Six years on, the wife of Iraqi Olympic President Ahmed Al-Samarrai pleads with the IOC to help find her husband

Thursday, 09 August 2012
Andrew Warshaw_ITGIt's a personal tale of heartbreak, grief, frustration and fear – and International Olympic Committee (IOC) President Jacques Rogge is being urged to try and resolve it once and for all.

Six years ago, on July 15, 2006, the National Olympic Committee of Iraq (NOCI) was holding its AGM in central Baghdad when a group of unknown gunmen, unmasked and in broad daylight, burst in and kidnapped its President Ahmed Al-Samarrai along with the majority of his colleagues.

Thirteen of them were released shortly afterwards but the rest, including Al-Samarrai, disappeared and have never been seen since.

Now Al-Samarrai's wife, Niran, who has never stopped believing he is still alive, has spent the last fortnight during London 2012 lobbying the IOC, and Rogge in particular, to revive its efforts to seek her husband's release.

She believes his cause has become an embarrassment for the Olympic Movement since the regime in charge at the time her husband was abducted is still running the country.

Niran SamaraiAl-Samarrai's wife, Niran

In a statement last week, the IOC said: "It's clearly a very sad situation. The President has met his wife and of course we continue to follow the situation closely and offer any help we can."

But that meeting, claims Niran, took place four years ago. Recently she wrote a book, A Homeland Kidnapped, chronicling the entire episode, in both English and Arabic, and has now written an open letter to Rogge challenging the IOC to take the lead in forcing the Iraqi authorities to reveal why her husband was taken and by whom.

Ironically Iraq was suspended from the Olympic Movement for Government interference but reinstated in time for the Beijing Games, and brought eight athletes to London 2012.

Ahmed al-Samarrai_chairman_of_the_Interim_Iraqi_CommitteeAhmed Al-Samarrai pictured in September 2003 outside the Olympic Stadium in Baghdad.

In an interview with insidethegames, Niran recalled how her husband was an accomplished international basketball player in the 1960s and 1970s.

In 1980 during the brutal regime of Saddam Hussein the couple fled to Britain where they were granted asylum. After the dictator's downfall in 2003, Al-Samarrai, who had never tried to cover up his Iraqi roots, thought it safe to return to his homeland, only to find himself in grave danger once again by those who, ironically, had also been opposed to Hussein.

In Jan 2004 he was elected to head up NOCI, with the apparent blessing of the IOC, but when he was kidnapped two years later Niran is convinced it was for the same reason the couple fled in the first place – his liberal views.

There were strong forces, she says, within the post-Hussein inner circle who were determined to dictate how the country's NOC was run at all costs.

"I am certain the gunmen were official armed forces and that Ahmed was kidnapped for his beliefs," said Niran. "Beliefs that he fought for in order to benefit the Olympic Movement: that sportsmen should be kept far away from any sectarian conflict. He didn't belong to any political party yet this was the crime for which he paid expensively. The authorities wanted their own man, simple as that. This crime has been perpetrated by people inside the Government."

President of_the_National_Olympic_Committee_of_Iraq_Ahmed_al_SamarraiAhmed Al-Samarrai speaks at a send-off event for the Iraqi Olympic Team on August 5, 2004 in Baghdad, Iraq

Niran said her husband, who had already escaped an assassination attempt in 2005, realised he was under threat after hearing unconfirmed reports that Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki wanted to change the format of the NOC.

"The night before Ahmed's abduction, we were having dinner with some of his colleagues and he received a phone call urging him not to go to the meeting."

"Of course he went anyway. Sport was almost destroyed during the Hussein era and my husband brought it back to life. But you have to remember how complex the situation is in Iraq – so much sectarianism. The country has been torn apart. The Government may say they believe in democracy but the truth is there is no democracy."

Niran claims al-Malaki promised her every effort was being made to secure her husband's release but believes these were empty words; that the authorities in fact know full well who the gunmen were but have deliberately done nothing. Three times in the aftermath of the kidnapping, she pointed out, the house the family rented in Baghdad was raided.

Paul Bremer_US_top_civil_administrator_in_Iraq__Ahmed_al-Samarrai_head_of_the_Iraqi_Olympic_CommitteePaul Bremer, US top civil administrator in Iraq, smiles after receiving a golden medal from Ahmed Al-Samarrai, at Baghdad's indoor Olympic Hall in February 2004

Now, after six years of fruitless global lobbying involving Governments and human rights organisations, her family is still waiting for answers.

As a last resort, her son having already tried and failed to get action, she has sent an open letter to Rogge pleading with the IOC to put pressure on Iraqi authorities to launch a proper investigation "to help all the families of those abducted to reach closure after six terrible years of suffering."

"I am formally requesting that the International Olympic Committee ask the Iraqi delegation officially about the case, and to request that the results of an official investigation be made public," the letter states.

"It's not just my issue, I am speaking for those families who are still waiting for news of fathers and husbands," she explained further in our interview. "I can't accept that the Olympic Movement has been receiving an Iraqi delegation at London 2012 that has just been silent about this. I know Dr. Rogge has sent letters but letters are not enough."

"Since 2006 not a single person from the Iraqi Government has helped me, the same Government who are still in power. It's simply obscene.  I believe they know who was behind this. They couldn't push my husband out legally so they did it by force."

"I have to believe Ahmed is still alive though maybe he has been tortured. I'm tired and scared with not knowing his fate after this savage crime. Somebody has to give us some hope. Some of the families of those kidnapped with my husband had new-born babies who have never seen their fathers. The IOC represent my last chance."

Andrew Warshaw is a former sports editor of The European, the newspaper that broke the Bosman story in the 1990s, the most significant issue to shape professional football as we know it today. Before that, he worked for the Associated Press for 13 years in Geneva and London. He is now the chief football reporter for insidethegames and insideworldfootball. Follow him on Twitter
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