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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 Jane ArrafCorrespondent / April 29, 2010

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.

Hadi Mizban/AP

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Baghdad, Iraq

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.

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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.

“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.

IN-DEPTH MONITOR REPORT: The culture of abuse in Iraq's prisons

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.

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