The Iraqi TV show where 'bombers' meet their victims

By Rami Ruhayem
BBC News, Baghdad

image copyrightIraqiya TV
image captionPrisoners such as Abu Jassem are confronted about their past on In The Grip Of The Law

A television crew, a security escort and two convicts make their way through Karrada, a district of Iraq's capital Baghdad that was recently the scene of a series of attacks.

Residents shout insults from their balconies as the convoy stops at the site of one attack.

The prisoners were taken to Karrada to re-enact on camera the crimes to which they had confessed, as part of a weekly programme called In The Grip Of The Law, which is produced by state-run Iraqiya TV in co-operation with the interior ministry.

Relatives of the victims approach and take turns at scolding the convicts, who remain silent throughout. When they get too close, police gently push them away.

The programme features interviews with prisoners such as Abu Jassem, convicted for involvement in attacks by Islamic State (IS).

He appears nervous and keeps his head down as he details his role. Towards the end, he is asked whether he regrets it.

"Yes, sir," Abu Jassem says quietly. The interviewer is not satisfied. "Yes, sir, I swear you have convinced me," he exclaims.

'Reality shock'

The interviews are rich in forensic detail, but lacking in insight into the ideology and appeal of IS.

I ask Ahmad Hassan, the presenter of the show, what he makes of his interviewees.

image copyrightIraqiya
image captionPresenter Ahmad Hassan (left) says no fewer than 10 million people watch his show

"Those at the forefront are naive, limited in awareness and knowledge," he says. "In prison, they reflect on the innocent blood they shed and feel abandoned by Islamic State. They get a reality shock."

Mr Hassan says no fewer than 10 million people watch his show. It seems especially popular in predominantly Shia areas that are frequently attacked, like Karrada, where the mood is vengeful.

"It's a good programme, but they should either execute the terrorist at the crime scene or hand him over to the family of the martyr," says Ammar, who owns a restaurant that was damaged in one recent attack. "They're the ones whose hearts have been broken."


In Sunni areas, the programme is viewed with suspicion.

"I think it's all fabricated," one man in Baghdad's Adhamiya district tells me, requesting anonymity. "Some guy is in trouble with an officer, gets picked up for terrorism and confesses to killing. It happened to relatives we have."

He believes most of those on the show have nothing to do with attacks and are not IS fighters.

image copyrightReuters
image captionIn Sunni areas, like Adhamiya in Baghdad, the programme is viewed with suspicion

"IS fight face to face and if they catch them they kill them, they don't bring them to court," he says. "The court is for the innocents."

His impression of the Iraqi justice system is widely shared in Adhamiya.

On 2 January, crowds converged on the area to celebrate the Prophet Muhammad's birthday.

As fireworks lit the sky above the historic mosque of Abu Hanifa al-Numan, a young woman approached, drawn to the camera.

She told me her brother had been arrested in 2007 by the Adhamiya Awakening, a Sunni militia allied to the US and to Iraq's Shia-led government.

He was accused of murder and membership of al-Qaeda, tortured into confessing and handed a death sentence which was later suspended.

More than two years ago he disappeared within the prison system.

"Knock on almost any door in Adhamiya and you get a story like that," says a human rights researcher who has been documenting abuse in Iraqi prisons.

'Death or arrest'

It is no surprise that the programme elicits conflicting reactions. Iraqis have different experiences of the carnage that followed the US-led invasion in 2003.

Sunnis suffered more from state repression, while Shia took the brunt of attacks on civilian areas.

image copyrightReuters
image captionThe Iraqi authorities have been accused of carrying out mass arrests and unlawfully detaining people

The programme does not address the gap in perceptions but seems oriented towards the war aims of the government.

Beyond reassuring viewers that security services are doing their jobs, Mr Hassan lists a number of other goals: "To provide guidance to security forces, who can learn tricks used by terrorists; to send a message to the judiciary to expedite the sentencing process in order to serve justice; and to make anyone thinking of committing crimes reconsider."

In one episode, Mr Hassan turns to the camera with grim determination.

"You will see that their destiny is either death or arrest, no matter how long it takes," he asserts.

A message of power and assured victory over IS is repeated throughout the programme, explicitly at times, implicitly at others.

But almost a decade after IS was born in Iraq, events on the ground suggest that nothing is inevitable.