Mistreatment Of Detainees Went Beyond Guards’ Abuse

Ex-Prisoners, Red Cross Cite Flawed Arrests, Denial of Rights

BAGHDAD, May 10 — Problems in the U.S.-run detention system in Iraq extended beyond physical mistreatment in prison cellblocks, involving thousands of arrests without evidence of wrongdoing and abuse of suspects starting from the moment of detention, according to former prisoners, Iraqi lawyers, human rights advocates and the International Committee for the Red Cross.

U.S.-led forces routinely rounded up Iraqis and then denied or restricted their rights under the Geneva Conventions during months of confinement, including rights to legal representation and family visits, the sources said.

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In a report in February, the Red Cross stated that some military intelligence officers estimated that 70 percent to 90 percent of “the persons deprived of their liberty in Iraq had been arrested by mistake.” Of the 43,000 Iraqis who have been imprisoned at some point during the occupation, only about 600 have been referred to Iraqi authorities for prosecution, according to U.S. officials.

The Red Cross study, posted Monday on the Wall Street Journal’s Web site, concludes that the arrest and detention practices employed by U.S.-led forces in Iraq “are prohibited under International Humanitarian Law.”

Now, facing international outcry over photographs of prisoner abuse less than two months before the planned handover of sovereignty to an interim Iraqi government on June 30, U.S. officials plan to dramatically reduce the number of Iraqis in military custody, from more than 8,000 to fewer than 2,000, according to people with knowledge of the issue. The release will send legions of prisoners, many of them angry and hardened by their incarceration, home to Sunni Muslim-dominated parts of north-central Iraq where resistance to the U.S. occupation has been fiercest.

American detention tactics have turned Iraqis such as Satae Qusay, a kebab chef, against an occupation they once supported. Qusay said he was arrested in June while visiting the house of his brother, a former low-ranking Baath Party official, and did not see an attorney during his subsequent three-month detention in a fog-bound prison camp in the southern city of Umm Qasr. There, he said, he was forced to endure a shower of soldiers’ tobacco juice, eat food off a dirty floor and urinate on himself when he was prohibited from using bathrooms.

“They freed us from an oppressor,” said Qusay, 40. “But now I think they came to laugh at us.”

Prisoners and relatives of detainees interviewed for this article produced prison release papers, Red Cross visitation documents or identification bracelets as evidence of incarceration over the past year. The descriptions of abuse during arrest or imprisonment could not be independently verified.

The focus on abuse inside the Abu Ghraib prison and other U.S.-run detention facilities has obscured broader problems that began well before Iraqis arrived at the facilities , according to lawyers and rights advocates.

Excessive Force

The 24-page Red Cross report describes a pattern of excessive force used by U.S. soldiers during raids at homes or businesses, frequently occurring after midnight. The Red Cross wrote that “ill-treatment during capture was frequent” and that it often included “pushing people around, insulting, taking aim with rifles, punching and kicking and striking with rifles.”

Such tactics, which “seemed to reflect a usual modus operandi,” the Red Cross report says, “appeared to go beyond the reasonable, legitimate and proportional use of force required to apprehend suspects or restrain persons resisting arrest or capture.”

Most of the time, according to an assertion contained in the report and corroborated by former prisoners, U.S. soldiers arrested all the men found in a suspect’s house. Most of those detained, judging by a sample of prisoners and their descriptions of fellow inmates, have been young to middle-age men from Baghdad and the Sunni Triangle, the area north and west of the capital that is the heart of the anti-occupation resistance.

Ahmed Moeff Khatab, a 32-year-old plumber, said he was getting a shave in his local barbershop in Baghdad’s Adhamiya neighborhood on Nov. 11 when a group of soldiers in U.S. military uniforms entered carrying AK-47s. Red-and-white scarves covered their faces, he said.

“They pulled me from the shop and put me in a Nissan pickup,” said Khatab, who said the men spoke English and accused him of being a member of former president Saddam Hussein’s paramilitary forces. “They threw me face down, then blindfolded me and handcuffed me.”

He said he did not know where he was taken because the soldiers did not remove his blindfold. They started beating him with pipes, he said, starting on his legs and back, then moving to his head.

“I was bleeding from my mouth and my ears,” he said. “I fainted. When I woke up I was in a dog’s cage” set in a courtyard of a local military base.

Naked in a Cage

Khatab said he was left naked in the cage for several days, receiving only scant food and water, until the soldiers hung him from a tree by his cuffed hands. “They told me they would bring my wife and hang her next to me,” he said.

According to his release papers, Khatab was taken to Abu Ghraib, where he was held for four months before being released without an explanation. His two brothers are still in the prison, he said.

When U.S. forces rolled into Iraq in March 2003, there were few plans in place for dealing with the long-term detention of Iraqis, according to U.S. officials. Military trucks hauled coils of razor wire, which were used to create makeshift holding pens and jails on American bases.

The following month, after Hussein’s government fell and Iraqi security forces effectively dissolved, U.S. troops found themselves responsible for detaining common criminals as well as senior members of Hussein’s government. American detention centers, particularly a tent camp at Baghdad’s airport, filled with looters, carjackers and thieves.

“The Iraqi system was totally destroyed,” said New Jersey Superior Court Judge Donald F. Campbell, who served as the occupation authority’s senior adviser to Iraq’s Justice Ministry from April to September. “There were virtually no cells to hold Iraqis within their system when we arrived.”

As guerrilla assaults on U.S. forces increased last summer, the U.S.-run jails were further swollen by Iraqis suspected of conducting or aiding attacks. By the early fall, there were thousands of these security detainees in U.S. custody.

They were held under the fourth Geneva Convention, which allows an occupying power, “for imperative reasons of security,” to intern people deemed a risk to national stability. Unlike ordinary criminals, who are supposed to face trial in an Iraqi court, security detainees have generally not been granted access to attorneys. Instead, their continued detention is subject to the determination of a special panel composed of representatives of the U.S. military command’s judge advocate general’s office and the CIA, according to a person familiar with the process.

Under the Geneva Convention, detainees have the right to appeal and their detention should be reviewed every six months, but it is not known whether such practices were followed; U.S. military officials have not commented on the decision-making process, which occurs in secret.

“The system is not fair at all,” said Malik Dohan, the president of the Iraqi Bar Association. “Aside from the question of torture, people are being held for long periods of time without having their cases reviewed by a court.”

Although anguished relatives of security detainees often hire lawyers in the hope of obtaining a release, the lawyers have little recourse. “I have no solution,” said Rajaa Shemari, an attorney for 13 security detainees. “Nobody knows the procedure. The lawyer has no role in these cases.”

‘A Secret Court’

The occupation authority set up a special court, the Central Criminal Court of Iraq, in July to try some of the security detainees. But the court has moved slowly, completing only 87 investigations so far, according to a Defense Department report.

The court itself, located in a building that used to be a museum of Hussein’s memorabilia, is closed to the public. A reporter who tried to enter was turned away twice by guards. “You cannot go in,” one guard said. “Only lawyers and witnesses are permitted.”

“This is just like the days of Saddam,” said Khalid Saadi Awad, who wanted to enter the building to see whether his cousin was on trial. “The Americans have established a secret court.”

Daniel Senor, a spokesman for the occupation authority, said the court is supposed to be open and attributed the closure to “an overzealous Iraqi security team.” On most days, he said, “trials are open to the public for full viewing.”

Shemari and other lawyers said they also faced difficulties in handling the cases of suspected criminals. Although Iraqi judges are supposed to adjudicate their cases, coordination problems between Iraqi courts and American-run prisons — the former tracks prisoners by name and the latter by number — mean that many detainees are never brought before a judge, the lawyers said.

“Where’s the justice here?” said Nabil Abadi, an attorney for two non-security detainees. “The simplest right of a prisoner is to have a lawyer and to be brought before a judge. The Americans don’t even allow this.”

Human rights advocates here said the U.S. military and occupation authority took important steps in November to improve the system by opening neighborhood centers where families could get basic information about detained relatives.

But the idea lost much of its impact because U.S. officials failed to advertise the location of the centers, nine of which are open in Baghdad today. In addition, human rights workers say, U.S. officials faced a number of difficulties arising from language barriers that kept families from finding out the status of detained relatives, many of whom had just disappeared.

Hania Mufti, an investigator for Human Rights Watch, said U.S. officials posted the names of detainees in English, so few families were able to read them. Furthermore, she said, rendering Arabic names into English led to many spelling inconsistencies that prevented families from locating sons and husbands on lists.

Visitation Rights Denied

The result, according to the Red Cross report, was that many prisoners were denied visitation rights. “The uncaring behavior of the CF [coalition forces] and their inability to quickly provide accurate information on persons deprived of their liberty for the families concerned seriously affects the image of the Occupying Powers among the Iraqi population,” the report concludes.

Khulud Abdulwahab, 56, watched last August as U.S. troops hauled away her son and two nephews from their home in the town of Khalis in the Sunni Triangle. A former soldier in the Iraqi army, Harith, her son, was picked up based on information provided by a paid informer who told soldiers he was a member of the resistance.

Convinced of her son’s innocence, Abdulwahab quit her job as an elementary school mathematics teacher to devote herself full time to securing his release. In April, she said, she believed she had nearly done so.

After petitioning the local Army base for help, Abdulwahab received a letter from the unit that arrested him stating that the men were wrongly accused. Written on Department of the Army stationery, it says the informer “is currently being tried in Iraqi courts in Khalis for bearing false witness.”

“This false witness was the sole information used to detain the prisoner,” says the letter, signed by the unit’s executive officer. “All these men are innocent of the crimes they are accused of.”

Since then, Abdulwahab has made the 400-mile journey by taxi to the Army’s bleak prison camp in Umm Qasr five times, at a cost of about $100 per trip. And each time she has been rebuffed by prison guards, many of them Kuwaitis and Egyptians, who she said treat her with contempt.

“They told me this is no good, they won’t work with this paper, and that I should just throw it away,” Abdulwahab said. “I just want them to release my son from this heat and humiliation.”

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The Washington Post, USA
May 11, 2004
Rajiv Chandrasekaran and Scott Wilson

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