BAGHDAD (AP) — A German woman well known in Iraq’s art scene and an ardent supporter of mass anti-government protests was kidnapped outside the Baghdad arts center where she worked, a security official and activists said Tuesday.
The abduction of Hella Mewis prompted alarm among Iraqi activists and other foreigners living in the country. It comes two weeks after the killing of prominent Iraqi commentator Hisham al-Hashimi by unknown gunmen. The perpetrators of that crime are also not yet known, according to security officials.
Mewis was taken from outside Beit Tarkib, the arts center where she works on Baghdad’s Abu Nawas Street, around 8 p.m. local time Monday by armed men in two vehicles, a security official and human rights monitors said.
Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi, who traveled to Tehran on Tuesday on an official trip, has promised to reign in armed groups, but the pressure is mounting on the government amid repeated rocket attacks targeting U.S. installations, assassinations and disappearances.
“We call on the Iraqi security authorities to strive seriously and expeditiously to search for her,” said civil activist Hana Edwar at a news conference following Mewis’ disappearance. “We also ask the kidnappers, if she was kidnapped, to ensure her safety and health and to release her as soon as possible.”
German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas, during a visit to Athens on Tuesday, said the German Foreign Ministry had established a crisis task force to deal with Mewis’ disappearance, German news agency dpa reported.
Maas said he did not want to talk about the case in detail considering the sensitivity of the situation but said “we have started at the foreign office to take care of the case and look for a solution that secures the concerned person’s well being.”
Mewis is a beloved figure in Baghdad, where she has resided for seven years and runs an arts program for young Iraqis through Beit Tarkib. She was often seen on her bicycle zipping along bustling Karada Street, an unusual sight in Baghdad, where foreigners are often cautious of the unpredictable security situation.
The men who abducted Mewis were driving a pickup and a van, the security official said, citing initial investigation reports. With details still unclear, he said security forces expect the kidnapping was “perpetrated by armed groups or gangs linked to armed groups.”
The security official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to brief the media.
Ali Akram al-Bayati, spokesman for the semi-official Iraqi High Commission for Human Rights, said witnesses saw Mewis being taken by the armed men.
“She had good relations with different NGOs in Iraq and Iraqi youth,” he said.
Mewis is a supporter of mass anti-government protests that erupted in Baghdad and across Iraq’s south Oct. 1. Dozens of activists and protesters were kidnapped during the months-long demonstrations for speaking out against armed groups. Demonstrators gathered in the thousands to decry rampant government corruption, poor services and unemployment.
Associated Press writer Kirsten Grieshaber in Berlin contributed to this report.