HALABJA, Kurdistan — A picture of a young bearded man hangs in Rabia Fatah's living room, and when she looks at it, she shakes with sobs.
Her son, Dana Ahmed Abdul Rahman, has been in prison for a year and a half. She doesn't know why. She doesn't know when he'll be released. All she has is the photo — and memories of her first visit with him, 50 days after he was hauled away in the middle of the night by the Asayish, the U.S.-backed Kurdish government's security intelligence agency.
"They'd tortured him," Fatah, 60, said, fingering her black dress spotted with blue and white flowers. "His face was as black as my dress."
Dana Ahmed Abdul Rahman is one of hundreds of men who've been tossed into Kurdish jails in what advocates and families charge is a growing human rights crisis. It's in a region that the Bush administration touts as one of Iraq's success stories, where violence is rare and Western investment is rising.
Many of the imprisoned men are affiliated with Islamist political parties, and Kurdish officials say they're being held because of possible terrorist links. But their families and human-rights advocates say they think the arrests are part of a crackdown on Islamists by the region's two most powerful political parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan.
The men's families allege that the Kurdish regional government, which touts Iraqi Kurdistan as "the other Iraq," where democracy and freedom flourish and security is assured, is repressive and harsh. Comparisons to the regime of Saddam Hussein and his Baath party are frequent.
"What do you think — they won't come after you leave and ask us who you were, what we talked about?" said the brother of one prisoner in explaining why he wouldn't give his name. He said he'd been imprisoned five times during Saddam's rule and three times by Kurdish authorities since 1991, when the United States imposed a no-fly zone over northern Iraq that allowed an autonomous Kurdistan to flourish.
"My brother's in prison. Don't put me in prison, too," he said.
Prisoners' families say that their loved ones are often held in isolation for months, that no legal proceedings are scheduled and that the prisoners are often severely beaten. Prisoners say the jails of the Asayish are jammed, though few are willing to speak openly, even after their release, for fear they'll be snatched up again and sent back.
The central government's Ministry of Human Rights in Baghdad doesn't inspect the prisons and has no authority over them. A spokesman for the regional government's Ministry of Human Rights, Nizam Dlband, acknowledged that some prisoners have been held for months without charges.
But he denied that abuse is routine and said the ministry moves quickly to ensure that innocent people are released and that those facing criminal charges are tried.
"The ministry has not received any proof or evidence or any complaints supported by such evidence to prove that the prisoners were put in solitary cells for such long periods or that they're being abused or tortured," he said. "No one has filed a complaint with us that is supported with such proof, and the allegations have no legal weight without proof."
His denials were echoed by the head of the Asayish in Sulaimaniyah, Wasta Hassan, who said that a judge authorizes all of the arrests.
"Do you think we are monsters?" he said. " We are human beings, and we were in the Baathist regime's jails."
For Abdul Rahman's sister, Farida Ahmed, sitting cross-legged in her family's modest home and offering precious apples and bananas to a guest, the bruises on her brother's face and arms were proof enough.
"I should stay and do something" about her brother's treatment, she said. "But I'm afraid, so I come home and I wait."
Halabja is the Kurdish town where Saddam Hussein ordered a gas attack in 1988 that killed hundreds, if not thousands, of Kurds. Like most adult residents, Farida Ahmed remembers that day. She hid under a blanket in a cave with peshmerga militiamen loyal to Kurdistan's current ruling parties when Saddam's planes attacked.
But the town has soured on its leaders, as shown by a demonstration more than a year ago when angry residents burned a monument to the Halabja dead that sits on the edge of town.
During one session of beatings and interrogation, Abdul Rahman was accused of taking part in the burning, his sister said. But no charges have been brought against him.
Hama Rasheed Hata remembers how he sheltered members of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan during Saddam's time. The current president of Iraq, Jalal Talabani, was among those he hid, he said.
But that loyalty to Kurdish nationalism did nothing to protect his son, who's been in prison for more than a year without charges, he said. Kamel Hama Rasheed Hata was on a trip to the store when police seized him. His father didn't know what had happened for nine months, until the Iraqi Red Crescent Society delivered a letter to him from his son.
When he finally was allowed to visit, he found his son pale and sickly and too afraid to speak.
"The only thing we want is a legal process. Put him on trial and let a judge decide to keep him in jail indefinitely," his brother, Khalil, said. "It makes me angry that my father did so much for them and now they do this to our family."
In another home, Ahmed Fatah Saeed, 70, asked if talking about his son's arrest would help or make the torture in the prison worse. His son, Hikmat Ahmed Fatah, is a member of an Islamist political party. He was held in isolation for six months before his family saw him. They still don't know why he's been jailed.
"If we think this is worse than the Baathist regime we will never say," said his father. "But when you find out everything you will see they are worse."
Recently released prisoners are loath to talk about their experiences, for fear they'll be returned to prison. One man who agreed to be interviewed did so only after he was promised that neither his name nor the precise dates of his imprisonment appear.
He said that the Asayish imprisoned him in Irbil five times between 1999 and 2006. When he was released the last time, he had to promise never to speak about his imprisonment.
His face is handsome, but his nose is slightly crooked from where a prison guard broke it with a pistol. On the back of his neck, a faded circle remains from a cigarette burn. On his lower back is a thin scar where he said his back was split open by the whack of an iron rod.
During his most recent imprisonment he was put in a tiny room for three months. For two minutes a day he was allowed to leave to go to the bathroom. If he stayed too long, he was dragged out by a prison guard. He was blindfolded while questioned and often struck on his back with cables or iron rods.
Once out of isolation he slept in a room so overcrowded that prisoners had to lie touching one another. Some prisoners were treated worse. One's testicles were tied to a tank of kerosene, and when prison guards wanted an answer, they pulled the tank, he said.
At times, the Red Crescent would visit to check the conditions of the prisons. The men in isolation were hidden, he said.
"It is the same system as the Baathist regime," he said. "You can say that it is worse. The students learned from their teacher."
Read Human Rights Watch's July 2007 report, Torture and Denial of Due Process by the Kurdistan Security Forces, at http://hrw.org/reports/2007/kurdistan0707/
(McClatchy special correspondent Yasseen Taha contributed to this report.)