At prison gate, Iraqi families vent

Indefinite detentions are within the law, US says, but angry Iraqis liken practice to Hussein's repression.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

A ripple of excitement spread through the few hundred family members, gathered outside the gates of the US military's Abu Ghraib prison west of Baghdad, when three buses crammed with men rolled out of the front gate.

Tripping over their shapeless black robes, mothers rushed to the Marine cordon, some bursting into tears as they saw sons for the first time in months, many of them hanging out the windows and shouting "follow me, follow me" as the buses sped down the highway.

With the US release of 440 men earlier this week, many visitors thought they were witnessing another mass release and scrambled for their cars and taxis to follow the disappearing buses.

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But the marines intervened to slow the convoy down, leaving families, some of whom had been waiting eight months to be reunited with loved ones, with fresh disappointment and a deepening sense of grievance against the US.

Fighting guerrilla wars is always ugly, and Abu Ghraib and two other principal detention centers - Um Qasr and Habbaniyah - are another face of the compromises regarding American values that the US feels it needs to make to win here. Charges or evidence aren't needed to keep men indefinitely detained.

"Is this the definition of the freedom that America promised us?" asks Ibrahim Hamid, a farmer from the Sunni Triangle town of Ramadi. His brother Ahmed has been held at Abu Ghraib for five months, ever since a platoon of soldiers broke into their home during dinner. "They dragged him off, no explanations why. What's the difference from Saddam?" he asks.

An ugly but perhaps necessary aspect of the US occupation of Iraq has been the prolonged detention of suspected insurgents, many of whom are never charged and are eventually released.

The US says it has complied with the Geneva Conventions in handling its prisoners in Iraq, pointing out the conventions allow for the detention of people "reasonably believed" to have been involved in attacks on coalition forces.

Brig. Gen Mark Kimmitt, a coalition military spokesman, said earlier this month that most of the people at Abu Ghraib and other facilities deserve to be there. "There are a number of procedures that have to be followed and a number of filters that have to be penetrated before a detainee ends up at Abu Ghraib or one of the other facilities," he said. "We typically have a 72-hour time period in which the unit that captured that person has to demonstrate why that person is an imperative threat to the coalition, which is the legal standard."

But with soldiers converted into jailers and convinced that many of their wards were involved in the killing of comrades, Abu Ghraib also been the apparent site of some ugly scenes.

Last Saturday, the US military formally charged US six military police with abuse of prisoners, including allegations of cruelty, "indecent acts," and assault. A further 11 soldiers are being held without charge. The incidents occurred in November and December at Abu Ghraib, where a riot Nov. 24 ended with three prisoners dead and eight wounded.

As the US struggled with an unexpected insurgency last summer, soldiers began sweeping through towns and villages, detaining men suspected of militant activity. By the end of last year, the US was arresting up to 100 Iraqis a day. Details of their alleged crimes have not been released.

But soldiers working on tip-offs from neighbors and associates have clearly made mistakes, since there is frequently little evidence of these men's activities except for the word of informers. With US investigators overstretched, most of the men are eventually released.

Mr. Hamid, who mills around almost every day on the dusty lot outside the prison hoping for news, says his nephew, the son of his still-detained brother, was released on Tuesday after five months in jail.

"He wasn't questioned, not even once," Hamid says. "We suspect that a neighbor that has a grudge against us made up a story to get us in trouble."

The US doesn't release statistics on detainees, but Baghdad human rights groups estimate 6,000 to 8,000 so-called "security detainees" - men suspected of insurgent activity or terrorism - are still held at Abu Ghraib.

The prison was one of the most notorious under Saddam Hussein, where tens of thousands were held and thousands secretly executed.

While those dark days are gone, the families of those detained still navigate a complicated maze to get information on the condition and the charges against relatives, and frequently come to see the US military as their enemy.

"Many of those held in prisons and detention centers run by the Coalition Forces ... have invariably been denied access to family or lawyers and any form of judicial review of their detention," wrote Amnesty International, the London-based human rights group, in a report this month. "Conditions in many of the detention centers are harsh."

Hisham Ali, a grocer in Baghdad, spotted his friend Mohammed Ali on one of the buses Friday morning, but gave up the chase after coming to a US military roadblock. "They've had him for six months, but I know him like a brother, and I swear he wasn't involved with the opposition," Mr. Ali says. "They just take whomever they want without explaining anything. Then they wonder why so many of us hate them."

Though looks inside Abu Ghraib are rare, the environment is clearly charged, with up to 30 men crowded into tents. For the families, visits are rare and waiting lists long.

Hussein Yunos, a 50-year-old man in a tribal headdress, says his brother has been held for eight months, and he's managed to get one visit. "I can't really say how angry we are. He has six children and they need their father. Whatever they say he did, it's just rumors."

The US military is working on plans to create a visitors' center at the prison that will hopefully make it easier for family and lawyers to gain access to the prisoners. But for now, information is scarce for the visitors.

One of the perimeter guards said he was as much in the dark about the morning's buses as the families were. He said he didn't know where the men were being taken. "If I knew the answer to that question, I wouldn't still be a corporal."

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