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Living dead invade serial murders trial

It was easy for the police as the Yemen Ripper confessed to killing girl students. Then 'victims' turned up alive, reports Brian Whitaker.

Originally published in The Observer, 11 June, 2000

YEMEN has been shaken by a grisly and baffling murder drama in which at least two women have died, their alleged killer has confessed to more crimes, and some of his 'victims' have made a surprise appearance - alive and in court at his trial.

The 'murders in the morgue' case has led to allegations that it is linked to a trade in body parts. It began on 10 May, when two mutilated female bodies were found at the university in Sana'a, the capital. Two days later, police arrested a mortuary technician at the medical school, saying he had confessed to raping and killing five women.

Muhammad Adam Omar, a 45-year-old Sudanese, not only admitted a growing number of murders - 16 in Yemen and at least 24 in Sudan, Kuwait, Chad and the Central African Republic - but named members of the university's teaching staff who, he said, were involved in a racket for sale of body parts.

He had enticed women students to the mortuary with promises of help in their stud ies, then raped and killed them, videotaping all his actions. He kept bones as mementos, disposed of some body parts in sewers and the university grounds and sold others together with his victims' belongings. Newspapers published pictures of the accused, looking wild-eyed behind the bars of his cage, and - although he was described as a drunk and drug addict - everyone seemed ready to believe his story.

Yemen's students took to the streets. Thousands marched, demanding that Adam be executed. Why, people asked, had the university not done more to protect its students or investigate the disappearances? The Prime Minister suspended the dean of the medical school and his deputy and sacked the university's head of security.

Such was the atmosphere that when the trial started, Adam's defence lawyer felt unable to appear in court. But Adam said he didn't mind.

Adam gave police all the help they needed. His statement said the first killing occurred in 1995, when he met Fatima, a Somali girl, in the centre of Sana'a and convinced her that he was a well-known professor at the medical school. Lured by money, she visited him repeatedly at the mortuary, where he had sex with her more than 12 times before killing her. In 1996, another young woman came to the mortuary to collect body parts. As she entered, he sprayed a chemical on her face, rendering her unconscious. Then he realised her friend was outside, so he invited her in, repeated the process, and disposed of the unconscious bodies in acid.

The confession went on and on, murder after murder: an open-and-shut case, or so it appeared until newspapers published the names of the women Adam had confessed to killing. Several of his 'victims' then turned up - alive.

One was Nada Yassin, who left her family home in Abu Dhabi in 1991 to study medicine at Sana'a university. According to her sister, Aisha, she was in touch with her family regularly until October 1998 when telephone calls ceased and she stopped collecting her monthly allowance. After his arrest, Adam identified Nada from a photograph and described in detail how he had killed her.

But when the trial resumed on 3 June, a woman cloaked in black, with only a narrow slit for her eyes, announced to the startled court that she was Nada Yassin.Aisha, who was also in court, confirmed her identity.

Not everyone was convinced. A journalist noted that the woman in black looked different from photographs of Nada and some of the things she said in court did not tally with what her relatives had said earlier.

Two other women contacted the Associated Press news agency, saying they were medical students who had been reported murdered by Adam. A doctor, Amira al-Tawati, who graduated from the medical school in 1993, also claimed that she was listed among the victims.

Adam, who has retracted his confession, now says he killed 'only' two women. The police insist they have parts from at least five separate bodies. Forensic experts say they have found the bodies of boys, as well as girls, which are not listed in the mortuary records.

One of the two dead students who have been identified was Iraqi-born Zainab Saud Aziz, 22, who disappeared last December. Relatives believe she was abducted while on her way to testify to a university inquiry about grade-rigging by fellow students. The other was Hossn Ahmad Attaiah, a member of one of Yemen's largest and most influential tribes, the Hamdan. Her tribe has already caused disturbances in court and is threatening action if Adam's presumed accomplices are not brought to justice.

Last week three members of the university's teaching staff - a Yemeni, an Iraqi and a Sudanese - were arrested. They had been named by Adam as involved in trading body parts. It was also disclosed that last December the university had sacked Adam for bribery, but had then mysteriously reinstated him.

The case has brought out attitudes and prejudices rarely expressed directly. In a country with high unemployment, Adam is an immigrant with a job. A union leader has said that the employment of a foreigner as a university technician contravened a presidential decree. Fearful of a backlash, the Sudanese community, several thousand strong, has condemned Adam's 'heinous crime'.

For ultra-traditionalists the case is further proof that educating women can only lead to trouble. In such a climate the presumption is that when a young woman goes missing she has gone astray morally. Zainab's mother was allegedly told to search the dance floors when she reported her daughter's disappearance.


In the Yemen section




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Last revised on 05 August, 2015