Auckland man held hostage in Iraq

By Claire Trevett, Mathew Dearnaley

An Auckland University literature student is one of four humanitarian volunteers being held hostage at gunpoint in Iraq and accused of spying.

Harmeet Singh Sooden, 32, a Canadian citizen born in Africa to Indian parents, travelled to Iraq after finishing the academic year in Auckland last month and was kidnapped in west Baghdad at the weekend.

He is a single man who arrived in this country early in 2003, has gained residency here, and hopes to obtain dual New Zealand-Canadian citizenship.

A grainy video of Mr Sooden and his three male companions from Christian Peacemaking Teams was shown yesterday on the Arab TV network Al Jazeera.

They were filmed bound and sitting cross-legged on a floor, hostages of a little-known group called Swords of the Righteous Brigade, which made no apparent demands but accused them of being spies.

The date in the video, November 27, was the day after the men were abducted.

The spy claim was firmly denied last night by the group which was formed in 1984 by Quakers, Mennonites and Brethren and says it consistently opposed the war. It went to Iraq in 2002 at the invitation of a welfare organisation.

Christina Gibb, a Dunedin Quaker who describes herself as a "reservist" in the organisation, said the hostages were driving back from a meeting when their car was seized.

Their driver and translator, both Iraqis, were allowed to go and the car was found abandoned not far away.

The Guardian newspaper reported the group was seized from a mosque in a Sunni area of west Baghdad. It was also reported they were talking to Muslim clerics about the abuse of Sunni detainees.

Mr Sooden's brother-in-law, Mark Brewer, said last night that Mr Sooden left New Zealand about two weeks ago saying he wanted to see what was happening in Iraq first-hand. He stayed for some time in Jordan on his way there.

"He was active in a lot of peace stuff and I guess that's the irony here - that he was trying to help the Iraqi people," Mr Brewer said. Mr Sooden and 74-year-old retired British medical professor Norman Kember joined in a delegation visiting the group's resident team in Iraq.

Mr Kember is a longtime peace activist who once fretted publicly that he was taking the easy way out by protesting in safety at home while British soldiers risked their lives in Iraq.

He and his wife of 45 years have two daughters and a grandson.

The other hostages are Iraq team member Tom Fox, 54, a United States citizen, and Canadian community worker James Loney, 41, who was guiding the visitors.

Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin has condemned their seizure, promising to use diplomatic efforts to release them and appealing to their captors to recognise their humanitarian intent. "These are people who are in the country for humanitarian purposes, who went there to help the citizens of Iraq," he said.

A Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade spokeswoman said the Government would take its lead from Canada in responding to the incident, leaving overseas diplomats to liaise with that country's officials in Ottawa.

Ms Gibb, 76, of Dunedin, the Christian Peacemaking Teams' only New Zealand member, said the organisation's policy on responding to hostage-taking was that it would attempt peaceful negotiations with captors and eschew any form of violence or military intervention.

She said the group was one of the only humanitarian organisations, since the slaying last year of British aid worker Margaret Hassan that had chosen to stay close to ordinary Iraqis by remaining outside a green security zone maintained by coalition forces in Baghdad.

"Many of them left after the murder of Margaret Hassan."

In another hostage drama in Iraq, kidnappers are threatening to kill a German woman and her Iraqi driver unless her country halts all contacts with the Iraqi Government. Germany has been training Iraqi police.

- Additional reporting AP

* * *

When Harmeet Sooden mentioned he was going to the Middle East for the summer holidays, his course supervisor at Auckland University had no idea he was headed for a war zone.

Stuart Young, a senior lecturer in English literature, describes his student as a very modest and courteous young man who hoped to teach after gaining his postgraduate degree.

"He is an extremely gentle man, a most delightful man - I was very shocked and distressed to hear what has happened because I can't imagine someone like Harmeet deserving that," Dr Young told the Herald last night.

Mr Sooden, 32, travelled to Iraq via Jordan after completing a transitional course at university, a prerequisite for taking honours papers in English literature next year for students from other disciplines.

Born in Zambia to Indian parents, his first degree was in electrical engineering from Montreal. He obtained Canadian citizenship before arriving in New Zealand in April 2003.

Dr Young described him as a serious and earnest student, and strongly doubted he would have had any ulterior motive for travelling to Iraq

"He is a man of great integrity."

Despite a full academic life, Mr Sooden played and coached squash at the university's recreation centre, where he had a close circle of friends.

* * *

Christian Peacemaker Teams operate in many trouble spots.

The organisation, formed in 1984 by Quakers, Mennonites and Brethren, says it consistently opposed the war, which started after it arrived in Iraq in 2002 after being invited by local welfare groups.

The North American-based CPT sends self-financed teams of four to six into danger zones for several months.

Its website says: "Members will devote the same discipline and self-sacrifice to non-violent peacemaking that armies devote to war."

"Getting in the way" is the group's motto, although it also says its aim is to promote human rights for everyone, and not to change anyone's religion.

Besides Iraq, the group is active in Columbia and the Palestinian territory. It also works with Mexican migrants in the United States and native Americans in Canada.

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