So Romania's hostages got freed. This will be old news to our Romanian readers, since it happened nearly two weeks ago. Non-Romanian readers may not have noticed that Romania had three hostages in Iraq. (Hardly anyone outside Romania seems to have.) Two reporters and a cameraman, they were taken on March 28 and released nearly two months later, on May 22. They had a very frightening and stressful time, but seem to be basically intact. The whole country is very happy that they're back. Once you get beyond those very basic facts, though, things start to get weird.
What follows is from Transitions Online, but TOL puts all its stuff behind a pay-only wall after a few days, so the link is to the front page. (Check it out anyway, it's really good.) I'm quoting Romanian journalist Razvan Amarei now.
It now appears that they were victims of a plot by the two businessmen of Arab origin who had organized and financed the trip: Mohammad Munaf, their guide and translator, played the role of the fourth hostage for 55 days, while his business partner, Omar Hayssam, was apparently pulling the strings behind the scenes.Omar Hayssam is a very wealthy Arab-Romanian. There are a surprising number of these. They're not recognized as an official minority, but there are probably enough of them that they could be if they tried. Why? Well, Ceausescu liked the Arabs, is the short answer. He enjoyed hobnobbing with Arafat and Qaddafi, and signed agreements that brought thousands of Arab students, technicians and businessmen to Romania. Some of them stayed.
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.True. About a week after the hostages were taken, the Romanian government arrested Hayssam for "tax offenses". He's been in jail ever since. There are reports that over 30 other people -- mostly Arab-Romanian or Arab -- have been arrested here in Romania, but it's not clear if that's true or not.
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.Interesting. Munaf, as noted, is "in custody" in Iraq, presumably in American hands. Romania has 850 troops in Iraq, which is a lot for a country that's neither the US nor Britain. (Last time I looked, Romania was the seventh largest troop contributor to Iraq. As other countries pull out, they might be up to sixth by now.)
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 [hostage] 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."Former governor" means "former prefect", I think, which is not exactly the same thing. A Romanian prefect is appointed by Bucharest. It's a bit as if the US President could appoint state governors. As such, he's usually a heavy political hitter. Prefects have traditionally had... how to put this delicately... many opportunities to engage in extracurricular activities. There are clean prefects, but "former prefect", in Romania, instantly brings certain things to mind. Anyway:
The authorities may have unravelled the plot behind the abductions, but many questions remain, chiefly how the kidnapping ended. “It was a 100-percent Romanian action, and I want to thank the secret services for everything they’ve done,” President Basescu stated. But others reported the Iraqi police and the coalition forces also played a major role in the action. To add to the confusion, the Arab news network Al-Jazeera broadcast a tape on the day of the release, showing the four hostages and one of their kidnappers reading a statement attributing their release “to the pressures of the Muslim community in Romania and of the Saudi Muslim cleric Salman Bin Fahad.”"Muslim community in Romania". Somehow I don't think they're referring to the quiet and retiring Turks of Dobrogea.
The relief of the former hostages was palpable. After a moving reunion with their families, they were placed in a double quarantine: medical and informational. “This period will help them to get back to their ordinary life,” Dr Florin Tudose, chief of the Psychiatric Clinic at Bucharest’s University Emergency Hospital, told the media. [...] The government’s statements weren’t much more substantial. The prime minister said that no ransom had been paid, while the president assured Romanians that no negotiations on its present or future foreign policy had taken place – a reference to a possible troop withdrawal from Iraq. [...] “When everything is over, we’ll hold a press conference,” Basescu told impatient journalists, adding that some information would only be made public years from now.Fifty years, he said. He also said that Romania did not pay any ransom for the hostages, nor make any sort of commmitments. Which seems a stretch, but there it is. Interestingly, the country seems to be accepting this. (But then, Romania has plenty of fifty-year-old secrets that have never been revealed.) So it's possible we'll never learn the truth about what happened. Presumably bits and pieces will emerge when the hostages start talking, and when Hayssam goes on trial. Or... maybe not. This is a big deal here, and highly politicized. The whole country was waiting for the hostage situation to be resolved (there were enormous photographs of them in public places, with BRING THEM HOME printed across), and getting them out intact -- and finding a villain, and a suitably wicked non-Romanian villain at that -- has sent President Basescu's popularity over the moon, at least for now. A strange ending to a strange story.