Matthew McAllester and Moises Saman freed with help from Yasser Arafat and Palestinian Authority
By Bart Jones
Staff Writer Newsday April 2, 2003
Newsday journalists Matthew McAllester and Moises Saman, who had been missing in Iraq for eight days while covering the war, were released yesterday by Iraqi authorities after a harrowing week in a notorious prison and have crossed the Jordanian border to freedom.
McAllester telephoned Newsday foreign editor Dele Olojede at 1:06 p.m. New York time from the border to say the two staffers had just left Iraqi territory and were safe and in good health.
On the telephone inside a hotel room in Amman, Jordan.
Photo: David Guttenfelder
Ed Abington, a former U.S. consul general in Jerusalem who is now a Washington, D.C.- based adviser to the Palestinian Authority, said McAllester and Saman may owe their freedom in large part to the intervention of Arafat.
Abington said that he had spoken twice with Arafat by telephone in the past few days and that Arafat agreed to try to help free the journalists. Arafat then instructed one of his former ambassadors to Iraq to contact the head of Iraqi military intelligence, who confirmed the journalists were being held and then apparently helped order their release, Abington said.
“The Palestinians played a very helpful role in this,” he said.
McAllester and Saman both described a nightmarish week in the prison, the largest in the Arab world. They said they were interrogated separately several times by up to 12 Iraqi intelligence officials at once who suspected they were American spies, despite their adamant denials.
“I was accused of being dishonest and my future depended on my becoming honest,” McAllester said. The authorities wanted him to “come up with more information spontaneously without being asked.”
The two said they were never mistreated or abused physically, although conditions in the prison were harsh. They often heard and felt bombs exploding in and around Baghdad. “At times it was extremely close,” Saman said. “The cells would kind of rumble.”
Inside the prison was an anti-aircraft battery that frequently was fired. The pair said they could barely sleep.
Adding to the tension, they said, was that they often heard the screams of other prisoners being tortured and saw some with their eyes and faces bloodied and swollen. “There were beatings and torture going on outside our cells, in the corridor, literally,” McAllester said. Other inmates hobbled around, apparently because the soles of their feet had been burned or otherwise injured.
The two journalists were given meager rations of bananas, boiled eggs, bread and chicken soup. They were issued two blankets each, along with prison uniforms and slippers. They stayed in small, separate cells, unable to talk to each other, in a block that housed suspected spies and U.S. sympathizers.
Two other missing journalists, Molly Bingham, a freelance photographer from Louisville, Ky., and a Danish freelance photographer, Johan Rydeng Spanner, had been detained with the two Newsday staffers. They also were freed yesterday and crossed the Iraqi border into Jordan.
McAllester and Saman said their odyssey began about 1:30 a.m. March 24. McAllester was about to file a story, and Saman was near the top of the Palestine Hotel taking photographs as U.S. airplanes bombed the capital. When Saman came back down to the room the two Newsday staffers were sharing, two Iraqi intelligence agents were sitting on one of the beds.
“Right away I figured there was something wrong,” Saman said.
The two staffers were handcuffed and initially told they were being taken to Syria. Instead, they were taken to the prison, where the interrogations soon started. McAllester said that at one point the authorities wanted him to sign a statement in Arabic, which he refused to do. Instead, he wrote one out in English saying in part that “I was not sent here by the CIA or the Pentagon and I’m not from any mission.”
Saman said he was questioned about his job, what he was doing in Iraq, what kind of photos he was taking and if he had any connection with the CIA or the Pentagon. One agent also asked him if he was Jewish. “The main guy was convinced I was Israeli,” Saman said. “I had to tell him, ‘No, I’m not.’”
Saman was born in Peru, grew up in Spain and moved to the United States when he was 18. One of his grandfathers is Palestinian, and some of Saman’s relatives still living in the West Bank also appealed to the Palestinian Authority to intervene on his behalf, Abington and Newsday editors said.
After the initial interrogations, the authorities left the two journalists alone for a few days, they said. Meanwhile, Abington was making contact with Arafat.
The Newsday staffers said that on Monday some of the prison guards started saying things to them that suggested they were going to be released, such as “You go home.” By early yesterday they were freed.