Iraqi activists push for better treatment of prisoners

In Baghdad Sunday, former prisoners and human rights activists in Iraq spoke out against abuse by coalition troops.

For months, Iraqi human rights groups say they tried vainly to alert the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) to the abuse of detainees by coalition troops at Abu Ghraib and other detention centers across Iraq.

But now, in the wake of devastating photos of abuse that have shocked the Arab world, Iraqi human rights activists have the spotlight. And they're using the international attention to push for fundamental changes in the way the US-led occupation deals with thousands of prisoners.

"All of the things that have come to light now were well known to the CPA and all the humanitarian organizations that came to Iraq, but they didn't do anything about it until the pictures came out," says Muhammad Adham al-Hamad, the head of the Iraqi Prisoners and Captives Union, an association of human rights workers. "We informed the CPA about this, we informed all the humanitarian organizations, but they didn't do anything about it until they saw the pictures."

For human rights activists like Mr. Hamad - the majority of whom work for shoestring organizations - this is one of those "I told you so" moments. Sunday, Iraqi activists sponsored a press conference in Baghdad to allow former prisoners to come forward and tell of abuse they say has long been ignored.

Relatives also came forward, though human rights workers emphasized that they will be wary of those who try to exploit the situation.

"For a long time, we have been trying to have our voice reach those responsible for the inhumane conditions that most detainees in Iraqi prisons are experiencing," says Bassem al-Rubaie, director of the Council of Legal Defense Care, a group of Iraqi lawyers that has been campaigning for prisoner rights for the past year.

"There are those who did not believe what we were telling them, there are those who did not care, and so our voice was lost," says Mr. Rubaie. "And then the terrible conditions appeared before the entire world, and there was condemnation from all over the world, including the occupation forces."

In recent days, US-led occupation authorities have been battling charges that they ignored early warnings of the abuse of prisoners. Dan Senor, the spokesman for US Iraq administrator Paul Bremer, said on Friday that Mr. Bremer was "made aware of the charges relating to the humiliation" in early January, when military officials began an investigation into complaints by a US soldier about humiliations of prisoners at Abu Ghraib, a notorious Saddam-era prison now being used by coalition authorities.

But that same day, officials from the International Committee of the Red Cross contradicted Mr. Senor's statement, saying they alerted occupation authorities of abuses "on several occasions, orally and in writing, throughout 2003."

At a press conference in Geneva, Red Cross operations director Pierre Kraehenbuehl stated that while occupation authorities did respond to some allegations of abuse, the treatment of prisoners remained "unacceptable."

The Red Cross, which is charged with monitoring violations of the Geneva Conventions on human rights, does not make such allegations public for fear of being barred from prisons. Instead, it gathers testimony from prisoners and reports directly to the governments involved.

But Mr. Kraehenbuehl did confirm that a summary of a report in the Wall Street Journal was genuine. Published on Friday, the report described the beatings and killings of Iraqis by coalition prison guards, as well as the shooting of unarmed prisoners by guards firing from towers inside the prison. It also described US guards forcing Iraqi prisoners to parade in front of each other wearing women's underwear.

Kraehenbuehl stated that he did not think the abuse was confined to Abu Ghraib. "What we have described amounts to a pattern and a broad system," he said.

In Baghdad, similar pleas for attention went unheard. For months, the Baghdad-based Human Rights Organization asked to meet with US officials and discuss the abuse of detainees, they say. It wasn't until last month, says Adel al-Allami, that US officials agreed to talk to the group.

Now human rights groups like Mr. Allami's are trying to get reforms in place before international interest wanes.

Rubaie's group has issued a list of demands to occupation authorities, including giving all prisoners access to both lawyers and information about their cases, as well as the right to file complaints about their treatment in jail.

The human rights group says minors should be separated from the general population. They also have demanded that no prisoner be held indefinitely unless charged with a crime, and that the Iraqi justice ministry oversee the prison system.

Other demands include keeping accurate records of all prisoners and guaranteeing sanitary conditions throughout the entire facility.

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