Iraqi officials outraged by the abuse of prisoners at the US-run Abu Ghraib prison are trying to contain a scandal of their own as allegations continue to surface of mistreatment inside Iraqi jails.
Accounts of Iraqis being beaten with clubs, blindfolded and coerced into signing false confessions are attracting increased attention partly because the US is getting out of the prison business in Iraq. Since a security agreement took effect Jan. 1, the US has transferred 841 detainees into Iraq’s crowded prison system and more are on the way.
Allegations of mistreatment have persisted since 2005, when US troops raided an Interior Ministry lockup in a predominantly Shiite area of southeastern Baghdad and found scores of emaciated prisoners. The matter returned to the spotlight after the June 12 assassination of Sunni lawmaker Harith al-Obeidi, an outspoken advocate of prisoner rights.
The issue is a test of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s commitment to the rule of law and to reconcile with the Sunni minority, who account for most of the prisoners held in security cases. Sunnis claim they are being unfairly targeted by security forces run by al-Maliki’s Shiite-dominated government.
“The cases are as bad as what took place at Abu Ghraib, but it is painful when these things take place in Iraqi prisons,” Sunni lawmaker Salim Abdullah said. “We met some of those who were released and saw the scars on their skins. They use different kinds of torture like tying the shoulders and hanging the body, which normally leads to dislocation of the shoulders.”
The allegations pale in comparison with the horrific accounts of former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein’s prisons, where inmates were systematically beaten, jammed into tiny windowless cells and executed on the flimsiest of evidence and where men were forced to watch their wives and daughters raped.
Still, the current Iraqi leadership came to power with the promise to hold itself to a higher standard and respect human rights.
Iraqi officials acknowledge some abuse and insist improvements are being made. The issue, however, poses a thorny question for Americans: How can the US transfer detainees into a system where abuse has occurred?
The US military says it sends Iraqi prisoners only to detention facilities approved by the Iraqi Ministry of Justice.
However, Iraqi lawmakers, human rights advocates and the Human Rights Ministry claim most of the abuse is not taking place in prisons run by the Justice Ministry, but in those operated by the Interior and Defense ministries. Prisoners there are generally accused of links to Sunni and Shiite insurgent groups.