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09 July, 2009

US Not Talking Much About Iraq's Detention Nightmare

So, imagine this happening in America? Where's the outrage?

by Nick Mottern

It is a grim prospect that the US would prefer to leave in the shadows, judging from the unwillingness of US military spokespersons to provide comprehensive responses to email questions on Iraqi detention presented to them over the last six months. The small amount of information that the Pentagon has provided, however, suggests that many if not most in Iraqi prisons are facing harsh conditions with no legal representation - a violation of their rights under international law.

This conclusion is reinforced by a hunger strike of 300 detainees protesting their treatment in Rusafa prison near Baghdad that started over the weekend of June 13-14, 2009, according to a June 16 Associated Press report. Iraq's Interior Minister Jawad al-Bolani, the report also said, would charge 40 police officers for jailing inmates without warrants and other rights violations.

On June 12, 2009, Harith al-Obaidi, perhaps Iraq's leading campaigner against abuse in Iraqi prisons, a Sunni cleric and deputy chair of the Parliament's human rights committee, was assassinated one day after condemning prison abuse in a fiery debate in Parliament. Mr. Obaidi, the report said, "was fighting against such practices as torture and indefinite detention for prisoners, and was trying to improve their living conditions."

Emails requesting information on what the US military knows about torture in Iraqi prisons have brought no response, with the exception that I was referred by a military press officer in Baghdad to a June 7, 2009, Agence France Presse (AFP) report on torture and prisoner abuse. The article says that the Iraqi Ministry of the Interior investigated the torture of 10 prisoners at a prison in Diwaniyah and that the chief of the prison and interrogators there were transferred to another prison. The AFP report said the ministry also reported that eight prisoners at a prison in Amara, arrested in June 2008, had gone on a hunger strike protesting the delay in processing their cases.

In response to questions about conditions in Iraqi prisons, the Pentagon has taken the position most recently stated in a June 30, 2009, email from a military press officer: "The US does not run prisons, the Iraqis do."

The US is likely to have, however, detailed knowledge of conditions within Iraqi prisons, judging from a December 5, 2008, DoD email saying: "U.S. advisors and trainers are co-located in many of the Iraqi prisons to which Iraqi nationals are transferred. These individuals provide real-time mentoring and training to assist the Government of Iraq in meeting international standards of judicial and human rights."

The Pentagon has failed over the last six months to answer questions about specifics of the prison mentoring program. The Pentagon did provide some insight into Iraqi prison conditions, whether intentionally or not, in the person of David King, a British civil servant working with US forces in Iraq. In answer to questions on conditions in Iraqi prisons during a Pentagon-sponsored phone conference for Internet reporters on April 17, 2009, Mr. King gave what appears to be the most forthcoming description of Iraqi prison conditions provided directly by any Pentagon-connected source:

"I personally engage on issues that arise around detention facilities and the sort of challenge that there is between operational pressure and frankly the rule of law now. And I have been to a number of facilities. So I do have some idea of the issues that face up ... "I would sort of say that, in the round ... it's an uncomfortable place to be, to be in an MOD (Iraqi Ministry of Defense) facility. If you judged it by the standards we hope at our best we'd apply in, say, the US and the UK, we would say that they are very overcrowded ... and they are very poorly equipped. And they are, therefore, uncomfortable.

"But there are some cultural pieces to this about a willingness to accept more people in a smaller space that we might. I make no judgment on that, but overcrowding, and overcrowding is an issue in many facilities; it's not an issue in all of them. "And if I'm specific, again, medical conditions - I do hear often, I do see, issues that result from proximity of people and lack of light and lack of air. You know, as I say, these are not - these are not great places."

Mr. King went on to say that he had also seen good care in Iraq prisons and "some improvements" and that "quite a few of the indicators are the right way ... in terms of getting clean bedding and clean clothing to people, getting visits to detainees, getting family access, getting notification to the families after arrests. These are things which are better than they were. "But there is no disguising the fact that the detention facilities, even in the MOD, are not ideal."

Mr. King said that overcrowding is related to military operations "where people are being picked up for what should be - sometimes is, sometimes isn't - a short period before investigation and either release or processing into the system. So overcrowding tends to be worse in areas where there is - and this is understandable - where there is an intense effort to try to deal with the terrorism in the field."

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