Margaret Hassan (also known as Madam Margaret) (18 April 1945 – 16 November 2004) was an Irish aid worker who had worked in Iraq for many years until she was abducted and murdered by unidentified kidnappers in Iraq in 2004, at the age of 59.
Life and career:
She was born Margaret Fitzsimmons in Dalkey, County Dublin to parents Peter and Mary Fitzsimmons. However, soon after the end of World War II her familia moved to London, England, where she spent most of her early life and where her younger siblings were born. At the age of twenty seven she married Tahseen Ali Hassan, a twenty-nine-year-old Iraqi studying engineering in the United Kingdom. She moved to Iraq with him in 1972, when she began work with the British Council of Baghdad, teaching English. Eventually she learned Arabic and became an Iraqi citizen, as was required of foreigners under Saddam Hussein’s government.
She remained a Roman Catholic throughout her life and never converted to Islam as was widely reported after her death. A requiem Mass was held for her, after her death was confirmed, at Westminster Cathedral by Cardinal Cormac Murphy O’Connor.
During the early 1980s Hassan became the assistant director of studies at the British Council; later in the decade she became director. Meanwhile, Tahseen worked as an economist. She remained in Baghdad during the 1991 Gulf War, although the British Council suspended operations in Iraq, and she was left jobless at the end of it.
Hassan joined humanitarian relief organisation CARE International in 1991, the aid group having established itself in Iraq during that year. Sanitation, health, and nutrition became major concerns in the sanctioned Iraq; she became a vocal critic of the United Nations restrictions. She was opposed to the United States invasion of Iraq in 2003, arguing before it that the Iraqis were already “living through a terrible emergency. They do not have the resources to withstand an additional crisis brought about by military action”. Margaret was crucially involved in bringing Leukaemia medicine to child cancer victims in Iraq in 1998.
By 2004 she was head of Iraqi operations for CARE. Well known in many of Baghdad’s slums and other cities, Hassan was especially interested in Iraq’s young people, whom she called “the lost generation”. Her presence could draw large crowds of locals.
Kidnapping and murder:
Hassan was kidnapped in Baghdad on 19 October 2004, and believed to be killed some four weeks later.
In a video released of her in captivity she pleaded for the withdrawal of British troops. She stated that “these might be her last hours”, “Please help me. The British people, tell Mr Blair to take the troops out of Iraq and not bring them here to Baghdad” and that she did not “want to die like Bigley”, a reference to Kenneth Bigley who had been beheaded in Iraq only weeks earlier.
Patients of an Iraqi hospital (where her work had some effect) took to the streets in protest against the hostage takers’ actions. On 25 October between 100 and 200 Iraqis protested outside CARE’s offices in Baghdad, demanding her release. Prominent elements of the Iraqi insurgency, such as the Shura Council of Fallujah Mujahedeen, condemned the kidnapping and called for her release.
On 2 November Al Jazeera reported that the kidnappers threatened to hand her over to the group led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi who were responsible for the murder of Kenneth Bigley. However, on November 6, a statement purportedly from al-Zarqawi appeared on an Islamist website calling for the release of Ms. Hassan unless the kidnappers had information she was aligned with the invading coalition. However, the statement could not be authenticated. Hassan’s whereabouts were unknown in the video.
On 15 November U.S. Marines in Fallujah uncovered the body of an unidentified blonde- or grey-haired woman with her legs and arms cut off and throat slit. The body could not be immediately identified, but was thought unlikely to be Hassan, who had brown hair. There was one other western woman known missing in Iraq at the time the body was discovered, Teresa Borcz Khalifa, 54, Polish-born and also a long-time Iraqi resident. Khalifa was released by her hostage takers on 20 November.
On 16 November CNN reported that ‘CARE’ had issued a statement indicating that the organization was aware of a videotape showing Hassan’s murder. Al-Jazeera reported that it had received a tape showing Hassan’s murder but was unable to confirm its authenticity. The video apparently showed Hassan being shot with a handgun by a masked man.
It is not clear who was responsible for Hassan’s abduction and murder. The group holding her never identified itself in the hostage videos.
On May 1, 2005 three men were questioned by Iraqi police in connection with the murder.
On June 5, 2006 news reports emerged that an Iraqi man by the name of Mustafa Salman al-Jubouri has been sentenced to life imprisonment for “aiding and abetting the kidnappers” but two other men were acquitted Margaret Hassan’s family said the verdict left them “devastated and appalled” It is unclear what role the others who were acquitted played in the kidnapping or the role of the suspect who was found guilty. Al-Jubouri appealed this sentence and was given a shorter imprisonment.
CARE International suspended operations in Iraq because of Hassan’s kidnapping. The last CARE project Hassan completed was one for children with spinal injuries.
The director of the spinal cord clinic she supported in Baghdad, Qayder al-Chalabi, called her loss a huge blow to all Iraqis. “(The killers) made a very big mistake. This was a (sic) wrong person”, he said on 17 November. “We need to admire and remember her. We must have a ceremony every year to remember her”. He believes that a statue should be erected in her honor.
At least eight other women kidnapped by insurgents during the conflict were released unharmed by their captors (Simona Pari, Simona Torretta, Florence Aubenas, Giuliana Sgrena, Teresa Borcz Khalifa, Hannelore Krause, Marie Jeanne Ion, and Jill Carroll). It is unclear why Margaret Hassan, who was opposed to the war, was killed; the kidnappers did not identify their group nor their aims.