May 5th - The Not-Quite News About Prisons
06 May 2004
The publication of the prisoner abuse photos has rightly caused outrage, but it's not new and there are a lot of other abuses routinely going on in the prison system.
The thing about prison is that you’re locked away. No one can see you unless they’re let in or you’re let out. Suddenly – and I am relieved that the world knows about it at last – the abuse of prisoners in Iraq has become partly visible. The Photos made news in a way that countless Iraqi people’s stories did not.

The Christian Peacemaker Team (CPT) has been taking statements and testimonies from released detainees and their relatives for months – – as has an awesome Italian woman called Paola Gasparoli and there are several Iraqi human rights organisations working on individual cases. And yes, they do also work on cases relating to the old government.

The pictures which have been published cause outrage and rightly so but they are the tip of the iceberg.

Women are often detained because their husbands are wanted. There have been many reports of them being kept naked. There have also been a lot of women detained because they were prostitutes used by high-ranking officials of the old leadership. A woman human rights worker from one of the major organisations working on detainee issues disappeared into a US prison for two months.

It is known that many women have been detained, including over a dozen bank clerks, to force them to pay for the discrepancy between the genuine currency handed in and that given out in the January changeover. They were told to pay out new currency for all notes handed in, even suspect ones, because there was no way of verifying which were real. But to be imprisoned is deeply shameful for a woman, mainly because it is assumed that she will have been raped, so most are unwilling to talk about what happened, even confidentially and there is as a result very little information about women detainees.

One prisoner told CPT about hearing rumours of a mass grave under the prison. He said that he and fellow prisoners dug under their tent and found recently dead bodies a few feet down. There were stories, independently back up by various former detainees, of demonstrations against conditions in the camp being brutally suppressed by soldiers and another man reported one incident where the prisoners were shouting “Freedom” and soldiers opened fire, killing four men and injuring three.

There are reports in the cases known to me, to CPT and to the local human rights organisations of the following:

Extrajudicial executions during a raid which turned out to be on the wrong house.
Violent arrests of children from their school.
A prisoner having his toenail being pried off by guards.
Prisoners being forced to swallow liquid.
Psychological torture: being left blindfolded in an open air passage, wit a tank driving towards them so they thought they would be run over and killed.
A minor reported having his buttocks held apart by soldiers who were kicking his anus.

The following appear routinely throughout the statements of detainees and their families:

Beating and kicking of prisoners and of residents during house raids; soldiers and guard treading on backs and heads
Guns being pointed at children or held to their heads during raids.
Denial of water
Denial of food or very low quantities and poor quality of food, sometimes including pork which is forbidden for Muslims.
Denial of blankets, shade or air conditioning.
Excessive chemicals being added to water so it is dangerous to drink.
Denial of washing and toilet facilities, both within the prison camps and during long road transfers.
Hands being tied behind the back for prolonged periods, including when this prevents the prisoners from drinking water.
Hands being tied so tightly that the arms swell.
Denial of medical attention or being taken to a military ‘doctor’ who kicks and otherwise abuses or else ignores and refuses to examine the prisoner.
Overcrowding of tents so that there is not enough room to lie down to sleep.
Prisoners being forced to kneel or squat all day and to remain in the sun all day in temperatures of up to 120 degrees F.
Detention of minors.
Individuals being kept for their entire detention in only underwear or nightwear, having been refused the chance to get dressed when arrested at night, sometimes suffering severe sunburn as a result.
Severe verbal abuse.
Theft of money and jewellery by US soldiers during the raid.
Failure to return documentation, IDs, passports and other personal property that was with the prisoner when detained.
Use of Kuwaiti military as translators and prison guards, who are apparently particularly aggressive with Iraqi detainees, believing that they are taking revenge for the 1990 invasion of Kuwait.

Additionally there is no provision for detainees to be given access to legal advice or representation. From arrest, it can take weeks even to be processed. There is limited provision for family visits and relatives have to wait at prison gates with the tag number of the prisoner. Most are told to return in several weeks or months.

It may be impossible for the family to find out the tag number, because names are transliterated into English and stored in a computer. There is no standardised transliteration system for Arabic into English and a tiny difference in the spelling of a name could make it impossible to trace the prisoner, leaving the family uncertain which jail the person is in or even whether he is still alive and lost in the system somewhere.

There is a huge amount of evidence that US forces are acting on false information and ‘malicious tips’ which they do not bother to investigate or verify before carrying out raids and arrests. Accusations include harbouring wanted members of the old regime who had in fact already been arrested, being a member of the Fedayeen or trafficking weapons, with one man who had been repeatedly tortured by the Baathists being jailed for being a Baathist.

The fact that the ‘information’ is false is evidenced by the fact that so many are released without any charges or evidence being brought against them. Of 63 former or current detainees interviewed by CPT members, not one was convicted of anything. Unfortunately, because the review board meets so irregularly, it can take many months before the release without charge is effected.

Mass arrests also occur, with soldiers seizing every man in a given area after an incident, which may have involved only one or two individuals, or during a raid. In some cases the raid has been on the wrong house and the soldiers have admitted the mistake but nonetheless arrested the young men in the house.

The detentions often mean the loss of the family’s only earner and also the only driver, so that children can’t get to school, and in some cases loss of the family home if they can’t pay the rent. There are indications that some families have managed to retrieve individuals from the prisons by way of bribes to people working with the coalition forces. Others say they would gladly pay if they could find someone reliable to give money to. Depression is ubiquitous among the prisoners and some families report severe behavioural changes following release.

This information relates to US prisons. I’m sorry that I haven’t got any for the British troops in the south. There are one or two local human rights groups down there but fewer international activists and fewer journalists. The pressure needs to be kept up so the detainees don’t just disappear again. The governments involved have to be pressed for more information and to take responsibility for and control of their troops.

Lawyers acting for the US soldiers charged are claiming that it was a system wide problem and their clients are not responsible because they weren’t given clear guidelines. Do you really need a guideline to know you’re not meant to beat, kick and sexually abuse a prisoner? But their individual guilt shouldn’t be used to absolve those higher up the system of theirs.

The commanders are responsible, right to the top of the military, right to the political leadership, the ministers and secretaries of state whose job it was to provide clear rules, supervision, protections, to know what was going on and to get rid of individuals responsible. They won’t take that responsibility of their own accord. It’s left to us to persuade them.