BAGHDAD, Iraq — The corpses of at least three of the six Sunni Muslim detainees who died while in Iraqi government custody earlier this month showed signs of torture, their families said Thursday as they vowed revenge at emotionally charged funerals.
Iraqi authorities announced an investigation into the suffocation deaths of six men who were being transported on May 12 in a poorly ventilated truck en route to appear before an investigative committee in Baghdad. The families said they were informed the men died in a "shipping container."
News of the deaths infuriated Sunnis from the prisoners' home province of Anbar at a time sectarian tensions already are high because of a post-election political stalemate.
"I blame the Iraqi government, which bears responsibility for the death of my brother, and the American forces hold even more responsibility for handing him over to the Iraqis," said Talib al Nimrawi, whose younger brother, Salah, was among the dead. "The Americans should exert pressure on the Iraqi government to hand over the criminals who did this. Otherwise, (our) tribe is not a small tribe."
Trucks from the defense ministry, loaded with about 170 detainees, departed a prison in Taji, just north of Baghdad, to head toward the capital, according to the families, Iraqi officials and news reports.
Local news reports, citing senior Iraqi justice officials, said as many as 22 prisoners were found unconscious when guards opened the doors of one of the trucks. Most of the detainees already had been scheduled for release, according to local newspaper accounts and the prisoners' families.
Wijdan M. Salim, the Iraqi human rights minister, told the Arabic-language Mashriq newspaper this week that anything is possible. She added that some of the detainees were to be released if no evidence was found.
Iraq's Vice President Tariq al Hashemi, a Sunni, issued a strongly worded statement Tuesday that said the deaths of "these detainees under the protection of security forces, with no justification, is tragic and amounts to premeditated murder."
Families of the detainees started receiving the bodies of the men this week and, in accordance with Islamic custom, began three-day funerals in Anbar cities such as Fallujah, Ramadi and Hit.
Anbar TV channel's footage of one of the detainees' funerals in Hit showed a coffin in the back of a slow-moving pickup truck that was surrounded by tribesmen who fired assault rifles into the air. Portions of the video that didn't air showed relatives cursing Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki, a Shiite, and vowing revenge if politicians didn't come up with answers about the deaths within 72 hours.
Relatives of three of the dead detainees spoke to McClatchy on condition of anonymity because they feared retaliation against other family members still in government custody. In accounts that couldn't be verified independently, the families all described similar findings upon receiving the bodies of the men:
_ Salah Jaata al Nimrawi, 46, a captain in the former regime's army, fought against al Qaida as a member of the U.S.-backed "Awakening" movement. His family said U.S. forces detained him 2 1/2 years ago in connection with a roadside bomb attack in Hit. The family said they received his corpse this week with a blackened eye, crude stitches on his torso, a broken hand and signs of torture on his fingers and feet.
_ Murad Jalil Jassim, 27, of Ramadi, was detained in 2005 after a roadside bomb exploded on the same highway he was driving, relatives said. Relatives said his family paid bribes to retrieve his body from the Baghdad morgue and discovered suspicious holes on his neck, cigarette burns on his back and other signs of abuse.
_ Mushtaq Talib al Janabi, 35, a teacher from Fallujah, was detained by Iraqi forces last summer because he was driving a white truck, which violated a citywide ban on such vehicles after reports that some were being rigged with explosives, his family said. Relatives received his body this week and observed signs of electrical burns on his thighs and cigarette burns on his torso.
Judge Abdul Sattar al Biraqdar, the senior spokesman of the Iraqi justice system, wouldn't comment on the allegations of torture.
To every question, Biraqdar's response was the same: "We formed an investigative committee that has started working, but I have no more details."
Senior Iraqi security officials didn't answer repeated phone calls about the investigation. An aide to the human rights minister Thursday said no one was available for comment.
Local and international human rights groups have documented myriad violations in the Iraqi detention system, especially Sunni detainees alleging abuse at the hands of a mostly Shiite guard force.
Other problems include women detained with men, juveniles held with adults and severely overcrowded prisons, according to a State Department report on Iraq's prisons that was released in March. The report said the Iraqi government was holding at least 29,000 detainees; U.S. forces have custody of almost 3,000 more prisoners.
A 2009 prison report prepared by the Iraqi human rights ministry noted 504 documented cases of torture and mistreatment in Iraqi-run prisons nationwide.
(Allam reported from Baghdad; Naji, a McClatchy special correspondent, reported from Fallujah. McClatchy special correspondents Laith Hammoudi and Mohammed al Dulaimy contributed to this article.)
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