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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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"A lot of them are scared to go" to Iraqi prisons, says Sgt 1st Class Penny Barber, a US military detainee specialist working in Diyala. "[The detainees] say, 'They are going to beat us, torture us, we might not make it home,' " she adds. Recently, she says, she handled a prisoner who knew Iraqi police held a warrant for his arrest, "and he was very scared. He asked for our help, but there was nothing we could do" because the US is required to transfer all detainees for whom the Iraqi police have arrest warrants.

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"These prisons – if you walked in there, you would vomit," says Col. Burt Thompson, commander of the 1-25 infantry division in Diyala, who visits local prisons as part of a ongoing partnership with local security forces. "There is no air conditioning ... water is in a trough, there is not a whole heck of a lot of food, there is no hope." He visited a prison called Khamees, near Baquba, at the end of last year, and called it a "hell-hole."

"I could not believe human beings were living like this," he says. He has never witnessed torture in an Iraqi prison, though he says he believes that it takes place.

Activists call for independent commission

Iraq's Ministry of Human Rights [MOHR] has documented many cases of prison abuse, but that has done little to reverse the problem, says Ms. Mufti, the former UN human rights chief in Baghdad who also served as director of HRW's Baghdad office from 2003 to 2006.

As part of the government, MOHR is "under considerable political pressure to divulge as little as possible and to be mindful not to cross certain red lines," she says in an e-mail from Amman, Jordan. In 2008, for example, MOHR prepared a report on detainee abuse. Although a press conference was held to discuss its findings and some copies were distributed selectively and confidentially to individuals, government pressure stopped its publication, says Mufti.

"The work of MOHR tends to be rather secretive, particularly when one inquires as to what happens to the torture cases they have documented," Mufti writes. "Up until last August when I left Iraq, the ministry's line was that these cases are referred to a committee within the PM's office, and from there directives are issued to relevant ministries to take action. If you try to find out more about this committee, its members, its powers and remit, you would come up against a dead end. Same goes for other committees that have been set up, including ad hoc investigative committees charged with addressing specific incidents."

Some have proposed scrapping MOHR and establishing an independent national human rights commission, as provided for under the Iraqi Constitution.

But however secret MOHR is, one thing is clear: letting the problem fester could lead to deteriorating security, says 1st Lt. Michael Horab, assistant operations officer at Camp Cropper.

"If you put detainees back into a crowded, brutal environment," he says, "then you're taking guys who might have been mildly against the government of Iraq and making them worse."