BAGHDAD, Iraq—Omar Moyod, 17, says Iraqi police officers beat him savagely, hung him in painful positions and threatened to rape his mother until he agreed to sign a false confession to murder.
The American advisers who work at Baghdad's juvenile prison, where Moyod is being held, find his story credible. They likewise believe several other teenagers in their custody who tell similarly horrific tales.
Brightly painted, well-staffed and humane, the Karkh Juvenile Detention Facility is a telling example of what the U.S.-led occupation has been able to accomplish in Iraq—and what it hasn't.
The Coalition Provisional Authority and the U.S. Army, with help from Justice Department advisers and U.S. contractors with juvenile justice backgrounds, built the facility in an old police detention center. It's the only juvenile prison in Baghdad, and recently it held 113 inmates.
The Americans hired an Iraqi warden who's so committed that he sometimes sleeps there. They set up a computer database to track inmates and a classification system to separate the more dangerous ones.
The food is good, and the cells are air-conditioned. The electricity and drainage problems have been fixed. Capt. Dave Seiter, a U.S. Army civil affairs officer from Indianapolis, got his family and friends to donate books for a prison library, which opened this month.
That's the good news. The bad news is that Iraq's justice system is still barely functioning—and its ailments affect the children who fall into its clutches.
The mess starts with the coalition-backed Iraqi police, many of whom, as U.S. administrator L. Paul Bremer pointed out recently, are corrupt and abusive.
They also aren't catching many criminals, as evidenced by the juvenile prison's small number of inmates. Baghdad, population 5 million, is one of the world's most crime-ridden cities. Residents say carjackings and murders—some perpetrated by teens—are at epidemic proportions.
Yet the 113 prisoners at Karkh include every single boy—inmates range in age from 13 to 18—who has either been accused or convicted of a serious crime.
And some not so serious. American adviser Darrin Hays, a former juvenile corrections warden in Arizona, said a 9-year-old spent two months in the facility after he was brought in for "begging"—in a city filled with child beggars. Another child spent a month incarcerated for "loitering."
One child's crime is listed as "homosexual."
"We have no idea what that's about, and we're trying to find out," said Hays, who must rely on Iraqi juvenile judges and legal advisers to process the cases.
Before he built the database, Hays said, "unfortunately, some of these kids got lost in the system."
Part of the problem is that the courts aren't working well. Cases are routinely delayed for logistical reasons. Dozens of children in the facility have been jailed for months awaiting trial, and they've told of having hearings postponed several times.
The most harrowing stories are from those who say they were tortured by police.
The Iraqi police typically deny beating suspects now the way they routinely did under Saddam Hussein, but occupation officials say it's still a major problem.
"The Iraqi police force still has a culture of prosecutions based upon confessions, which is very unhealthy," said Gareth Davies, the coalition's chief law enforcement adviser in southern Iraq. "We are trying to change this culture into a culture of prosecution based upon evidence. ... I'm fairly certain that will require prosecuting and sending policemen to prison on charges of brutality and torture."
A month ago, Iraq's Interior Ministry set up an internal affairs unit to investigate police abuse, but it consists of only two investigators and an American adviser.
The unit could be kept busy in the juvenile facility alone.
"If we had 30, I still think it wouldn't be enough," Hays said.
Moyod, who's from a middle-class family, said his troubles started Oct. 14, when he accepted a ride from a sheik he knew. As he tells the story, the sheik's car was stopped by an armed gang, who shot him dead in the street and stole the vehicle.
Before they pulled away, one of the men, whom Moyod knew, pointed a gun at Moyod and told him to forget what he saw. The gang members were later arrested, and they fingered Moyod, he said, because they thought he turned them in and they wanted revenge.
"I was beaten a lot," he said, showing faint bruises on his wrists and ankles. Hays said the Iraqi police routinely hold prisoners for three months before they send them to the juvenile jail—to let the bruises heal, Hays suspects.
One day, Moyod's mother came to visit, and officers told Moyod they would rape her if he didn't confess. The officers went to the waiting room and told Moyod's mother that they had broken her son's legs, Moyod said. She screamed, making him think she was being attacked, so he agreed to confess, he said.
Luckily for him, he said, the written confession inexplicably says he stabbed the sheik, who died of gunshot wounds—a discrepancy that may help his case when a judge reviews it.
Khalid, 17, who declined to give his last name, is also hoping for judicial relief. He was watching television at home with a friend six months ago and was trying to clean the friend's pistol when the gun went off, he said. His friend died.
After paying an enormous sum to the friend's family, he was summoned for questioning without a lawyer, he said, and it wasn't long before the beatings began. He said police tortured him for two days until he broke down and signed a confession saying he had committed pre-meditated murder.
He thinks the officers were particularly vicious because he comes from an affluent family and has spent time abroad.
"By the time they got done beating me, I would have signed a paper saying I had killed dozens," he said.
While he waits for a hearing, he sits in jail, where officials say he's a good influence on the other inmates. They also say they believe his story.
"This guy is a future leader of Iraq," said Nanette Snyder, a juvenile corrections expert from Wyoming who works as an adviser in the Iraqi facility.
The prison's warden, Wali Jalil Jafar, said police use torture because "they want the case to be solved quickly. They lack the experience, the tools, to investigate properly. I would suggest that the investigations should not be done by the police. They should make arrests and leave the investigation to others."
(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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