Families hunt for Iraq's 'lost'

More than 34,000 Iraqis have been jailed, but officials often do not know where.

At the small, crowded prisoner-tracking department of the Ministry of Human Rights (MOHR), tears often flow freely.

"He was arrested from his house on December 25," sobs Jameela Abdullah Hikmet, who was looking for her brother, Jameel Abdullah Hikmet.

With thousands of Iraqis kidnapped and arrested over the past three years, often in murky circumstances, the MOHR has become one more place Iraqis look for missing relatives. More than 34,000 Iraqis, according to MOHR figures, are held at one of the dozens of prisons across the country run by either the US military or the Iraqi Ministries of Interior, Defense, and Justice.

The system has become more organized in recent months, but prisoners are still "lost," says one Iraqi official.Ms. Hikmet says she visited morgues first, believing initially that her brother had been taken by men posing as government officials.

Hikmet says she then visited dozens of prisons before she was told by an official at the Ministry of Interior (MOI) that her brother was being held by the Wolf Brigade, one of the ministry's elite police units. She was then sent to the MOHR, which tracks prisoners in the US military and Iraqi detention systems centrally. She has been coming to the MOHR for two weeks, but they can still not confirm that it is the MOI that is holding her brother.

Even for prisoners who can be located, families often face confusing circumstances and long waits before legal proceedings take place. As the US military has tried to turn over more responsibilities to the Iraqi government since 2004, some prisoners have been transferred multiple times.

Fayyez Daoud has been in Iraqi or US custody for more than a year without charges. His family says that he was mistakenly arrested after being injured in crossfire during a tribal dispute in March 2005 near his home in Haswa, one of the capital's western suburbs.

His family says that he was first in the custody of the Iraqi National Guard (ING), then the US. Then, they say, he was moved back into Iraqi custody after the US military pulled out of their base in Haswa, leaving it under the control of the ING. Now he is in a Ministry of Defense (MOD) prison, the MOHR says.

Last month, his family received a letter from Mr. Daoud via MOHR. It read, in part: "I have decided to commit suicide, because it is the only solution available. These people want us to die in prison of broken hearts. If slow death is our destiny, why shouldn't we speed it up?"

MOHR and US officials both say that they are working to speed up the process for trying and releasing detainees. International human rights groups have reported that some prisoners have been held as long as two years without due process. Daoud's lawyers, who have also represented other prisoners, accuse the MOD and MOI of stalling cases.

Under current Iraqi law, it is illegal for anybody but the Ministry of Justice (MOJ) to operate prisons, but the MOJ says it is not receiving training or new facilities quickly enough to accommodate the thousands of prisoners in various custodies.

"The Ministry of Interior used to avoid transferring detainees to the Ministry of Justice," says Saad Sultan, director of the MOHR's prison monitoring department.

Jumaa Hussein, the general in charge of the MOJ's prisons, says that though his department has been operating for more than two years, only two new prisons are under construction, and that those can only hold 1,600 prisoners total.

"We have asking the ministry to speed it up," Mr. Hussein says. "They just hadn't planned for this. If more prisons are not built, maybe there will be more human rights violations in the future. The number of prisoners is growing."

Daoud's family suspects he has been tortured while in custody. Mr. Sultan says his office visits each of the country's declared prisons every seven to 10 days and that they have continued to find instances of abuse and torture, especially at the hands of Iraqi police.

Also hard to track are prisoners kept at brigade level both by the US military, which does not officially track prisoners until they are held in one of four major theater-level facilities, and by some of the MOI forces, which continue to operate their own prisons. Though Sultan says some of the MOI's brigade prisons had been shut down in recent months, there are at least three still operating.

Jumaa says the US military is training his men to take over Camp Bucca - which presently holds nearly 7,000 prisoners, says the MOJ - in as soon as six months. The MOJ took over the existing buildings at Abu Ghraib last year, though the US military maintains an outdoor prison facility.

The US has also recently begun transferring prisoners to Fort Suse, a recently opened prison near Sulaymaniyah in Iraq's Kurdish-controlled north, in preparation for shutting down US operations at Abu Ghraib entirely.

Families of prisoners and Iraqi human rights groups have complained that it is hard for Arab families to visit their relatives in Suse because of discrimination against them by Kurdish security forces, and Arab Sunnis have complained that the trip to Bucca, near Basra, has become dangerous because of the risk of being arrested by Shiite security forces while traveling there.

Sultan says that the moving of prisoners from Abu Ghraib prison, near Baghdad, to locations in the south and the north, was a direct result of the impossibility of keeping prisoners safe in restive central Iraq. At least 35 prisoners have been killed by insurgent mortar strikes at Abu Ghraib since 2003 and dozens more injured.

"What should we do? Build each person a prison next to his house?" asks Sultan.

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