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Threads unravel in Iraqi's tale

An Iraqi woman who was granted refugee status in the United States after telling The Washington Post and U.S. officials that she had been imprisoned, tortured and sexually assaulted in Iraq during the 1990s appears to have made false claims about her past, according to a fresh examination of her statements.
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

An Iraqi woman who was granted refugee status in the United States after telling The Washington Post and U.S. officials that she had been imprisoned, tortured and sexually assaulted in Iraq during the 1990s appears to have made false claims about her past, according to a fresh examination of her statements.

Jumana Michael Hanna also claimed that her husband, Haitam Jamil Anwar, had been executed during the rule of ousted Iraqi president Saddam Hussein. Her testimony led to the arrest of several Iraqi security officials. Based on her testimony, U.S. officials took her into protective custody in Baghdad and then to the United States.

She was the subject of a lengthy article in The Post in July 2003. Later, a writer who was interested in collaborating with Hanna on a book concluded that she was not telling the truth. The writer's article appears in the January issue of Esquire magazine.

In recent interviews in Baghdad, Hanna's in-laws -- including her husband's brother, uncle and cousin -- all said the husband was alive and had left Iraq several months ago. They also said that although Hanna was imprisoned in Baghdad in the 1990s, it was not for the reason she told The Post.

"I don't believe this," Hanna said in a telephone interview Wednesday about The Post's finding. "You write what you like. I have nothing else to say." Hanna lives in Chicago. Her mother and two children were also granted refugee status.

This Post reporter met Hanna in July 2003 in Baghdad at the Human Rights Society of Iraq, where she was seeking assistance. Over the next week, she was interviewed three times in the company of an Iraqi interpreter and a Post correspondent who spoke fluent Arabic.

Hanna said at the time that she was imprisoned after she had eloped with her husband, who she said was of Indian origin. The marriage, she said, was not valid under Iraqi law because she had not received the proper permission to marry a foreign national. She said she went to the Iraqi Olympic Committee building in Baghdad, hoping that Saddam Hussein's son Uday would help.

Instead, she said, she was arrested and, between November 1993 and early 1996, was held in cells at the adjoining police academy, where she said she and other female prisoners were beaten and raped.

In July 2003, a Post correspondent, photographer and interpreter asked her to accompany them to the police academy. She appeared to know the grounds well, pointing out certain landmarks that she had described in interviews. While at the academy, she appeared to be deeply traumatized. Photos taken of her at the academy showed her wailing and on the verge of collapse. American officials took her into protective custody shortly afterward.

Toma Kalabat, a cousin of Hanna's husband, offered a different account in an interview with The Post. He said that Hanna had been imprisoned but that he believed she was jailed for cheating people out of money on the promise that she could get them visas to immigrate to Western Europe. Kalabat and other family members said Anwar, the husband, had also been imprisoned.

In a separate interview this week in Baghdad, a priest who knew Hanna and spoke on condition he not be identified by name said she had conned people out of money on the promise of getting them visas. The priest was contacted at the suggestion of Hanna, who said he could verify her story.

In 2003, The Post interviewed members of Hanna's family, including her mother, and people Hanna said had sheltered her mother while she was imprisoned. They supported Hanna's story. This week, some of her relatives in Iraq who had earlier corroborated parts of her story again told a Post correspondent that her husband was dead.

Hanna also produced Iraqi documents, including a stamped certificate of naturalization, that said her husband was Indian and gave his original Indian name. Anwar was a Christian of Indian origin, according to his family and Iraqi documents, but he adopted an Arab name.

Hanna claimed in 2003 that none of her husband's relatives were in Baghdad, that she believed his mother had returned to India and that she had no contact information for his mother. But the husband's family said Anwar's mother was living in Baghdad. The Post was unable to reach her Wednesday at her home, which was visited by a Post correspondent. Anwar's brother, Faisal, said his mother had Anwar's phone number abroad, although The Post was unable to locate him.

For the past three weeks, Hanna has continued to insist in telephone interviews that she told the truth.

She said Faisal had moved to Jordan and could corroborate her story. Jordanian government officials checked all border crossings at the request of The Post and said no such person had entered Jordan since 2000. Faisal works as a parking lot attendant in Baghdad, where a Post correspondent met him Wednesday.

Hanna also directed a Post correspondent to one and then another graveyard between Baghdad and Baqubah where she said her husband was buried. He was not interred in either place, a Post correspondent found.

She then directed a Post correspondent to a man who she said had transported her husband's body from Baghdad to the graveyard. That man died 10 years ago, but his job has been assumed by his son, Toma Kalabat, Anwar's cousin.

Kalabat said Anwar was alive and directed a Post correspondent to his brother, uncle and mother. The brother and uncle confirmed that Haitam Jamil Anwar was alive. Kalabat said that Hanna remains in touch with him.

After she was taken into U.S. protective custody in 2003, Hanna identified a number of Iraqis, including a brigadier general, as among those who participated in torture at the jail. Based on her testimony, a number of Iraqis were subsequently arrested by U.S. and Iraqi security forces. They were all released after Hanna was flown to the United States and the case languished, officials said.

Donald Campbell, a New Jersey superior court judge who oversaw the case in Baghdad as one of the American advisers to the Iraqi judicial system, said Hanna had convinced investigators and other Iraqi and American officials in Baghdad that she was telling the truth. He noted, however, that an Iraqi doctor had examined her for evidence of past torture and rape and did not believe her. The doctor's opinion was dismissed, he said. The Post was unable to independently verify or refute her allegations of abuse.

"She was interviewed many times over many months and she was always consistent," Campbell said in a telephone interview from New Jersey. "I recall asking, 'Is she telling the truth?' The investigators told me that there was no way she could make this up."

U.S. officials also said before The Post article was published in 2003 that they found her credible.

After arriving in California, where she was first resettled, Hanna met Sara Solovitch, the author of the Esquire article, and the two agreed to work on a book about her experiences. However, her claims began to become more and more outlandish, and Solovitch began to doubt her, according to the Esquire piece.

Hanna told Solovitch, for instance, that she attended Oxford University in Britain, although she could speak very little English; she had told The Post that she had taken business courses in Baghdad. She told Esquire that she had a bizarre, direct encounter with Uday Hussein, although she had told The Post that she never saw or heard him. She also told Esquire that other female prisoners were killed in a gruesome fashion. In interviews with The Post, she spoke of beatings and rapes of female prisoners, but not of killings.

"I went into this project anticipating that I would be working with a genuine hero," Solovitch said in an e-mail to this reporter. "Now, I believe that she is at best a pathological liar, at worst a highly intelligent con artist. Jumana took advantage of all of us."

Special correspondent Khalid Saffar in Baghdad contributed to this report.