By Greg Moses
The final report on Riad Elsolh Hamad was signed by the Travis County Medical Examiner on May 14, 2008. Death by drowning. Suicide.
The widely beloved teacher and founder of the Palestine Children’s Welfare Fund (pcwf.org) had gone missing on the evening of April 14. He telephoned Paul Larudee in California at about 7:30 Pacific Time (9:30 Central), and when Larudee told Hamad that a donation had arrived to the new address of the PCWF, Hamad said, “it doesn’t matter.” His body was pulled from Lady Bird Lake at about 2 p.m. on April 16. From the viewpoint of the medical examiner on the morning of April 17, the body was “in a state of early decomposition characterized by marbling and maroon discoloration of the skin.”
“The body is received with the wrists loosely bound in front of the body with a tan rubber telephone-type cord. One end of the cord is looped loosely once around the left wrist and arranged in a very loose knot. The cord is looped loosely three times around the right wrist, and then arranged in a very loose knot. The hands are separated by approximately 1 ½ foot of cord. The cord ligature is easily slipped off of both hands.
“The ankles are bound loosely by black rubber speaker-type cord. The cord is looped twice around each ankle. On the right ankle, the cord is looped over the surface of the skin. On the left ankle, the cord is looped over the surface of the pants. The ends of the cord are arranged in a loose knot in front of the ankle, medially. The loops around the ankles are loose enough to slip off of the body intact. The loops are separated by approximately 6 inches of cord between the ankles.
“Gray duct tape is wrapped neatly twice around the head just above the eyes, and leaves a blanched, slightly depressed band of imprint on the skin. The duct tape passes above the eyelids, and does not cover the eyes. The duct tape passes over the ears.”
The term “atraumatic” appears several times to describe the body’s head, face, neck, and hands. No signs of strangulation. No drugs. The left ventricle of that once exuberant heart had grown thick with hypertension. There was a “history” — notes the report — “of recent depression and stress.”
Reporters for the Oak Hill Gazette and the Austin Chronicle have told the story of Imams who reported “bruising” or “facial bruising” when the body was washed for burial. Imam Ibrahim Dremali found the post-autopsy condition of the body so offensive that he complained to officials, to his mosque, and to the press.
“I believe they were sending us a message,” he said, “and that’s what I told the people here [at the mosque], that they believe they do not have to respect the bodies of Muslims,” said Imam Dremali to Austin Chronicle reporter Michael King.
In April, Imam Mohamed-Umer Esmail, of the North Austin Muslim Community Center, told Oak Hill Gazette reporter Ann Fowler, “Those that knew [Riad Hamad], their concern is why was the case closed so quickly? The investigation was made and they closed it really quickly, saying it was suicide.”
Although Hamad’s advocacy in behalf of Palestinian children had attracted FBI attention for many years, his recent troubles began in November 2002 when a neighbor complained to the Joint Terrorism Task Force of the FBI that packages were coming to Hamad from the West Bank of the Occupied Palestinian Territories. Hamad was famous for carrying around boxes full of Palestinian crafts that he sold, or gave to friends to sell, as fundraising supplies. Of course, the government found no evidence of terrorism, but Hamad was apparently a tax resister and sloppy bookkeeper.
On the morning of Feb. 27, a team of federal agents entered his house and packed up at least 20 boxes of papers, books, and computer disks. In an email, Hamad estimated the number of boxes at 40. (If the government’s own bookkeeping is to be believed, there is a box numbered 100. I personally suspect, however, that the record for box 100 is a result of sloppy bookkeeping on the part of the FBI.) Federal agents even took a David Rovics CD and a book that was resting on Hamad’s piano entitled, “War on Freedom.” Hamad immediately started looking for a lawyer.
In preparation for this article, the Texas Civil Rights review emailed a query to the Hamad family. A reply was forthcoming from the family attorney: “They are obviously still in the middle of the grieving process [and] are not at a stage where they want to discuss any details regarding his death or the months leading up to it.. . . Thank you so much for respecting the family’s privacy and for your understanding.”
If I ask myself what Riad Hamad would ask me to say next, it is this: donations may be sent to the Palestine Children’s Welfare Fund, 405 Vista Heights Rd., El Cerrito, CA 94530; 510-236-5338; or visit pcwf.org to access an online donation link.