BAGHDAD, Iraq—Hani Hashem Salen crowded into a small square outside the al Nosoor prison near Baghdad's Mansour district and joined 127 other men who were stealing longing glances at three white pickups.
The men were dusty and gray, barefoot—their clothes little more than rags. The pickups would take them to freedom, after months of wrongful imprisonment.
"For two months I sat in that dirty, dim cell and cursed the day I was born," Salen whispered as he waited earlier this week for official word that he was free. "I did nothing, yet I wasn't allowed even to see my family. They don't even know I'm getting out today. Why did this happen to me?"
The answer is simple: Iraq can't process the thousands of people who are being arrested these days. It can't even come close. Even wrongly accused men such as those in the square wait months—sometimes more than a year—before their cases are investigated, helping to erode any confidence in Iraq's government.
"The problem is that we have far more detainees than the judges can get around to," Human Rights Minister Nermeen Othman said. "We have talked to the justice minister about this issue, but, as you know, getting the proper number of qualified judges is not easily accomplished."
Othman is talking about Iraqi jails, not the U.S.-run prisons where prisoner abuse has been reported.
The overloaded justice system has meant trouble for people such as Salen.
Last summer, someone—a neighbor, an angry relative, a crook trying to avoid trouble—told police that he was a terrorism risk. That's all it took. With no evidence to back the claim, police arrested Salen and sent him to prison to await questioning, to see if charges were merited.
He understood that he was lucky to be going home after two months. Men near him in the crowd had waited without charges for a year. In all, there are 17,000 men in custody in Iraq who haven't been officially charged, and some have been sitting in prison for as long as two years.
"I couldn't sleep for three days, since learning I was going to be free," Salen said. "I don't want to come back here, or remember that I was here. I just want to erase this page from my brain and go home. Everything here was so bad."
Noori al Noori, the general inspector of the Interior Ministry, has started releasing detainees who haven't been convicted, something he calls a serious problem.
"Yes, there have been violations of laws against prisoners," he said. "We shall punish those who have broken these laws. In the next two months, we will make our best efforts to correct the procedure for arresting people. It's a first step."
Right now, only one judge and four investigators are assigned to each prison, which can hold thousands of detainees. Officials said a year could pass before those who were wrongly arrested were cleared and sent home.
Some said it wasn't all that bad. Brig. Gen. Abdul Salam, the head of the Wolf Brigade, a crack Iraqi army unit that arrests many of the terrorism suspects, notes that under Saddam Hussein, "We used to refer detainees to civil court, which routinely took one or two years for them to be freed. The current procedures are faster."
That doesn't mean much to the victims of the system.
Arshad Salahuddin worked as a bodyguard for a foreign company in Iraq before he was picked off the street in a mass arrest.
"Someone gave wrong information about me, and because there are too few judges I have to pay with five dark months of my life?" he said.
Sociologist Ehsan Mohammad, at Baghdad University, said the community now was full of innocent people who had been jailed, which caused a breakdown in trust of the system.
"We call it collective terror," he said. "Every Iraqi now fears that he may be next. And those who have been arrested once, how can they live a normal, smooth life, without the dread of being a victim again?"
In the square Tuesday, a voice rose above the murmur of detainees: "OK, you can leave now." Within seconds, 128 men sprinted for the pickups, piling in, then on top of each other, hanging off the sides, and finally reaching out and touching the trucks as evidence that they were to be freed.
Salen looked toward the gate, then back toward the prison, and his eyes were sad. He wondered if he'd get his old life back again.
"Will everyone be willing to forget that I was gone all this time, in prison?" he said.
(Obeid is a Knight Ridder special correspondent.)
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.