In Iraq's prisons, a culture of abuse

As the US speeds the transfer of detainees in its custody, many appear headed into a notoriously violent system. Inmates at Abu Ghraib rioted Thursday and Friday.

Maya Alleruzzo/AP/File
Where next? Detainees pray behind barbed wire at the US-run Camp Cropper facility in Baghdad, where all transfers are processed. Human rights workers harshly criticize the conditions in Iraqi prisons.

In a room thick with heat and sweat, light from a small window falls on rows of squatting prisoners and plastic bags of belongings hung from nails on every inch of the wall. The guard explains that 74 men live in this room, which is roughly 10 by 20 feet. A further 85 are usually in the corridor, he adds, while 12 are kept next to the toilet.

This is Hibhib prison on the outskirts of Baquba, the dusty, volatile capital of Diyala Province roughly 40 miles from Baghdad.

It is just one of the prisons in the province where detainees and US forces allege overcrowding, lengthy pretrial detention, and torture used to extract confessions. While the conditions here may be more severe than elsewhere in the country, Iraq's national detention system as a whole has been harshly criticized by Western human rights organizations.

A December 2008 report by the New York-based watchdog Human Rights Watch (HRW) went as far as to assert a "disturbing continuity" with Saddam Hussein-era detention. A committee set up by the Iraqi government in June is investigating abuses. But a lack of accountability and political will, say human rights workers, are serious impediments to reversing the culture of abuse cultivated under Mr. Hussein.

Lt. Col. Shaun Reed, commander of a Baquba-based US infantry unit, often runs up against that culture. He says it's hard to change prison workers accustomed to brutality. "What I consider humane treatment of prisoners, is not what they would consider humane treatment," says Reed, whose work with Iraqi security forces has exposed him to Iraqi prison conditions. "If you ask Iraqis what they think – it's completely different."

The issue has taken on new urgency as the US dials back its presence in Iraq, accelerating the release and transfer of Iraqi prisoners in its custody. Most of the prisoners deemed unlikely to reoffend have been released already, which means a higher proportion of the 8,947 remaining as of early September are likely to go to jail, according to Capt. Brad Kimberly, a US media relations officer.

In the first nine months of this year, more than 5,000 detainees were released, with nearly 1,200 transferred to Iraqi custody, according to Kimberly and other US officers interviewed for this article. At the current release rate of 750 per month, an additional 1,400 detainees are expected to go to Iraqi jails before the US transfer is completed – probably in August 2010.

After the exposure of abuses at Abu Ghraib, American officers are eager to point out measures to ensure proper treatment of Iraqi prisoners.

But now it is essential that they take equal care to prevent the transfer of prisoners to a system where there is a substantial risk of torture or mistreatment – an action that violates international law, says HRW researcher Samer Muscati, who travels often to the region.

"In our research over the last couple of years ... we heard credible allegations of torture and mistreatment during initial detention by Iraqi forces," wrote Mr. Muscati in an e-mail. "So it will be incumbent on the US to verify conditions in Iraqi facilities that receive such transfers through regular inspections of those facilities by impartial and independent observers."

Laundry day at Camp Cropper

US officers are endeavoring to do just that, they say. Every prisoner in US custody awaiting release or transfer to the Iraqi prison system comes through the US-run Camp Cropper detainee facility near Baghdad. It was laundry day when the Monitor visited recently, and the yellow uniforms were drying in the sun, as detainees played games or sat on gaudy prayer rugs reading the Koran together.

US officers here are eager to offer tours in which they point out the abundant space, art and computer classes, and Ping-Pong and football for the detainees.

"I know the right way and the wrong way to do things," says Col. John Huey, the commander responsible for the Americans' three Iraqi internment facilities at camps Cropper, Bucca, and Taji, who has worked with detainees in Iraq since 2003. "After Abu Ghraib there were 240 recommendations on detainee treatment."

But he pointed out the US involvement in Iraqi affairs is "dwindling," adding, "our responsibility ends when we transfer [detainees] to the government of Iraq."

In an effort to minimize the risk of human rights abuses, says Huey, the detainees are transferred only to nine prisons run by the Ministry of Justice. Those run by the Interior and Defense Ministries are worse, he said.

However, US soldiers in Diyala were transferring detainees to an Interior Ministry prison when the Monitor was present, and said that this was normal practice.

The Iraqi Correctional Service, whose officers are being trained in a US-run program, operate in Ministry of Justice prisons. Interior Ministry prisons are run by Iraqi police, according to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's former security adviser Mouaffak al-Rubaie, and accommodate detainees who are awaiting trial. Ministry of Justice prisons are meant to accommodate prisoners who have been convicted and are serving a sentence. While the US doesn't charge Iraqi detainees, as of early August 1,644 in its custody had either been convicted or were pending hearings or trials in Iraqi courts.

Conflicting reports from prison inspections

Baghdad's Rusafa prison, which is run by the Ministry of Justice, is the primary recipient of US detainees, says Huey. "We have inspected and continue to inspect [it]." His inspection teams, he adds, "go to prisons and inspect and assist them, and they are improving. We feel very confident about the nine facilities."

But that doesn't jibe with early findings of the Iraqi government committee set up in June – an eight-member group formed after the assassination of prisoner-rights crusader Harith al-Obeidi, deputy chairman of parliament's human rights committee. An Iraqi military spokesman told the Associated Press in mid-July that the panel had visited three detention facilities in Baghdad, and that most of the abuse uncovered so far took place in the Rusafa prison.

An Interior Ministry official who was inspecting Diyala prisons told the Monitor that the ministry "sent a committee to visit Rusafa, and it is not good. It is the same as the jails in Diyala Province, the same breaches of human rights."

"Yes, there is violence" in Diyala jails, the official confirmed, on condition of anonymity. "There are violent punishments, they hang them from their arms, beat them with sticks and [punch them], kicking, [using] electricity, stubbing out cigarettes on the skin." He described a practice, also detailed by former prisoners, in which prisoners are forced to drink water and then prevented from urinating by a method too unpleasant to be described here.

A senior police officer in Diyala, in a separate interview, described similar treatment of his two brothers, who were arrested in 2007 on suspicion of being Al Qaeda members. They were taken to the Major Crimes Unit, the main prison in Diyala, run by the Interior Ministry. One was ill, and was beaten and died, he says.

"I found him in the morgue. I saw his body, with cigarette burns on it." There were also marks from beatings, he confirmed. "They released my other brother because my older brother died and they got scared. He [the one who was released] had been tortured. He could not walk."

While it is difficult to confirm individual statements, the governor of Diyala Province, Abdel Nasr al-Mehdawi, acknowledged in a June interview that there were problems of overcrowding and torture in prisons. He had set up a committee to deal with the problems, he said in June, but they have thus far made little progress.

The anonymous official, meanwhile, says he is part of a separate, ongoing Interior Ministry drive to inspect and improve prisons and was chosen because he was jailed for 20 years under the Saddam regime.

"There are breaches of human rights," he says, "not enough medication, not enough space ... there are innocents in prison without warrants." "In my opinion," he added, "it is the same as the prisons under the Saddam regime."

Courts allow confessions made under duress

Most prisoners in Iraq are held for lengthy pretrial detention, and trials often rely on confessions "likely to have been extracted under abuse," says Muscati, based on HRW interviews with approximately three dozen detainees – published in the December 2008 HRW report, The Quality of Justice.

Departing from international standards, Iraqi criminal law allows evidence extracted under duress to be presented in court, provided that it is consistent with other material evidence in the case, says Hania Mufti, the former chief of the UN's Human Rights Office in Baghdad before leaving in August 2008.

"A lot of them are scared to go" to Iraqi prisons, says Sgt 1st Class Penny Barber, a US military detainee specialist working in Diyala. "[The detainees] say, 'They are going to beat us, torture us, we might not make it home,' " she adds. Recently, she says, she handled a prisoner who knew Iraqi police held a warrant for his arrest, "and he was very scared. He asked for our help, but there was nothing we could do" because the US is required to transfer all detainees for whom the Iraqi police have arrest warrants.

"These prisons – if you walked in there, you would vomit," says Col. Burt Thompson, commander of the 1-25 infantry division in Diyala, who visits local prisons as part of a ongoing partnership with local security forces. "There is no air conditioning ... water is in a trough, there is not a whole heck of a lot of food, there is no hope." He visited a prison called Khamees, near Baquba, at the end of last year, and called it a "hell-hole."

"I could not believe human beings were living like this," he says. He has never witnessed torture in an Iraqi prison, though he says he believes that it takes place.

Activists call for independent commission

Iraq's Ministry of Human Rights [MOHR] has documented many cases of prison abuse, but that has done little to reverse the problem, says Ms. Mufti, the former UN human rights chief in Baghdad who also served as director of HRW's Baghdad office from 2003 to 2006.

As part of the government, MOHR is "under considerable political pressure to divulge as little as possible and to be mindful not to cross certain red lines," she says in an e-mail from Amman, Jordan. In 2008, for example, MOHR prepared a report on detainee abuse. Although a press conference was held to discuss its findings and some copies were distributed selectively and confidentially to individuals, government pressure stopped its publication, says Mufti.

"The work of MOHR tends to be rather secretive, particularly when one inquires as to what happens to the torture cases they have documented," Mufti writes. "Up until last August when I left Iraq, the ministry's line was that these cases are referred to a committee within the PM's office, and from there directives are issued to relevant ministries to take action. If you try to find out more about this committee, its members, its powers and remit, you would come up against a dead end. Same goes for other committees that have been set up, including ad hoc investigative committees charged with addressing specific incidents."

Some have proposed scrapping MOHR and establishing an independent national human rights commission, as provided for under the Iraqi Constitution.

But however secret MOHR is, one thing is clear: letting the problem fester could lead to deteriorating security, says 1st Lt. Michael Horab, assistant operations officer at Camp Cropper.

"If you put detainees back into a crowded, brutal environment," he says, "then you're taking guys who might have been mildly against the government of Iraq and making them worse."

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