German arts advocate kidnapped in Baghdad

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German arts advocate kidnapped in Baghdad
Shorouq Al-Abaiji, a former member of the Iraqi parliament, speaks during a press conference in Baghdad on July 21, 2020, demanding the release of German national Hella Mewis who was kidnapped the previous day. Hella Mewis, a who ran arts programmes at the Iraqi art collective Tarkib, had left her office and was "riding her bicycle when two cars, one of them a white pickup truck used by some security forces, were seen kidnapping her," the security source said. A friend of the German national told AFP she had been worried following the killing of Hisham al-Hashemi, an Iraqi scholar who had been supportive of anti-government protests last year. AHMAD AL-RUBAYE / AFP.

by Alissa J. Rubin and Falih Hassan

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- Kidnappers in two vehicles seized a German arts advocate at dusk on Monday as she was leaving her office near one of Baghdad’s busiest thoroughfares, Iraqi security officials said.

The advocate, Hella Mewis, is a well-known figure in the neighborhood, home to the Beit Tarkib Arts Center, which she had established with Iraqi artists to encourage and showcase their work. Mewis was also active last fall in supporting anti-government protesters, whose ranks included many intellectuals and artists.

Scores of anti-government protesters were kidnapped during the demonstrations last fall and winter, which the United Nations human rights division documented in a recent report, suggesting that armed groups operating outside government control were responsible.

Originally from Berlin, Mewis went to Iraq in 2010 with the Goethe Institute, an organization that promotes German language and culture around the world, according to an article in the journal International Politics.

Mewis, 45, said she was impressed by the deep interest that young Iraqis had in the arts. “In Europe the art scene is saturated, everything has been done before,” she was quoted as saying, “but I can make a difference in Iraq.”

Her openness and energy attracted a number of young Iraqis into the arts and she made many friends, said Thekra Sarsam, who runs a nongovernmental organization in Baghdad.

“Her Tarkib organization always supported the youth protests, and their voice and artistic work was always supportive of the demonstrations,” Sarsam said. Artists covered the walls of central Baghdad and the area around Tahrir Square with protest murals last fall that combined art and politics, often with a dose of humor.

“I got in touch with her more than a week ago,” Sarsam added, “and she was concerned after the assassination of Hisham al-Hashimi.”

Al-Hashimi, a security analyst and researcher on Iraqi armed groups, was killed on July 7. Like Mewis, he supported the protesters who started the anti-corruption demonstrations in October.

Sarsam said she and Mewis had discussed security conditions in the wake of al-Hashimi’s killing.

“I said the situation is not good, and everyone is under threat,” Sarsam recalled.

Mewis frequently rode her bicycle to and from the Beit Tarkib Arts Center in the Karada neighborhood, a mixed area of Shiites, Sunnis and Christians.

The German Foreign Ministry confirmed that Mewis had been taken and said that it had set up a crisis unit to help respond. Iraqi security forces also set up a team to search for her and the abductors, said Gen. Saad Maan, a spokesman for the Interior Ministry.

“Hella is a dear friend of ours and earned the respect and appreciation of many Iraqis; she has worked a lot for Iraq,” Maan said.

Iraqi human rights advocates condemned the kidnapping.

“Hella Mewis’ kidnapping is a serious indication of the inability of the Iraqi government and security forces to protect foreign nationals in Iraq who provide continuous humanitarian and cultural services to the Iraqi people, who need them most,” said Ali al-Bayati, a member of the High Commission for Human Rights in Iraq.

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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