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In Iraq's prisons, a culture of abuse

As the US speeds the transfer of detainees in its custody, many appear headed into a notoriously violent system. Inmates at Abu Ghraib rioted Thursday and Friday.

By Alice Fordham / Contributor / September 12, 2009

Where next? Detainees pray behind barbed wire at the US-run Camp Cropper facility in Baghdad, where all transfers are processed. Human rights workers harshly criticize the conditions in Iraqi prisons.

Maya Alleruzzo/AP/File


Baghdad and Baquba, Iraq

In a room thick with heat and sweat, light from a small window falls on rows of squatting prisoners and plastic bags of belongings hung from nails on every inch of the wall. The guard explains that 74 men live in this room, which is roughly 10 by 20 feet. A further 85 are usually in the corridor, he adds, while 12 are kept next to the toilet.

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This is Hibhib prison on the outskirts of Baquba, the dusty, volatile capital of Diyala Province roughly 40 miles from Baghdad.

It is just one of the prisons in the province where detainees and US forces allege overcrowding, lengthy pretrial detention, and torture used to extract confessions. While the conditions here may be more severe than elsewhere in the country, Iraq's national detention system as a whole has been harshly criticized by Western human rights organizations.

A December 2008 report by the New York-based watchdog Human Rights Watch (HRW) went as far as to assert a "disturbing continuity" with Saddam Hussein-era detention. A committee set up by the Iraqi government in June is investigating abuses. But a lack of accountability and political will, say human rights workers, are serious impediments to reversing the culture of abuse cultivated under Mr. Hussein.

Lt. Col. Shaun Reed, commander of a Baquba-based US infantry unit, often runs up against that culture. He says it's hard to change prison workers accustomed to brutality. "What I consider humane treatment of prisoners, is not what they would consider humane treatment," says Reed, whose work with Iraqi security forces has exposed him to Iraqi prison conditions. "If you ask Iraqis what they think – it's completely different."

The issue has taken on new urgency as the US dials back its presence in Iraq, accelerating the release and transfer of Iraqi prisoners in its custody. Most of the prisoners deemed unlikely to reoffend have been released already, which means a higher proportion of the 8,947 remaining as of early September are likely to go to jail, according to Capt. Brad Kimberly, a US media relations officer.

In the first nine months of this year, more than 5,000 detainees were released, with nearly 1,200 transferred to Iraqi custody, according to Kimberly and other US officers interviewed for this article. At the current release rate of 750 per month, an additional 1,400 detainees are expected to go to Iraqi jails before the US transfer is completed – probably in August 2010.

After the exposure of abuses at Abu Ghraib, American officers are eager to point out measures to ensure proper treatment of Iraqi prisoners.