May 30, 2005

Former American 'Hostage' Indicted for Plotting Romanian Hostage Taking

Our Romanian affairs reporter, Adi, informs us that former hostage in Iraq and American citizen, Mohammed Monaf, has been indicted in Romania for his alleged involvement in a conspiracy to abduct three Romanian journalists in Iraq. The three Romanian victims were Marie Jeanne Ion, Sorin Dumitru Miscoci, and Edward Ovidiu Ohanesian.

The Jawa Report, with the help of Romanian reader Adi, has been reporting from the beginning that speculation abounded that Muhammed Monaf was involved in the kidnapping.

As we reported here on March 31st:

It seems that one of the hostages, Marie-Jeanne Ion, is the daughter of an important PSD member (the former government party). Thus, releasing her may be a top priority for the government. It also may explain why she was targetted.

What really seems to be raising suspicions, though, is that the entire expedition to Iraq was arranged by and planned by Omar Hayssam, who is described as a wealthy Arab immigrant to Romania. Hayssam is also being investigated for unrelated criminal activities. Hayssam is also business partners with Ion's father.

It was Hayssam that sent American Muhammed Monaf to accompany the journalists to Iraq. Mr. Hayssam also received the only known phone call demanding ransom and is said to be going to Iraq to act as an intermediary to obtain the hostages release.

As we cautioned then, though, such conspiracy theories abound in former Eastern block and developing countries. We therefore urged caution in blaming someone who was a hostage victim as being involved in the crime. However, the issuing of the indictment for Monaf seals what were already deep suspicions that the naturalized American was somehow involved.

Adi e-mailed me about this several days ago. I postponed doing a post on this until it hit the MSM in the US. As of today, this is getting little to no US press coverage. Why is that? An American citizen is taken hostage in Iraq, released, and then is found to have been part of the plot to take journalists hostage? Outrageous!!

Swiss Info:

Romania on Friday charged the translator for three Romanian journalists who were held in Iraq for 55 days, and an Arab businessman, of orchestrating the kidnapping.

Prosecutors said the reporters' guide, Mohamad Munaf, who was seized with the journalists on March 28, and Romanian-Syrian businessman Omar Hayssam were charged with "initiating, funding and coordinating the March 28 kidnapping."

The general prosecutor's office said the kidnapping was part of an elaborate plot aimed at turning Hayssam into a hero in Romania in the hope that it would help him escape potential punishment for previous charges of organized crime and economic-financial wrongdoings.

"The abduction and threats by the Iraq group were aimed at triggering a strong psychological impact on the (Romanian) population, to depict Hayssam as a liberator of the journalists," it said in a statement.

"Warrant arrests for 30 days were issued," it said.

Prima TV reporter Marie Jeanne Ion, 32, cameraman Sorin Miscoci, 30, and reporter for Romania Libera daily Ovidiu Ohanesian, 37 were kidnapped along with Munaf while on a short trip to Baghdad. They were shown in tapes aired by Al Jazeera.

The three returned home on Monday but Munaf remained in Iraq under U.S. custody for investigations. The U.S. embassy in Bucharest said he had information indicating "an imminent threat" to the coalition forces in Iraq....

Hayssam, who lives in Romania, had told local media immediately after the kidnapping that he received a telephone call from the insurgents asking for $4 million in exchange for their freedom.

Authorities, suspecting foul play, immediately arrested Hayssam for questioning.

Romanian prosecutors said nine people captured in Baghdad in April in connection with the case, supplied the information leading to the charges brought against the two Arab businessmen.

Here is a better telling of the plot from this Czech publication:

The day after the hostages returned to their families, Bucharest officials issued arrest warrants for Omar Hayssam and Mohammad Munaf. They could face between 10 and 15 years in prison for their role in the abduction if convicted. Munaf is still in U.S. custody; Hayssam has been in jail since April, charged with various financial felonies.

The Antena 1 TV station reported that Munaf’s brother and two brothers-in-law had been arrested in Baghdad together with one of Hayssam’s brothers, all in connection with the journalists’ case. Mohammed Shamil, the President of the Iraqi-Romanian Friendship League, told the daily Jurnalul National that 88 people had been arrested in this case in Iraq, of whom 42 remained in custody.

According to the Romanian General Prosecutor’s Office, Omar Hayssam’s bizarre plot was to unblock his bank accounts – frozen as part of an unrelated financial investigation – pay a fictitious ransom, and become, when the hostages were released, a “national hero.” The investigators said he was hoping all his previous crimes would then be forgiven. But they also discovered that Hayssam had been financing several Sunni terrorist organizations, though they did not specify which organizations.

An anonymous Arab businessman based in Romania was quoted by the daily Averea as saying, “Munaf got involved in the kidnapping at Hayssam’s order… Munaf is Hayssam’s servant more than his partner.”

Hayssam has rejected all the accusations. He said Munaf organized the trip in order to impress the Iraqi authorities, since he was planning to bid for a public tender for the procurement of 25,000 tons of sugar. “I only put him in touch with the journalists. I didn’t pay for the trip, and I didn’t plan the abduction,” Hayssam told investigating magistrates.

Munaf’s wife, Georget, told Romanian media her husband wanted to go to Iraq to do business and to see his relatives there.

The first rumors regarding Hayssam’s and Munaf’s involvement in the affair started circulating immediately after the kidnapping. Omar Hayssam, a prominent Syrian-Romanian businessman whose $100 million in assets puts him on the list of the 300 wealthiest Romanians, compiled by the magazine Capital, claimed on 30 March that the kidnappers had called him to demand a ransom of $4 million.

The media soon discovered the close relationship between Marie-Jeanne Ion’s father, Social-Democratic Senator Vasile Ion, and the two businessmen. Hayssam said he and the politician were “friends,” but Ion, a former governor of Buzau county, denied this, saying he knew Hayssam as he knew many of those doing business in his county....[More on the political ramifications of the plot in Romania]

And Reporters Without Borders issued the following:
Reporters Without Borders said it was "outraged" by revelations from the Bucharest prosecutor's office that the kidnapping of three Romanian journalists in Iraq may have been orchestrated by their Iraqi guide and a businessman.

"We have confidence that the Romanian justice system will do its utmost to shed light on this disturbing case. They must punish all those implicated in what appears to be a put up job, in line with their wrongdoing".

One of the hostages recounted his ordeal recently to the AP:
Giving his first interview Sunday since their release, [Edward Ovidiu] Ohanesian - an award-winning investigative journalist - recalled that the four were traveling by car in Baghdad just five days into their trip when another vehicle blocked their path.

"Several armed men came out and they told us to get out. They threw me and Miscoci in the trunk. Marie Jeanne was in the back seat, and she kept screaming 'Romania - friends,'" he said.

"I tried to escape. I opened the trunk twice, but the car was driving very fast and behind it was one of their cars. If I got out, they would have run me over."

They were taken to "a regular house" with empty rooms with mattresses, and fed well, although Ohanesian was barely able to eat. After four days, they were moved to place where conditions were harsher.

Ohanesian, calm in tapes made by the kidnappers, said during his captivity he tried to think about "music, poetry and what I was going to do when I came out. I tried to keep optimistic."

Blindfolded and ordered not to speak, they were punished if they broke the rules - shackled with handcuffs or denied meals.

"We spent 51 days underground, crowded in a small cellar, a weak light bulb, and blindfolded. There was no air, I was sweating abundantly, worse than a sauna," he said.

Calculating the date by meals - tea for breakfast, a cake for lunch - plus rare excursions outside, the three managed to celebrate Orthodox Easter on May 1. "One night in the cellar, we told each other 'Christ has risen!' in whispers but we avoided making the sign of the cross."

Ohanesian said they feared for their lives during a few critical moments. At one point, the captors dressed Miscoci in an orange jumpsuit, a color used by Iraq groups in the past for hostages before executions.

"I thought they were going to kill us one by one - that was the scariest moment," he said.

But there were touching moments as well. When the four were freed, the guards gave them goodbye gifts - a pen, a half-used bottle of perfume - and bought them new clothes.

He credited the guards with being civil.

Ohanesian, 37, said his greatest joy after being released "was when I could see the clear sky and the sun. For so many days I couldn't see even a ray of sun." He shuddered as he recalled the cellar measuring about 13 feet by 7 feet, and about 5 1/2 feet high.

Ohanesian had traveled to Iraq on a trip financed by Monaf to interview former interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi and to write about the problems of ordinary Iraqis.

He said he met Monaf, a businessman who is married to a Romanian, twice before their departure for Iraq.

On Friday, Monaf was charged in absentia with helping to orchestrate the kidnapping. He was being held in Iraq by U.S. authorities.

Ohanesian said he finds it hard to believe Monaf was involved in the kidnapping. "I think he was a collateral victim," he said. "Monaf was held with us the entire time."

The Gardian newspaper on Saturday cited sources from the president's task force as saying Monaf's plan to kidnap the journalists had gone wrong, and that he became a hostage when the Romanians were seized by Islamic fundamentalists.

The journalist said he had a personal mission to investigate his ordeal, and that he has some hunches to what really happened. "I need to check them out," he said.

But before that, he said he would enjoy his newfound freedom - by going to the mountains "to look at the sky, to be alone, and to do my own personal debriefing."

Well, it looks like Sworn Enemy had it right....

Related stories from The Jawa Report:

Romanian Journalists Taken Hostage in Iraq, Plea for Help (UPDATED)
American Kidnapped in Iraq (UPDATED)
3 Romanians and One American Shown on Hostage VideoAmerican Hostage in IraqQuestions Raised Over Romanian Hostage CrisisAmerican and Romanian Journalists Released in Iraq

By Rusty Shackleford, Ph.D. at 01:37 PM | Comments |