Ali was always the least troublesome Methboub son, a dutiful member of the Iraqi family whose saga the Monitor has chronicled since 2002. So his arrest and imprisonment shocked matriarch Karima Selman Methboub and her children, beginning one of the darkest periods for a Baghdad household that has resiliently survived every other aspect of Iraq's long war.
These days, Ali wears jeans and keeps his hair slicked back with gel, like any other 27-year-old Baghdadi guy. But a closer look reveals the toll of jail: strands of gray hair and scars from the torture he endured while locked away for 2-1/2 years for crimes he didn't commit.
The internal scars are harder to detect. But they are obvious to Mrs. Methboub: "He does not feel he is in real life yet. He is still in prison."
From that July afternoon in 2008 when Ali was picked up at a neighborhood coffee shop by a joint US-Iraqi patrol, the Methboub family was dragged into a world of torture and intimidation, forced confession and legal ambiguity, of bribes demanded and paid that has destroyed the lives of thousands of Iraqis.
When arrested, Ali had just returned from Jordan, where he trained to be a Ministry of Electricity guard. He was carrying a pistol, with authorization. But a masked Iraqi working for the United States pointed him out as a possible militant.
The Americans pummeled Ali with their fists, pulled his T-shirt over his head, and locked handcuffs on him. During interrogation they accused him of being a member of Moqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army and of traveling to Iran. Ali says the Americans told him that failure to answer properly meant "we will give you to the hands of Iraqis, and you know how they can make you confess."
That is exactly what happened.
Torture, torment, and false confessions
The first week was the most violent, he says, as his Iraqi interrogators beat and tortured him. "They wanted me to confess that I killed people, forced people from their homes, and that my group kidnapped the American soldier," he says, referring to Ahmed Kousay Altaie, a US Army translator kidnapped in 2006 who remains missing.
Soon, Ali contemplated suicide. "When I heard the lock on the cell door, my spirit left my body – that was how much I feared that," he recalls. "I couldn't feel my body anymore.... I tried to make myself unconscious, but couldn't."
On the fifth day, Ali said he thought it was the "end of my life," and so decided to withstand it. He was brought back to his cell unconscious, and couldn't walk on his beaten feet.
Ali says he could no longer cry, but other prisoners did – they told him later they had never seen such severe treatment. Broken by the torture, Ali said he would have confessed to anything.
Despite the presence of Americans at many levels of the Iraqi justice system for eight years, such abuses continue with impunity. Shortly after Ali was detained, the Monitor provided documents to senior US military officers and United Nations human rights officials to look out for his case.
"Iraqi security forces use torture and other ill-treatment to extract 'confessions' when detainees are held incommunicado," Amnesty International wrote in February. Interrogation methods "include rape and threat of rape, beatings with cables and hose pipes, electric shocks, suspension by limbs, piercing the body with drills, asphyxiation with plastic bags, removal of toenails with pliers, and breaking of limbs."
In an example last February, prisoners in the southeast city of Amara went on hunger strike to protest long detentions. Mushriq Naji was one of several Iraqi lawmakers to visit, and told Iraqi media that prisoners were "tortured and coerced into signing confessions that were not true."
Ali says he, too, was forced to make a false confession.
"From the first moment, when I was handed to the Iraqis, they started working on me," recalls Ali, matter-of-factly.
Ali's ankles were bound to a metal bar to beat the soles of his feet. The Iraqi interrogators first used a piece of wood so fiercely that it broke, says Ali, and then continued with a metal bar.
After threats of harsher treatment to come, Ali was moved to another facility. His family had no idea where he was; when his boss from the electricity ministry showed up to bid for Ali’s release, he was told: "We don't know this name."
Interrogation began again, with kicking and slapping. "I could stand the beating, but then they threw me on the floor, doused me with water and used electricity," recalls Ali.
They used a small generator for sustained shocks. Ali says the interrogators often told him that they were "allowed to kill" 5 percent of the prisoners in their care. He was sometimes beaten all day, and hung for long periods from a bathroom door, arms straight, while standing on tiptoes, he says.
Thus broken, he "confessed" to kidnapping and killing a man called Mohamed – who happened to be a co-worker who was very much alive. He also said he had kidnapped a man called Firas – who in fact was Ali's cousin. He admitted to burning down liquor stores. But he made up everything.
Broken inside and out
When Ali stood before an Iraqi judge in mid-2009, his guards warned the judge that Ali was a “big criminal who visited Iran,” and that the judge should be careful not to show his face because Ali “could get out [of prison] and kill you,” recalls Ali.
The judge asked why he had confessed. “I didn’t do any of these crimes; you can see my body,” Ali replied and then showed evidence of torture.
The judge ordered a medical examination that same day, which was signed by two doctors. It describes “many irregular marks” up to two inches long on the back of the skull, the back, right shoulder, right wrist, both feet, and “on and around the penis.” The medical report noted that it was unclear “the kind of instrument that made them.”
Those wounds were of interest to US soldiers who visited Ali in prison. They, too, asked him why he confessed. Alone with the Americans – and despite warnings from Iraqi guards not to discuss his torture with the American visitors – he took off his shirt. The Americans took photographs of damage to his back and wrists.
They showed Ali a photo of the missing American translator and asked if he knew anything. He said he did not. They told him they believed he was innocent, but could do nothing to free him because “you are in Iraqi custody.” Ali was eventually shifted to another jail and his conditions improved.
"I was broken inside; my psyche was destroyed," recalls Ali. When the family learned where he was, visits were especially difficult. His mother "couldn't stop crying, and I couldn't stop crying because I didn't do anything. I didn't kill anyone."
Freedom and recovery
In March 2010, the Iraqi criminal court finally ruled that Ali should be "immediately" released for "lack of sufficient evidence" – a fact the Methboub family knew all along. But Ali was detained for another nine months, until a three-judge Iraqi panel confirmed his innocence in writing. When Ali was pronounced innocent and ready for release last December, his mother was overwhelmed with relief – and fainted in the courtroom.
"I didn't believe it," says Mrs. Methboub, who handed out sweets and celebrated by having a sheep slaughtered. "I had been praying, 'Let me die, so that Ali will be released.' "
Ali is still coming to terms with his freedom – and the injustice he suffered. For months, he jumped at the sound of an opening door. And in a bizarre turn of events, as surprising as his arrest, Ali is now completing a 20-day training course in Baghdad – at the police academy.