enough suffering and death already, and the prospect of any of our captors being sent to the gallows filled us with anguish. We also had serious questions about the fairness of Iraqi justice and worried that our participation might be legitimating a system that was full of human rights abuses.
We learned everything we could about the CCCI. The UN Assistance Mission to Iraq said it “consistently failed to meet minimum fair trial standards.” Amnesty International said at least 100 people had been executed and at least 270 more had been sentenced to death. TIME magazine said, “Hangings are conducted in secret, at a heavily fortified location in Baghdad … Only a few officials are notified beforehand, and the vast majority of the names of those executed are never made public.”
We decided in the end not to testify. But before making the final decision, Harmeet and I travelled to London to join with Norman in issuing the following statement at a press conference on December 10, 2006, at St. Ethelburga’s Centre for Reconciliation and Peace.*
We three, members of a Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT) delegation to Iraq, were kidnapped on November 26, 2005, and held for 118 days before being freed by British and American forces on March 23, 2006. Our friend and colleague, Tom Fox, an American citizen and full-time member of the CPT team working in Baghdad at the time, was kidnapped with us and murdered on March 9, 2006. We are immensely sad that he is not sitting with us here today.
On behalf of our families and CPT, we thank you for attending this press conference today.
It was on this day a year ago that our captors threatened to execute us unless their demands were met. This ultimatum, unknown to us at the time, was a source of extreme distress for our families, friends and colleagues.
The deadline was extended by two days to December 10, which is International Human Rights Day. On this day, people all over the world will commemorate the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the UN General Assembly in 1948 by speaking out for all those whose human dignity is being violated by torture, arbitrary imprisonment, poverty, racism, oppression or war.
We understand a number of men alleged to be our captors have been apprehended, charged with kidnapping, and are facing trial in the Central Criminal Court of Iraq. We have been asked by the police in our respective countries to testify in the trial. After much reflection upon our traditions, both Sikh and Christian, we are issuing this statement today.
We unconditionally forgive our captors for abducting and holding us. We have no desire to punish them. Punishment can never restore what was taken from us.
What our captors did was wrong. They caused us, our families and our friends great suffering. Yet we bear no malice towards them and have no wish for retribution. Should those who have been charged with holding us hostage be brought to trial and convicted, we ask that they be granted all possible leniency. We categorically lay aside any rights we may have over them.
In our view, the catastrophic levels of violence and the lack of effective protection of human rights in Iraq is inextricably linked to the U.S.-led invasion and occupation. As for many others, the actions of our kidnappers were part of a cycle of violence they themselves experienced. While this in no way justifies what the men charged with our kidnapping are alleged to have done, we feel this must be considered in any potential judgment.
Forgiveness is an essential part of Sikh, Christian and Muslim teaching. Guru Nanak Dev Ji, the first of the Sikh Gurus, said, “ ‘Forgiveness’ is my mother …” and, “Where there is forgiveness, there is God.” Jesus said, “For if you forgive those who sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you.” And of Prophet Mohammed (Peace Be Upon Him) it is told that once, while preaching in the city of Ta’if, he was abused, stoned and driven out of the city. An angel appeared to him and offered to crush the city between the two surrounding mountains if he ordered him to do so, whereupon the Prophet (or Mohammed PBUH) said, “No. Maybe from them or their offspring will come good deeds.”
Through the power of forgiveness, it is our hope that good deeds will come from the lives of our captors, and that we will all learn to reject the use of violence. We believe those who use violence against others are themselves harmed by the use of violence.
Kidnapping is a capital offence in Iraq and we understand that some of our captors could be sentenced to death. The death penalty is an irrevocable judgment. It erases all possibility that those who have harmed others, even seriously, can yet turn to good. We categorically oppose the death penalty.
By this commitment to forgiveness, we hope to plant a seed that one day will bear the fruits of healing and reconciliation for us, our captors, the peoples of Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, the United States, and most of all, Iraq. We look forward to the day when the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is respected by all the world’s people.
I remember being filled with wonder as the three of us were being interviewed about our joint statement of forgiveness in the London offices of Al Jazeera. It was a miracle. To be sitting there, alive, together, all feeling and saying the same things: We forgive. We have no desire to punish. There’s been enough suffering. We will not testify. And standing behind us was Tom’s family—Kassie and Andrew, his former wife, Jan—supporting our decision. We all knew: this is what Tom would have wanted, what he would have done himself.
I was so grateful, so proud. It could easily have been otherwise. Any one of us, for his own good reasons, might have chosen a different course. It was a profound confirmation for me. We got through okay. They took Tom away from us, but they did not take away our ability to forgive. We did not lose ourselves. We were not infected with the poison of hate. They may have changed our lives, but they did not change us.
I wasn’t sure at first. That I could say the words, “I forgive.” I wanted to, the desire was there, but to take that unconditional and final step into a strange and unfamiliar land, without a map, without knowing what the consequences would be, whether for good or for ill—it took time for me to be ready, to be sure.
It is an audacious thing, a momentous leap of faith, to say to the one who has harmed you, I forgive. To say, I no longer hold you. You may go, your destiny is your own, there is an open horizon before you. You are free. Go without expectation, obligation or libation. Be accompanied only by this wish and blessing: May you be healed of your violence. May you be reborn in the knowledge of your forgiveness. May you start anew in a joyous life of giving life. Where you go, the road that you take now is up to you.
I was encouraged by Dan, for whom this was never a question. By my mother and father, who said, “We’re just glad it’s over. We aren’t angry. We worry about what will happen to them.” By my brothers and sisters, who said much the same. By Jan, who said, “This is so important, so essential to who Tom is, we have to do this.” By Kassie, who said, “There’s an awful lot of blame to go around. I don’t think we can just pick out one or two people and hold them responsible.”
And so, by the grace of God, the words came. I forgive. Not only to me, but to Harmeet and Norman as well. And something extraordinary happened: the captivity suddenly made sense. It had a purpose. It had become a seed of healing, a seed of forgiveness. I pray that God will take this seed and multiply it. A hundred times what was sown. And each of these in turn a hundred times.
Bishop Desmond Tutu once said, “There is no future without forgiveness.” Let the future begin, today, with each of us laying down our hatreds, our pointing fingers, our desires to punish. Only then can we break from the mad spiral of retribution, eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth, bullet for a stone, bomb for a bullet. Only then can the future begin, a real future, a world without war where all can live in the glorious freedom of the children of God, never again to be afraid.
* In contrast, Mark Urban states in Task Force Black, “On 7 November 2006, Iraqi police arrested men alleged to have carried out the kidnapping.”
* St. Ethelburga’s is a medieval church that survived the Great Fire of London (1666) and the Second World War only to be destroyed by a massive IRA bomb in 1993. It was rebuilt in 2002 to inspire and equip people to pursue reconciliation and peacemaking.