New twist in Iraq election crisis: Maliki's enemies latch onto torture allegations

As the Iraq election process is drawn out by a recount, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki faces a fresh challenge over allegations of torture on his watch. He dismissed an HRW report, saying detainees bruised themselves to fake torture evidence.

By , Correspondent

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    Iraqi policemen stand guard in front of an election campaign poster for former Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi at a checkpoint in Baghdad, Iraq, Tuesday.
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Iraqi authorities Thursday announced that an Iraq election recount demanded by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki would take up to two weeks. Meanwhile, recent allegations of torture on Maliki's watch have given his political enemies new fodder and could further weaken his ability to head a coalition government.

A Human Rights Watch investigation, published April 27, into prisoners held illegally at a base run by a security office under Maliki’s command found systemic torture by interrogators and incidents of rape at the undeclared facility. HRW had conducted interviews with dozens of prisoners the previous day and concluded that they were tortured in an effort to extract confessions.

Maliki ordered the prisoners transferred to a regular prison and launched an investigation. But he has publicly ridiculed the torture claims, saying they were engineered by his political enemies and other countries.

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“These are lies – a smear campaign by some foreign embassies and the media,” he told state-run Iraqiya television. “There are no secret prisons in Iraq at all.”

In fact, he said, the dozens of prisoners HRW interviewed were faking it.

“They gave themselves scars by rubbing matches on some of their body parts,” the prime minister said.

Iraq's Human Rights Ministry silenced

The international human rights organization called on Maliki to properly investigate the abuses and bring those responsible to justice. Iraq’s Human Rights Ministry, which first disclosed the existence of the illegal detentions, has been forced to suspend its own investigations, according to a Western official familiar with the issue.

A spokesman for the ministry said Wednesday that because of the political sensitivities they were no longer allowed to comment on prisons or detentions before abruptly hanging up the phone.

“It’s ridiculous – you can’t deny that these abuses were taking place,” says Samer Muscati, an HRW researcher in Baghdad who interviewed many of the prisoners. “Anyone who does needs to visit this facility to look at the wounds of the detainees and to interview them and the conclusion they will reach is the same one that we have – that the torture was routine and systematic.”

“We really need them to come clean and do a proper investigation,” he says.

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The undeclared detention facilities were under the control of the Baghdad Operations Command, one of several regional security commands set up by Maliki that answer directly to him. Mr. Muscati says none of the detainees interviewed indicated there were Americans present during the torture.

The US embassy and the US military, which have focused on instilling rule of law in Iraq, have been silent on the issue.

Key political bloc pummels Maliki over torture

The Sadr movement, the most powerful member of a Shiite political bloc that had contemplated joining forces with Maliki’s State of Law coalition, lashed out over the torture allegations.

"What has the government brought us in the past four years except prisons and new graves?" Sadr official Hazem Al-Araji told Al-Sharqiya television network.

Maliki’s State of Law coalition emerged from the March 7 elections with 89 seats in the 325-seat parliament, two behind that of secular Shiite challenger Ayad Allawi. Leaders of the four main political blocs have been jockeying for position in preliminary talks to form a governing coalition.

An appeals panel last week agreed to Maliki’s challenge of the Baghdad votes – more than 20 percent of the national total. The ruling, coming after statements by UN and US officials that the elections had appeared free of wide-spread fraud, has sparked accusations of political pressure on the judiciary. On Monday, US Ambassador Christopher Hill said the judiciary was being "tested" by political pressure and indicated it may be failing the test.

A copy of the Independent High Electoral Commission (IHEC) ruling obtained by The Christian Science Monitor said the three-member panel decided to order the recount after statements submitted by the prime minister from 10 IHEC employees saying they had witnessed numerous violations not investigated by their superiors.

The panel also said it believed the size and complexity of the election made for a strong possibility of error – another factor in its decision.

Allawi's two-seat lead likely to be affected

Iyad Allawi, whose Iraqiya list is leading in the election results, on Wednesday demanded new elections and an internationally sanctioned caretaker government if winning candidates were barred from taking office.

“We will demand the formation of a temporary government,” he told Sharqiya television.

The same panel has banned a winning Sunni candidate from Iraqiya for taking office for alleged ties to the Saddam Hussein’s Baath party.

IHEC head Faraj al-Haidari today told reporters the Baghdad recount was unlikely to affect the final seat distribution but the banning of winning candidates by the same appeals panel likely would.

“It is not the recount that will affect the results of the elections but the disqualifications of candidates who won seats in the elections. Each winner, if disqualified, will be dismissed, as will all the votes he won. This will have a profound effect upon the results of the elections,” he said, adding that even one disqualified candidate would affect the final distribution of seats.

In addition to the Sunni candidate already disqualified, rulings are expected on at least nine other winning candidates, many of them from Iraqiya.

Sahar Issa contributed reporting.

Related:

In Iraq's prisons, a culture of abuse

US expresses first concerns over Iraq election results

Iraq voters face long wait for new government as Maliki, others jockey for power

All Iraq news coverage

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