Tue, Jul 27, 2004 - Page 7 News List

Abu Ghraib inmates wonder if amnesty is empty promise

AFP , Abu Ghraib, Iraq

A young Iraqi prisoner in yellow overalls stands in a cage at the Abu Ghraib jail with other inmates waiting to meet with their families.

"So what has happened to the amnesty?" he asks.

In the new and improved Abu Ghraib, more than a thousand detainees are held in the collection of outdoor blocks that make up Camp Redemption in the prison complex.

Work is under way on nearby Camp Liberty, which is supposed to take inmates who may qualify for release from this US-run prison west of Baghdad.

They have to don the yellow overalls when they leave the camp to perform chores or when taken to the visiting area.

Although those at Abu Ghraib are being held without trial, a big board written in Arabic reminds prisoners of their basic rights under the Geneva Conventions.

Life has certainly improved for the estimated 2,400 inmates here since photographs and video footage surfaced in April depicting the horrors of abuse by US troops late last year. A crew of cooks with a Saudi catering company prepares three meals a day to ensure that prisoners get a daily 2,500-calorie intake.

Yet the prisoners' fate has never been more tenuous amid conflicting signals over a much-talked-about amnesty for some suspects.

Both Prime Minister Iyad Allawi and President Ghazi al-Yawar said earlier this month that the amnesty would cover those who may have resisted the US occupation but are now ready to put down their arms after the handover of power on June 28 to the caretaker government.

Almost all of the so-called security detainees held at Abu Ghraib and another 2,640 held at Camp Bucca near the southern port city of Umm Qasr are accused of arms possession or involvement in attacks against the US-led coalition.

Yawar said in mid-July that the reprieve would cover everyone but rapists, murderers and kidnappers, in a bid to divide and weaken the 15-month insurgency that shows no sign of abating.

The announcement of the amnesty has already been delayed several times as Washington signaled that it disagrees with the Iraqi government regarding the prisoners' fate.

US Ambassador to Iraq John Negroponte said a week ago that the amnesty should be viewed in a political context, and that those who harmed the US-led military should never be pardoned.

At Redemption, anger and frustration reign as inmates battle the stifling summer heat un-der cloth tents and wonder whether the elusive amnesty will include them.

Six Iraqi representatives will sit on a board alongside three US officers to decide to release detainees or refer cases to Iraq's central criminal court, which was set up by the US-led occupation early this year.

Amnesty or not, most prisoners' fates seem to be sealed, as the US opposes their release.

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