Jailbirds fly free in Iraq

Tens of thousands of Iraqi prisoners were released from custody this week by the regime of Saddam Hussein.

Without even a single one of its nearly 500 prisoners in residence, Section 5 seems impossibly overcrowded. Sweat-stained mattresses, spilled food, and upended metal chests clutter the scant floorspace. Bunk beds line every room and the section's central corridor.

The prisoners of this cellblock, in the serious crimes prison at the Abu Ghareb penal complex outside Baghdad, left in haste Sunday after President Saddam Hussein decreed a general amnesty for Iraq's incarcerated. Left behind are the wardens. "We'll stay here and prepare for new prisoners," deputy warden Ahmed Ibrahim said late Sunday night. "We will clean it."

The amnesty seemed sure to bolster Hussein's political standing – never mind that a recent referendum indicated 100 percent support – as he faces the possibility of having to rally his people to war against the US.

The gesture also demonstrated how the rule of law in Iraq is subject to official caprice. But several guards and wardens at Abu Ghareb say nothing is amiss with releasing thousands of convicted murderers, rapists, thieves and other criminals.

"We've fixed their behavior," says Mr. Ibrahim, citing the prison's rehabilitation programs.

Ibrahim, slightly paunchy in his dark green uniform, beams with pride at being part of such a joyous event. "The works of our president are very great indeed, and this [amnesty] is not the only one," he says. Ibrahim calls the amnesty "a great reward" following the Oct. 15 presidential referendum, in which the entire electorate, according to the government, voted to extend Mr. Hussein's rule by seven years.

The amnesty was slightly short of absolute. A government statement said murderers unforgiven by the families of their victims and those who owed money to the state would be kept in jail. Political prisoners were also being released, the government said, except for those convicted of spying for the US or Israel.

At Abu Ghareb, a massive compound that could easily contain an airport, Ibrahim said the political prison had been emptied, but the unit for non-Iraqi prisoners had not. The entire population of his serious crimes prison – as many as 9,000 men – was released, Ibrahim said, including murderers on death row.

Post-election amnesties are not unusual in the Middle East. Another Abu Ghareb warden, Abdul Rahman Harchan, said prisoners had expected a token release of fifty or so inmates – and nearly went berserk when news of a total amnesty broke at midday.

Crowds of prisoners surging out of their institutions as crowds of relatives surged in to look for them produced pandemonium at Abu Ghareb on Sunday. Many shouted their praise for Hussein.

The two wardens allowed a reporter to tour Section 5, a two-tiered cellblock with 32 rooms around a 55-yard-long central corridor. Each room contains six bunks – space for 12 prisoners – leaving just a few square feet of common space in the middle. Add in the bunks in the corridor, and 500 men can fit into the space.

Given the absence of air conditioning, the prisoners must have been grateful for the ceiling fans and breezeway blocks that allow air to circulate, especially during Iraq's long, scorching summer. Even so, the combination of unwashed bedding and rotting food give the cellblock a close, fetid odor somewhere between dumpster and locker room.

Two men did not make it out of the serious crimes prison on Sunday, at least not in the way the other prisoners found freedom. The bodies of the two men, dead that day from tuberculosis, lay in the prison hospital, their feet poking out from under blankets.

Outside the prison, but still within the Abu Ghareb compound, deputy warden Ibrahim bumped into former prisoner Ali Jassem. The ex-prisoner was asked if Ibrahim had treated him well behind bars.

"Very well," Jassem said. Then he threw his arm around his jailer and gave him a kiss on the cheek.

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