By transferring thousands of detainees into Iraq's notorious prison system, the United States may be flouting international law and participating in a culture of torture and inhumane treatment of prisoners, Amnesty International alleges in a new report, "New Order, Same Abuses: Unlawful Detentions and Torture in Iraq."
At a time when officials are already concerned about the transfer of security responsibilities from US to Iraqi forces, the 59-page report criticizes American troops for handing over detainees to a system marred by a "culture of impunity" dating back to Saddam Hussein.
An estimated 30,000 untried detainees are currently being held by Iraqi authorities, according to Amnesty, many of them transferred from US-run prisons and now crammed into severely overcrowded facilities. Amnesty criticized both Iraq and the US, even taking into consideration the danger still posed by insurgents, including Al Qaeda in Iraq:
Even in the context of ongoing violence, there is no justification for keeping thousands of people in prisons and detention facilities without charge or trial, let alone keeping them like this for years. Many of the detainees have suffered torture and other ill-treatment by Iraqi security forces, and remain at risk of such abuses.
Because of government complicity, tolerance or inaction in relation to such abuses, a culture of impunity prevails. US forces, by transferring individuals to Iraqi detention facilities where they are clearly at risk of torture and other ill-treatment, may be complicit in these abuses and have breached their international obligations towards the prisoners."
International law prohibits the US from transferring prisoners to facilities or countries where they could be tortured, or face other "serious human rights violations," the report also notes:
The absolute prohibition on transferring detainees to a situation where they risk such abuses is part and parcel of the prohibition on torture and other ill-treatment itself.
Amnesty highlights that the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA), a security pact between the Iraqi and US governments, provides no safeguards for prisoners who are transferred to Iraqi custody – "although the US government cannot but be well aware that torture and other ill-treatment have been and remain common in prisons and detention centers controlled by the Iraqi government and its security forces."
Iraqis are also aware – and afraid – of such abuse. The Monitor reported in May that Iraqis, despite the infamous US torture of prisoners at Abu Ghraib, would have rather remained in US custody than be transferred back to Iraqi-run facilities:
As the US prepares to withdraw from Iraq, serious concerns are surfacing about systematic torture by Iraqi forces in a country where ending human rights abuses was one of the main American goals.
Many Iraqis believe the abuse is part of ongoing political power struggles that could again turn violent....
"Iraqis have become convinced that the occupying Americans are more merciful than the people of this country," says Abu Huthaifa, a car dealer in Mosul who says he was tortured while jailed last year. His scars are consistent with his story of being suspended from the ceiling and beaten. "[When] people leave the prisons, they leave with hatred toward the government and those leaders who manage to slander the word 'democracy.' "
Human Rights Watch in April reported that more than 40 detainees at a secret prison at the Muthanna Iraqi Army base in Baghdad were tortured, detailing abuses from from electric shocks to sodomy in an April 27 report. HRW researcher Samer Muscati told The Christian Science Monitor that the torture at Muthanna was "routine and systematic."
While the facility was reportedly shut down, the Monitor found that at least six women and eight children were still being held there secretly in mid-May. Two of the women were the wives of a pair of Al Qaeda in Iraq leaders who had been recently killed.
Amnesty recommends that Iraq ratify the Rome Statute, the second Additional Protocol to the Geneva Conventions, and the Optional Protocol of the UN Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.
However, Iraq has yet to form a working government more than six months after national elections.
Allegations of prison abuses have not been confined to Iraq-run facilities. Amnesty's 2006 report "Beyond Abu Ghraib: Detention and Torture in Iraq" stated that foreign forces, mainly the US forces, detained tens of thousands of uncharged or untried Iraqis and subjected a number of them to tortures such as beatings and electric shocks.
They're also not confined to Iraq. Human rights abuses are fairly common in the Middle East and North Africa. But Mr. Muscati of HRW told the Monitor earlier this year that Iraq appears to have a particularly stubborn legacy.
"I think here, because there's such a high number of detainees and there's such a lack of funding and overcrowding, there are so many issues on top of each other it creates a really unique environment where all of these issues can fester," says Muscati. "It's the way of doing business in Iraq and unfortunately it's something we've inherited from Saddam Hussein to the Americans in Abu Ghraib to the militias in the south and now the current government – it's the legacy that this country seems to have."