Harmeet Singh Sooden

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Harmeet Singh Sooden
Harmeet Singh Sooden appearing in a hostage video taken on November 27, 2005
Born 1973
Residence New Zealand
Nationality Canadian, New Zealander
Alma mater McGill University
Occupation Engineer

Harmeet Singh Sooden (born March 24, 1973) is a Canadian-New Zealand anti-war activist who volunteered for the international NGO Christian Peacemaker Teams in Iraq. He was held captive in Baghdad with three others for almost four months and threatened with execution until being freed by multi-national forces on March 23, 2006.[1]

Sooden was born and raised in Zambia. His parents are Sikhs from Kashmir.[2] His great-grandfather fought for the British Indian Army in World War 1 and died in Basra in 1916 during the Mesopotamian Campaign.[3] As his main inspiration for peace work, he cites his grandfather who was a career soldier in the British Indian Army and then the Indian Army.[4] He says he was also motivated by the extraordinary rendition and torture of a university classmate, Maher Arar, and the experience of a friend who survived the World Trade Center attack on September 11, 2001.[5]

Sooden holds degrees in Computer Engineering from McGill University in Montréal, Canada and English literature from the University of Auckland in New Zealand.[6] He was a member of the University of Auckland chapter of the Students for Justice in Palestine.

On 23 July 2006, Sooden did an extensive interview with journalist Sahar Ghumkhor in which he discussed his reflections on his visits in Iraq before the kidnapping, his captivity, his release and the response of the media.[3]

Christian Peacemaker Teams Hostage Crisis[edit]

Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT) is an international organization set up to support teams of peace workers in conflict areas around the world. One aspect of CPT's work in Iraq during the US occupation was to collect and publicise evidence of detainee abuse. Investigative journalist, Seymour Hersh of The New Yorker magazine, who helped to expose the Abu Ghraib torture and prisoner abuse scandal in 2004, cited the organization in his articles. In an interview with Democracy Now!, he said:

I ran across them when I was looking into the torture issue at Abu Ghraib, and I remember distinctly that they were on a cutting edge. I talked to people in the organization who had been active for years in total, you know, under the radar of all of us, because they didn’t have photographs. They were very interested, for example, very early on in the unwarranted use of dogs in interrogations by American troops. And most of the things that I ended up writing about in Abu Ghraib, most of the general concepts, they knew a great deal about earlier.[7]

The Christian Peacemaker Teams hostage crisis precipitated when four human rights workers of CPT, James Loney, Norman Kember, Tom Fox and Harmeet Singh Sooden, were abducted in Baghdad, Iraq on November 26, 2005 by a previously unknown group, the Swords of Righteousness Brigade. The kidnapping made media headlines around the world. The hostage-takers released videos accusing the men of being spies working for the coalition forces and threatening to execute them. On March 9, 2006, one of the hostages, Tom Fox, was executed, and the remaining three were freed in a military operation on March 23, 2006.

Upon his return to New Zealand, Sooden was warned by Prime Minister Helen Clark not to go back to Iraq saying: "The New Zealand Government constantly says to Kiwis 'Don't go there. You are walking into a war zone. It is a very, very dangerous place and New Zealand is not represented in Iraq in any shape or form and we are not in a position to help". One of the reasons Sooden volunteered with CPT (who were in Iraq with the permission of the U.S. Government) was to highlight New Zealand's role in the invasion and occupation of Iraq, and the preceding sanctions.

Shortly after the release, both as a direct result of the kidnapping and the deteriorating security situation, CPT was compelled to leave Iraq. After a brief absence, CPT relocated to Iraqi Kurdistan.[3]

Roy Hallums, a retired US Navy Commander who worked as a civilian contractor in Iraq and himself held hostage for 10 months, offered to assist Sooden and the others in their healing process.

Little information on the kidnapping has been made public by the governments of New Zealand, United States, United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and Iraq; most has been withheld largely on national security grounds. In particular, no evidence has come to light that confirms the media's assertion that the hostages were freed in a bona fide rescue. A few previously undisclosed documents were released through Wikileaks in the 'Iraq War Logs' and 'United States diplomatic cables leak'.[8]

Appeals for Release[edit]

Many individuals and groups asked for the hostages' release, including:

Release Operation[edit]

On March 23, 2006, British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw announced: "The three hostages...have been released as a result of a multinational force operation which took place earlier today.... British forces were involved in this operation. It follows weeks and weeks of very careful work by our military and coalition personnel in Iraq and many civilians as well."[17] It has been reported that the operation was led by the SAS from Task Force Black, a unit primarily tasked to kill or capture high-value enemy targets. Task Force Black have since been implicated in grave human rights abuses at secret detention facilities, including Camp Nama and H1.[18][19] There were unconfirmed reports and speculation that elements of the Canadian special-operations unit Joint Task Force 2 were involved in the release operation. The identity and extent of the Canadian military contribution and the nature of its participation, if any, are unknown.[20] Reports indicate that no kidnappers were present at the house where the hostages were found and no shots were fired during the operation. While it is clear the hostages were freed in a military operation, it is still not publicly known how the Coalition Forces derived the information leading to their whereabouts, and whether they were rescued or released as part of a negotiated settlement.

TVNZ 'Deal'[edit]

There was also controversy about 'chequebook journalism' on the part of state-owned TVNZ, which allegedly paid for air travel and accommodation for Sooden's family to meet him in the United Arab Emirates in exchange for the family's exclusive story.[21] The deal was brokered with TVNZ by Sooden's former brother-in law, Mark Raymond Brewer, who has since been implicated in a number of other dubious business dealings.[22][23][24] Sooden disassociated himself from the deal by traveling to New Zealand on a separate flight and giving an open press conference.[25]

Trial of Kidnappers[edit]

In October 2006, the Multi-National Force - Iraq (MNF-I) informed the ex-hostages that an unspecified number of men, alleged to be their kidnappers, had been captured. The authorities asked them to testify at what was described as their kidnappers' trial at the Central Criminal Court of Iraq.

On December 8, 2006, the three survivors publicly forgave their captors at a press conference held at St Ethelburga’s Centre for Reconciliation and Peace in London, England. On this very day a year earlier, their kidnappers had threatened to execute them.[26] In their joint statement of forgiveness they said, "We unconditionally forgive our captors for abducting and holding us. We have no desire to punish them.... Should those who have been charged with holding us hostage be brought to trial and convicted, we ask that they be granted all possible leniency. We categorically lay aside any rights we may have over them."[27]

On May 23, 2007, James Loney released a public statement saying that he would not be testifying against his captors citing the lack of transparency in Iraqi courts, the limited access to lawyers and the death penalty: "I recently informed the RCMP that I will not testify. I cannot participate in a judicial process where the prospects of a fair trial are negligible, and more crucially, where the death penalty is a possibility."[28] Sooden, however, said he could neither accept nor decline MNF-I's request because the ex-hostages were provided with virtually no information on the nature of process they were expected to participate in.

Further Developments[edit]

There have been media reports suggesting the Christian Peacemaker Teams kidnapping is linked to the abductions of British aid worker Margaret Hassan in 2004 and United States journalist Jill Carroll in 2006, and to extrajudicial killings (for example Muharib Abdul-Latif al-Jubouri in 2007).[29]

In 2009, he briefly returned to Iraq with Christian Peacemaker Teams.[30]

In 2014, it was reported that Task Force Black has been reconstituted to target the high command of ISIL, a group that has been responsible for kidnapping and execution of a number of Westerners in Iraq and Syria.[31]

International Solidarity Movement[edit]

In 2004, Sooden volunteered for the International Solidarity Movement (ISM) in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. ISM is an international human rights organization composed of Palestinians, Israelis and internationals who monitor the human rights situation and protect human rights in the occupied Palestinian territories (OPT).

When he attempted to return to the OPT in 2008, he was declared a "threat to the security of the State of Israel"[32] and removed from Israel after being injured and detained incommunicado for four days.[33]

The New Zealand Government launched an inquiry into his treatment by Israeli authorities.[34] Both the New Zealand and Canadian governments, however, refused to take any further action.[35][36][37]

Cubic Defence New Zealand[edit]

Upon his release from captivity in Iraq, the NZ Herald revealed Sooden had worked as a software engineer for Cubic Defence New Zealand (formerly Oscmar International), a US-owned company based in Auckland that manufactures training and simulation equipment for various armed forces around the world.[38] During his captivity, the New Zealand Government and New Zealand media agreed under the Terrorist Event Media Protocols not to publicize details of his employment at Oscmar in case it put Sooden's life at further risk.

Oscmar was awarded a contract to supply the Israel Defense Forces. Shortly after he resigned, Peace Movement Aotearoa, a New Zealand peace organization, revealed that it had received leaked documents showing that although the New Zealand government had denied Oscmar an export permit, Oscmar, undeterred, tried to fulfill the contract by electronically transferring the completed design to the United States for manufacturing.[39] This exposure forced the New Zealand Government to open an investigation. The Government’s final decision was that there was no case to answer and therefore no further action would be taken. Consequently, student demonstrations took place outside Oscmar’s facilities.

In 2010, it came to light that he was the subject of an investigation by the Special Investigation Groups (SIG) as a suspect for defacing Oscmar's premises with graffiti.[40] The SIG is an NZ Police unit "dedicated to the investigation of national security-related crime including terrorism".[41] Sooden was quoted as saying:

I submit that there is no evidence that the [graffiti] incident is in any way related to a breach of national security; that I am being considered a suspect for a crime that I did not commit; that I am not in any way a threat to the national security of New Zealand. At this stage, I can only conclude that I have been targeted by the SIG primarily on the basis of my political beliefs. More importantly, my case appears to be but one of many in which individuals and groups are being targeted by the Special Investigation Groups on spurious grounds.[40]

Officers from the SIG were also involved in debriefing him after his kidnapping and later facilitating the attempts of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police to persuade him to participate in what was described as the trial of his kidnappers.

2006 Fox Journalists Kidnapping[edit]

On August 14, 2006, Fox News Channel journalists Olaf Wiig (a New Zealander) and Steve Centanni in the Gaza Strip were abducted by a previously unknown Palestinian group.[42]

Sooden publicly called on the kidnappers to release Wiig and Centanni:[43]

During our captivity in Iraq, virtually all of Palestine called for our release. Today, I implore those holding Olaf Wiig and Steve Centanni to free them immediately and unharmed. It is essential that we, the public, understand the greater context within which the kidnapping has taken place. Thousands of Palestinians, including hundreds of women and children, have been kidnapped by Israeli forces as part of a campaign to murder a nation under the aegis of the United States [in other words, Israel and the United States' rejection of the two-state settlement based on the international consensus].[44]

Abousfian Abdelrazik[edit]

Former hostages Sooden and James Loney were among the 250 Canadians[45] who risked charges under Canada’s anti-terrorism legislation in the spring of 2009 for contributing towards a plane ticket for Abousfian Abdelrazik. Abdelrazik is a Canadian citizen who was detained by the Sudanese Government at Canada’s request, tortured, imprisoned for two years without charge and then denied travel documents to return to Canada.[46] The ticket the Canadians helped purchase exposed how the Canadian Government was actively blocking his return and led to the June 2009 court ruling which forced the Canadian Government to bring him home.[47]

Freedom Flotilla II[edit]

In 2011, Sooden joined Freedom Flotilla II aboard the MV Tahrir:[48] to highlight the West’s support for Israel’s 20‐year old policy designed to scuttle negotiations for a two-state settlement based on the international consensus, as well as the 2007 closure of Gaza and the need for certain types humanitarian aid. Other participants included Amira Hass, a prominent Israeli journalist, and Canadian Kevin Neish who was aboard the ill-fated MV Mavi Marmara in 2010 during the Gaza flotilla raid on the first Freedom Flotilla when Israeli special forces killed nine civilians.

Sooden viewed the New Zealand Government's stance on the flotilla initiative as effectively authorizing Israel to kidnap the flotilla participants in international waters.[49]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "British Iraq hostage Kember freed". BBC. March 23, 2006. Retrieved March 23, 2006. 
  2. ^ "Harmeet the Peacemaker". Peace Movement Aotearoa, Letter by Donna Mulhearn. December 2005. 
  3. ^ a b c "Harmeet Sooden Interviewed By Sahar Ghumkhor". Scoop. July 23, 2006. 
  4. ^ Loney, James (2012). Captivity. p. 124. 
  5. ^ "Te Waha Nui talks to young New Zealand on why they fight for their beliefs". Te Waha Nui. October 12, 2006. 
  6. ^ "Profile: Harmeet Singh Sooden". Fox News. November 29, 2005. 
  7. ^ "Video Broadcast of Kidnapped Members of Christian Peacemaker Teams that Helped Expose Abu Ghraib Prisoner Abuse Scandal". Democracy Now!. November 30, 2005. 
  8. ^ "Cablegate Search". Wikileaks. 
  9. ^ "ACTION ALERT: Release Christian Peacemaker Team held in Iraq". 9/11 Families for Peaceful Tomorrows. 
  10. ^ "Noam Chomsky, Arundhati Roy Among 13,000 to Sign Petition Calling for Release of Kidnapped Aid Workers". Democracy Now!. December 5, 2005. 
  11. ^ "TORONTO: Statement on behalf of missing CPTers by three Muslim detainees in Toronto". Christian Peacemaker Teams. December 6, 2005. 
  12. ^ "Terror suspect's Iraq kidnap plea". BBC. December 7, 2005. 
  13. ^ Ex-US detainee pleads for hostage, BBC, 9 December 2005
  14. ^ Inter-faith support helped save the Iraq hostages, Lebanon Star, 7 April 2006
  15. ^ "Former detainees appeal for release of Western peace campaigners in Baghdad", Taipei Times, 10 December 2005, accessed 20 February 2010
  16. ^ "Open Letter". Langley Hill Quakers. April 23, 2006. 
  17. ^ "Straw: Weeks of careful planning". CNN. March 23, 2006. 
  18. ^ "Camp Nama: British personnel reveal horrors of secret US base in Baghdad". Guardian. April 1, 2013. 
  19. ^ "RAF helicopter death revelation leads to secret Iraq detention camp". Guardian. February 7, 2012. 
  20. ^ "Ottawa's JTF2 commandos part of Iraq hostages rescue: reports". CBC. March 23, 2006. 
  21. ^ "Peters clears ministry over 'chequebook journalism'". NZ Herald. April 5, 2006. 
  22. ^ "Hostage campaigner in court over bankruptcy breach". NZ Herald. October 27, 2012. 
  23. ^ "Phoenix Forex's creditor claims top $2 million". NZ Herald. May 5, 2014. 
  24. ^ "Brewer back in hot water". Sunday Star Times. February 9, 2014. 
  25. ^ "Statement issued on behalf of Harmeet Sooden". Peace Movement Aotearoa. March 27, 2006. 
  26. ^ "EXCLUSIVE...Former Christian Peacemaker Teams Hostages Harmeet Singh Sooden and James Loney Remember Murdered Colleague Tom Fox and Explain Why They Forgive Their Captors". Democracy Now!. December 8, 2006. 
  27. ^ "UNITED KINGDOM: Statement by Norman Kember, James Loney, and Harmeet Singh Sooden regarding the prosecution of their kidnappers". CPT. December 8, 2006. 
  28. ^ "No Future Without Forgiveness". CommonDreams.org. February 3, 2009. 
  29. ^ "Qaeda Figure in Iraq Is Killed, U.S. Military Says". NYT. May 3, 2007. 
  30. ^ "Activist Harmeet Sooden return from Iraq". TVNZ. November 23, 2009. 
  31. ^ "SAS and US special forces forming hunter killer unit to 'smash Islamic State'". Mirror. August 23, 2014. 
  32. ^ "Activist deported to NZ from Israel". Dominion Post. June 19, 2008. 
  33. ^ "Sooden Complaint". Scoop. September 29, 2008. 
  34. ^ "Inquiry into Kiwi's treatment in Israel". Dominion Post. December 16, 2008. 
  35. ^ "MFAT's deportation response angers activist". Dominion Post. June 3, 2009. 
  36. ^ "NZ Washes Its Hands of Defending Human Rights". Scoop. June 3, 2009. 
  37. ^ "Canada Not Serious about Protecting its Citizens". Scoop. December 21, 2009. 
  38. ^ "Ordeal over for kidnapped student". NZ Herald. March 24, 2006. 
  39. ^ "Questions over military details sent to Israel". NZ Herald. February 25, 2005. 
  40. ^ a b "State Of It: Police SIG Unit Wasted On Tag-Busting". Scoop. December 19, 2008. 
  41. ^ "Statement of Intent 2005/2006". NZ Police. May 2005. 
  42. ^ "Timeline: Steve Centanni and Olaf Wiig's Ordeal". Fox News. August 28, 2006. 
  43. ^ "Still no sign of kidnapped pair". TVNZ. August 18, 2006. 
  44. ^ "Press Statement 17.08.06". Scoop. August 17, 2006. 
  45. ^ "Canadians defy law in bid to bring home one of their own". Globe & Mail. April 10, 2009. 
  46. ^ "Help sought for Canadian stranded in Sudan". Toronto Star. May 5, 2009. Retrieved May 5, 2010. 
  47. ^ "Abousfian Abdelrazik: Project Fly Home". People's Commission Network. 
  48. ^ "Kiwis to join aid flotilla to Gaza". TVNZ. May 24, 2011. 
  49. ^ "NZers to participate in Gaza flotilla". NZ Herald. June 20, 2011. 

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