Kidnapped German woman freed by Iraqi security forces

Hella Mewis, a supporter of street protests, was kidnapped Monday.
Friday 24/07/2020
A file picture of Hella Mewis riding a bicycle, in Baghdad. (AP)
A file picture of Hella Mewis riding a bicycle, in Baghdad. (AP)

BAGHDAD - A German woman kidnapped in Baghdad earlier this week was freed early Friday, Iraqi officials said without providing many details.

Hella Mewis was freed at 6:25 a.m. local time (0325 GMT) in an operation outside the capital Baghdad in which security forces raided a location based on information they obtained regarding her whereabouts, a security official said.

“Security forces have freed activist Hella Mewis,” Iraq’s military spokesman Yahya Rasool said in a statement.

There were no details on the timing of the operation, the force that carried it out or who had kidnapped Mewis.

A spokesman for Iraq’s Supreme Judicial Council, Abdelsattar Bayraqdar, said the operation had been backed by a Baghdad investigative court.

“We are still investigating this crime,” he said.

Mewis, who ran arts programmes at Iraqi collective Tarkib, was kidnapped late on Monday as she was leaving her office.

The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorised to give official press statements.

Mewis was reported missing by friends and activists Tuesday. Security officials said she was kidnapped outside the Baghdad arts center where she worked. There was no claim of responsibility and officials didn’t say who was behind the kidnapping.

Mewis is well known in Iraq’s art scene and an ardent supporter of anti-government protests. Her abduction prompted alarm among Iraqi activists and other foreigners living in the country.

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas, during a visit to Athens on Tuesday, said the German Foreign Ministry had established a crisis task force to deal with Mewis’ disappearance.

Mewis has resided in Baghdad for seven years and runs an arts program for young Iraqis. She was often seen on her bicycle zipping along bustling Karada Street, an unusual sight in Baghdad, where foreigners are often cautious of the unpredictable security situation.

“She was riding her bicycle when two cars, one of them a white pickup truck (of the type) used by some security forces, were seen kidnapping her,” a security source said.

Police officers at the local station witnessed the abduction but did not intervene, the source added.

Friends of Mewis said she was worried following the recent assassination of Hisham al-Hashemi, an Iraqi expert who had been supportive of anti-government protests but also close to Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi.

Large demonstrations erupted in Baghdad and Iraq’s Shia-majority south last year, railing against a government seen as corrupt, inept and beholden to Iran.

Around 550 people died in protest-related violence, including two dozen activists who were shot dead by unidentified men, suspected of being affiliated with pro-Iran Shia militias.

Dozens more were kidnapped, some of whom were later released near their homes. The whereabouts of others remain unknown.

Amnesty International has slammed the incidents as “a growing lethal campaign of harassment, intimidation, abductions and deliberate killings of activists and protesters”.

This year has seen a worrying spike in abductions of foreigners, who had not been targeted in several years.

On New Year’s Eve, two French freelance journalists were taken hostage for 36 hours and three French NGO workers were held for two months.

In both cases, neither the kidnappers nor the conditions of their releases were revealed.