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As US troops leave, Iraqis fear prison torture will widen

Despite the Abu Ghraib scandal, US troops are now seen as protectors of human rights. Iraqis say they are being tortured in Iraqi secret prisons.

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"We've been around the country now interviewing detainees from different places, and we've come across cases of mistreatment and abuse – but nothing this routine and systematic," says researcher Samer Muscati of HRW, which detailed abuses from electric shocks to sodomy in an April 27 report based on detainee interviews. "It was quite horrific."

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Mr. Maliki, who said he was unaware of the abuse, ordered the facility shut down and called for an investigation. But he publicly ridiculed the prisoners' torture claims as fabrications by his political enemies.

Detention facilities are supposed to be run by the underfunded Ministry of Justice rather than the Ministry of Interior or Ministry of Defense.

The Interior Ministry, which says there's no room in the backed-up system, has more than 1,200 detention facilities, according to the US State Department. The Defense Ministry, which has no legal right to hold civilians, has dozens of detention facilities. It's in those facilities that the worst abuses take place, according to human rights officials.

Human Rights Ministry suspends prison inspections

Iraq's Human Rights Ministry, which had been allowed to send inspectors into the Muthanna facility, has since been forced to suspend its investigations. A spokesman said media interviews were no longer allowed. The human rights directorate at the ministries of defense, interior, and justice either declined interviews or did not respond to repeated queries. With no sitting parliament due to a stalled election process, the human rights committee of parliament is not operating.

Since an HRW report two years ago recommended measures, including more access by detainees to lawyers and to information provided by secret informants, Mr. Muscati says he has seen little progress on human rights.

The State Department's 2009 report on human rights in Iraq, issued last month, describes a wide range of human rights abuses, including "virtual impunity" for government officials tried for murder.

"As in previous years, reports of abuse at the point of arrest and during the investigation period, particularly by the Ministry of Interior's Federal Police and the Ministry of Defense's battalion-level forces, continued to be common," according to the report. It notes more than 500 documented cases of torture and mistreatment in detention facilities.

The report cited corruption, sectarian bias, and lack of civilian oversight and accountability as key obstacles in combating torture.

The US, which last year held more than 20,000 prisoners, is due to transfer the nearly 3,000 remaining to Iraqi custody by fall. Many are convicted insurgents.

"They're already seeing these types of abuses," says Muscati. "And the [detainees] that the Americans are hanging on to tend be the hard core ones that haven't been resolved – in these cases the potential for abuse is higher."

No Red Cross visits

International responsibility for visiting detainees and monitoring prison conditions falls to the International Committee of the Red Cross, but because of security, they do not visit prisons in Diyala and Mosul where torture appears most entrenched.