Detainees in Iraq suffer abuse, says government

Up to 60% face brutality such as Hussein-era tactics

June 19, 2005|By Jeffrey Fleishman and Asmaa Waguih | Jeffrey Fleishman and Asmaa Waguih,LOS ANGELES TIMES

BAGHDAD, Iraq - The public war on the Iraqi insurgency has led to an atmosphere of hidden brutalities, including abuse and torture, carried out against detainees by the nation's special security forces, according to defense lawyers, international organizations and Iraq's federal Human Rights Ministry.

Up to 60 percent of the estimated 12,000 detainees in the country's prisons and military compounds face intimidation, light beatings or more intense torture that leads to scars, broken bones and sometimes death, said Saad Sultan, head of a board overseeing the treatment of prisoners at the Human Rights Ministry. He added that police and security forces attached to the Iraqi Interior Ministry were responsible for most violations.

The units have used tactics reminiscent of Saddam Hussein's secret intelligence squads, according to abuses catalogued by the ministry and independent human rights groups and lawyers.

"We've documented a lot of torture cases," said Sultan, whose committee is pushing for wider access to Iraq-run prisons across the nation. "There are beatings, punching, electric shocks to the body including sensitive areas, hanging prisoners upside-down and beating them and dragging them on the ground. ... Many police officers come from a culture of torture from their experiences over the last 35 years. Most of them worked during Saddam's regime."

The ordeal described by Hussam Guheithi is similar to many cases. When Iraqi National Guardsmen raided his home last month, the 35-year-old Sunni Muslim imam said they lashed him with cables, broke his nose and promised to soak their uniforms with his blood. He was blindfolded and driven to a military base, where he was interrogated and beaten until the soldiers were satisfied that he wasn't an extremist.

At the end of the nine days, Guheithi said, the guardsmen told him, "You have to bear with us. You know the situation now. We're trying to find terrorists."

The federal Interior Ministry, responsible for the nation's internal security, acknowledges cases of mistreatment but denies that torture is common. Interior Minister Baqir Solagh Jabur is a Shiite Muslim, and some Sunni Muslim tribal leaders and politicians have accused the ministry of unfairly targeting Sunnis, who make up the bulk of the insurgency.

"There are no official accusations that the ministry's forces are carrying out widespread abuse and torture of detainees," said Col. Adnan Joubouri, a ministry spokesman. "There was some abuse of authority, and those officials responsible are being punished."

U.S. officials, whose image on detainment has already been tarnished by the prisoner abuse scandal at Abu Ghraib, say they are troubled about torture arising from security and police forces in the new Iraq government. They worry that mistreatment by Iraqi police and national guardsmen, thousands of whom were trained by American instructors who sought to steer the departments away from Hussein's corrupt legacy, may be viewed as an extension of Abu Ghraib.

Stories of torture and abuse against suspected Shiite and Sunni criminals and rebels are unfolding against a relentless insurgency that has Iraqi forces frustrated over their inability to stop car bombs and ambushes that have killed more than 1,000 people in recent weeks.

Rising crime, a shaky court system, a still-unwritten constitution to define civil rights and an underequipped Interior Ministry pursuing well-armed rebel networks have made human rights less of an immediate concern for Iraqis than bringing order to the nation, say Iraqi and U.S. officials.

Enduring more than two years of violence since the U.S.-led invasion, many Iraqis favor tougher measures to end the unrest. The death penalty was recently reinstated, and for much of the country there is an unspoken acceptance - often rooted in the harsh ways of tribal justice - that intimidation and torture serve a purpose. Such attitudes are complicated by growing sectarian strains between Shiite and Sunni Muslims.

The minority Sunnis made up the core of Hussein's Baath Party and controlled the country. The new Iraqi government is dominated by the majority population of Shiites. Both sides blame each other for the increased bloodshed. This sectarian dynamic poses another incendiary element: the fabrication and embellishment of accounts of torture given by previously detained Sunni extremists to help instigate a civil war against Shiites and the government. The Human Rights Ministry says it has encountered made-up cases of abuse.

"Ninety percent of detainees say that they confessed under torture," said Judge Luqman Thabit Samiraii, head of the First Iraqi Central Criminal Court. "Yet 80 percent of them have no torture marks. But torture does exist during interrogations, I admit that."

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