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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.

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But now it is essential that they take equal care to prevent the transfer of prisoners to a system where there is a substantial risk of torture or mistreatment – an action that violates international law, says HRW researcher Samer Muscati, who travels often to the region.

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"In our research over the last couple of years ... we heard credible allegations of torture and mistreatment during initial detention by Iraqi forces," wrote Mr. Muscati in an e-mail. "So it will be incumbent on the US to verify conditions in Iraqi facilities that receive such transfers through regular inspections of those facilities by impartial and independent observers."

Laundry day at Camp Cropper

US officers are endeavoring to do just that, they say. Every prisoner in US custody awaiting release or transfer to the Iraqi prison system comes through the US-run Camp Cropper detainee facility near Baghdad. It was laundry day when the Monitor visited recently, and the yellow uniforms were drying in the sun, as detainees played games or sat on gaudy prayer rugs reading the Koran together.

US officers here are eager to offer tours in which they point out the abundant space, art and computer classes, and Ping-Pong and football for the detainees.

"I know the right way and the wrong way to do things," says Col. John Huey, the commander responsible for the Americans' three Iraqi internment facilities at camps Cropper, Bucca, and Taji, who has worked with detainees in Iraq since 2003. "After Abu Ghraib there were 240 recommendations on detainee treatment."

But he pointed out the US involvement in Iraqi affairs is "dwindling," adding, "our responsibility ends when we transfer [detainees] to the government of Iraq."

In an effort to minimize the risk of human rights abuses, says Huey, the detainees are transferred only to nine prisons run by the Ministry of Justice. Those run by the Interior and Defense Ministries are worse, he said.

However, US soldiers in Diyala were transferring detainees to an Interior Ministry prison when the Monitor was present, and said that this was normal practice.

The Iraqi Correctional Service, whose officers are being trained in a US-run program, operate in Ministry of Justice prisons. Interior Ministry prisons are run by Iraqi police, according to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's former security adviser Mouaffak al-Rubaie, and accommodate detainees who are awaiting trial. Ministry of Justice prisons are meant to accommodate prisoners who have been convicted and are serving a sentence. While the US doesn't charge Iraqi detainees, as of early August 1,644 in its custody had either been convicted or were pending hearings or trials in Iraqi courts.

Conflicting reports from prison inspections

Baghdad's Rusafa prison, which is run by the Ministry of Justice, is the primary recipient of US detainees, says Huey. "We have inspected and continue to inspect [it]." His inspection teams, he adds, "go to prisons and inspect and assist them, and they are improving. We feel very confident about the nine facilities."