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Thursday, June 01, 2006

  • 2:39 PM
Beyond Abu Ghraib:
detention and torture in Iraq

"I have lost a year and a half of my life"
43-year-old former security detainee and father of three daughters following his release in September 2005; he alleged that he was ill-treated while held in US detention in Iraq.


Nearly three years after United States (US) and allied forces invaded Iraq and toppled the government of Saddam Hussain, the human rights situation in the country remains dire. The deployment of US-led forces in Iraq and the armed response that engendered has resulted in thousands of deaths of civilians and widespread abuses amid the ongoing conflict.

As Amnesty International has reported elsewhere(1), many of the abuses occurring today are committed by armed groups opposed to the US-led Multinational Force (MNF) and the Iraqi government that it underpins. Armed groups continue to wage an uncompromising war marked by their disregard for civilian lives and the basic rules of international humanitarian law. They commit suicide and other bomb attacks which either target civilians or while aimed at military objectives are disproportionate in terms of causing civilian casualties, and they abduct and hold victims hostage, threatening and often taking their lives. Amnesty International condemns these abuses, some of which are so egregious as to constitute crimes against humanity, in addition to war crimes, and continues to call on Iraq’s armed groups to cease such activities and abide by basic requirements of international humanitarian law.

In this report, Amnesty International focuses on another part of the equation, specifically its concerns about human rights abuses for which the US-led MNF is directly responsible and those which are increasingly being committed by Iraqi security forces. The record of these forces, including US forces and their United Kingdom (UK) allies, is an unpalatable one. Despite the pre-war rhetoric and post-invasion justifications of US and UK political leaders, and their obligations under international law, from the outset the occupying forces attached insufficient weight to human rights considerations. This remains the position even if the violations by the MNF that are the subject of this report do not have the same graphic, shock quality as the images that emerged in April 2004 and February 2006 showing inmates being tortured and humiliated by US guards at Baghdad’s Abu Ghraib prison and Iraqi youth being beaten by UK troops after they were apprehended during a riot. The same failure to ensure due process that prevailed then, however, and facilitated - perhaps even encouraged such abuses – is evidenced today by the continuing detentions without charge or trial of thousands of people in Iraq who are classified by the MNF as "security internees".

The MNF has established procedures which deprive detainees of human rights guaranteed in international human rights law and standards. In particular, the MNF denies detainees their right to challenge the lawfulness of their detention before a court. Some of the detainees have been held for over two years without any effective remedy or recourse; others have been released without explanation or apology or reparation after months in detention, victims of a system that is arbitrary and a recipe for abuse.

Many cases of torture and ill-treatment of detainees held in facilities controlled by the Iraqi authorities have been reported since the handover of power in June 2004. Among other methods, victims have been subjected to electric shocks or have been beaten with plastic cables. The picture that is emerging is one in which the Iraqi authorities are systematically violating the rights of detainees in breach of guarantees contained both in Iraqi legislation and in international law and standards – including the right not to be tortured and to be promptly brought before a judge.

Amnesty International is concerned that neither the MNF nor Iraqi authorities have established sufficient safeguards to protect detainees from torture or ill-treatment. It is particularly worrying that, despite reports of torture or ill-treatment by US and UK forces and the Iraqi authorities, for thousands of detainees access to the outside world continues to be restricted or delayed. Under conditions where monitoring of detention facilities by independent bodies is restricted – not least, due to the perilous security situation – measures which impose further limitations on the contact detainees may have with legal counsel or relatives increase the risk that they will be subject to torture or other forms of abuse.

Amnesty International is calling on the Iraqi, US and UK authorities, who both operate detention facilities where persons detained by the MNF are held, to take urgent, concrete steps to ensure that the fundamental human rights of all detainees in Iraq are respected. In particular, these authorities must urgently put in place adequate safeguards to protect detainees from torture or ill-treatment. This includes ensuring that all allegations of such abuse are subject to prompt, thorough and independent investigation and that any military, security or other officials found to have used, ordered or authorized torture are brought to justice. It includes too ensuring that detainees are able effectively to challenge their detention before a court; the right to do so constitutes a fundamental safeguard against arbitrary detention and torture and ill-treatment, and is one of the non-derogable rights which states are bound to uphold in all circumstances, even in time of war or national emergency.(2)

Torture and ill-treatment goes on

Karim R (3), a 47-year old imam and preacher (khatib), was detained and tortured by US forces in 2003 and then by Iraqi forces in 2005. On each occasion, he was subsequently released uncharged. He told Amnesty International that he was first detained in October 2003 by US forces in Baghdad, where he lives and is head of a charity. He was insulted, blindfolded, beaten and subjected to electric shocks from a stun gun (taser) by US troops at a detention facility in the Kadhimiya district of Baghdad. After seven days of detention, he was released without charges.

Karim R was again detained in May 2005 for 16 days – this time by forces of the Iraqi Interior Ministry at a detention facility they operated in Baghdad. During this detention, he was blindfolded and then beaten and subjected to electric shocks while being hung up in a manner designed to cause him excruciating pain. He told Amnesty International:

"They tied my hands to the back with a cable. There was an instrument with a chain which was attached to the ceiling. When they switched it on the chain pulled me up to the ceiling. Because the hands are tied to the back this is even more painful (…) Afterwards they threw water over me and they used electric shocks. They connected the current to my legs and also to other parts of my body. (…) The first time they subjected me to electric shocks I fainted for 40 seconds or one minute. It felt like falling from a building. I had a headache and was not able to walk. The interrogator said: You better confess to terrorist activities, in order to save your life. I responded that I was not involved in these activities and that I had a heart condition. (…) Later they forced me to confess on camera. They asked questions claiming that I was a terrorist but they did not even give me the chance to reply. They just stated that I was a terrorist. (…)."

Torture and ill-treatment in Iraqi detention facilities
In the weeks leading up to Iraq’s parliamentary elections, held on 15 December 2005, new evidence emerged to indicate that the Iraqi Interior Ministry was holding many detainees in different facilities under its control and subjecting them to torture and ill-treatment. On 13 November 2005, US military forces raided one detention facility controlled by the Interior Ministry in the al-Jadiriyah district of Baghdad, where they reportedly found more than 170 detainees being held in appalling conditions, many of whom alleged that they had been tortured. On 8 December 2005, Iraqi authorities and US forces inspected another detention facility in Baghdad, also controlled by the Interior Ministry. At least 13 of the 625 detainees found there required medical treatment, including several reportedly as a result of torture or ill-treatment. The Iraqi Ministry of Interior denied that any detainees had been tortured or abused.(4) However, the US ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, stated that "over 100" detainees found at the detention facility in al-Jadiriyah and 26 detainees at the other detention location had been abused.(5)

According to media reports, in both cases detainees alleged that they had been subjected to electric shocks and had their nails pulled out. (6) An Iraqi Human Rights Ministry official subsequently told Amnesty International that the Iraqi authorities had conducted medical examinations but that these had not confirmed the allegations. However, the official stated that several detainees had injuries caused by beating with plastic cables. Further, the official confirmed that abuses committed at other detention facilities under the control of Iraqi authorities over the past year included incidents of detainees having been subjected to electric shocks. (7)

Months earlier, Human Rights Watch had drawn attention to increasing reports of torture and ill-treatment of detainees by Iraqi government forces in a report published in January 2005. The report was based on interviews which Human Rights Watch had conducted with 90 detainees and former detainees between July and October 2004, 72 of whom disclosed that they had been tortured or ill-treated while in detention. Some had been held as criminal suspects but others had been detained apparently because of their political activities or alleged affiliation with armed groups.(8) Yet, despite the Human Rights Watch findings, little or no action appears to have been taken by either the Iraqi government or the MNF in the months following to address this pattern abuse, and to safeguard detainees from torture or ill-treatment.

Unsurprisingly, in view of this failure to crack down on the torturers and end the cycle of abuse, several detainees are reported to have died in 2005 while being held in the custody of the Iraqi authorities; in several cases, the bodies of the victims reportedly bore injuries consistent with their having been tortured. On 12 February 2005 three men, who were reportedly members of the Badr Organization,(9) a Shi’a militia, died in custody after being arrested by Iraqi police at a police checkpoint in the Zafaraniya district of Baghdad. The bodies of 39-year-old Majbal ‘Adnan Latif al-Alawi, his 35-year-old brother ‘Ali ‘Adnan Latif al-Alawi, and 30-year-old ‘Aidi Mahassin Lifteh were found three days later, bearing marks of torture.
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