BAGHDAD (AP) — In the span of 30 seconds, Ali Jasb, a young rights lawyer, vanished into the night in southern Iraq.
On an evening a year ago, a woman emerged from a dimly lit street in the city of Amara and greeted Jasb. Almost immediately a black SUV pulled up, two men forced him in, and the vehicle sped away. The woman climbed into a waiting pickup truck and left.
The fateful moment, captured by a surveillance camera at 6:22 p.m. on Oct. 8, 2019, was the last sighting of the 21-year-old Jasb.
Since that day, Jasb’s father has been on a search for justice that has run repeatedly against one major obstacle: the increasing helplessness of Iraq’s government in the face of powerful, Iranian-backed Shiite militias. Judicial investigations, seen by The Associated Press, show a clear connection between Jasb’s abduction and the most powerful militia group in his home city.
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Still, his father, Jasb Aboud is determined to bring the head of that militia to court.
“I am afraid,” he told the AP. “But I lost what was most valuable to me, so I’ve got nothing else to lose.”
Jasb was abducted a week into historic protests that had erupted on Oct. 1 and saw tens of thousands of youth rallying against corruption and the ruling class. Hope for change inspired many, including Jasb, to speak out against the influence of militias.
He is among 53 protesters still missing since the movement began on Oct. 1, according to the semi-official Iraqi High Commission for Human Rights.
When the nationwide protests erupted, Jasb participated and used his legal expertise to form a committee to help those detained. He also openly criticized militias.
In his home city of Amara, capital of Missan province, that meant Ansar Allah Al-Awfia, one of the more extreme pro-Iranian militias, led by a local commander, Haidar al-Gharawi. It was incorporated under the state-sponsored umbrella group, the Popular Mobilization Forces, created to fight the Islamic State group in 2014.
Over the years, it came to control important offices in the provincial government and many businesses in Missan, while being notorious for illicit dealings along the border with Iran.
There was no response to repeated emails by the AP to the PMF seeking comment for this story, and calls and messages to al-Awfia were not answered.
Curtailing the power of militias was a key promise of Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi when he took office in May, following months of political deadlock when former premier Adel Abdul-Mahdi resigned under pressure from protests.
But he was soon faced with the limits of his administration. Abdul-Mahdi had allowed militias’ power to grow so much that “now, we almost don’t have a state,” said a high-level official, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.
Frequent rocket attacks targeted al-Kadhimi’s seat of power in Baghdad, straining relations with the U.S. A raid on the Iranian-backed Kataib Hezbollah, suspected of firing the rockets, backfired when most of those detained were set free — lack of evidence, the court said.
Activists continue to be targeted. The July shooting death of a high-profile commentator and critic of Iran, Hisham al-Hashimi, stunned Baghdad. Two leading activists in Basra were assassinated.
In the case of Jasb’s disappearance, investigators in Missan quickly came across evidence of a link to al-Gharawi, the al-Awfia militia commander, according to court documents seen by the AP.
Hours before his abduction, Jasb received a phone call from a woman seeking legal help who asked to meet him later that evening, his father said. It was when he went to meet her that he was snatched.
Key to the case was the mobile number that had called Jasb.
Investigators found it belonged to an illegally acquired SIM not registered with the authorities. There is a thriving black market for such unregistered SIMs, which cannot be traced to a user.
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Police identified other numbers that had called the unknown SIM. Among them was a man named Sadam Hamed. He told investigators that he knew nothing about the unknown number, but said his wife, Fatima Saeed, sometimes used his phone to call a relative. That relative is married to al-Awfia’s commander, al-Gharawi, according to his testimony.
The judge summoned Saeed for questioning but she never showed up. Both she and Hamed had fled.
There the investigation ground to a halt. For nine long months, Jasb’s father waited for developments. Nothing happened. So Aboud went to Baghdad and met a new lawyer, Wala al-Ameri.
They decided to attempt a bold gambit: To seek an arrest warrant against al-Gharawi from a court in the capital, which would hopefully be far from the militia’s sway in Missan.
“The accused is a militia that has power in Missan, so it could be that it has influence over witnesses, even the law,” al-Ameri said.
But again they hit a dead end.
The Baghdad judge deemed there was insufficient evidence for a warrant against al-Gharawi. He dismissed Hamed’s testimony and said only a statement from someone who had seen the kidnapping could advance the case.
“Now it’s a case against the unknown,” Aboud said.
In September, Prime Minister al-Kadhimi visited Missan and gave Jasb’s father an audience. During their 15-minute meeting, Aboud laid out the court documents, explained the details of the case and named the militia he believes took his son.
Al-Kadhimi “put his hand to his chest and promised he would deliver him to me,” Aboud said.
The premier might be Aboud’s last hope. There are witnesses to his son’s abduction, but none dare speak out.
One man told the AP he was near a shop that night and saw everything. He belongs to a powerful local tribe but spoke on condition of anonymity out of fear.
He recounted seeing the woman emerge and the men push Jasb into the vehicle. He also saw police arrive afterward and search Jasb’s car. The AP confirmed that the shop he named had a view of the site.
But would he testify?
“It would be my funeral the next day.”
Associated Press writers Qassim Abdul-Zahra and Abdulrahman Zeyad contributed.
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