Iraqi detainees languish uncharged in crowded jails

For thousands of Iraqi detainees, visits by a U.S. military monitoring team may be their one hope for learning why they were arrested.
For thousands of Iraqi detainees, visits by a U.S. military monitoring team may be their one hope for learning why they were arrested. Steve Lannen / Lexington Herald-Leader / MCT

CAMP CONSTITUTION, Iraq — Barefoot in his yellow jumpsuit, the young detainee's eyes welled up as he described in a shaking voice how he landed in an Iraqi army detention facility on the outskirts of Baghdad.

He was visiting his mother in the hospital when Iraqi soldiers raided the hospital and detained him and several others, said Thamer Hamed, 22. They handcuffed and blindfolded him and took him to a holding cell at a former U.S. military base, ironically named Camp Constitution, that's been handed over to the Iraqi army. There, he was told that he was accused of murder. That was 45 days ago, and he still hadn't seen a judge, he said.

Asked to which religious sect he belongs, he smiled ruefully.

"Come on, I'm Sunni. Everyone here is Sunni."

Hamed is just one of thousands of detainees who are locked up in Iraqi-run detention centers.

Some undoubtedly are criminals, but some are innocent people who were caught in roundups after violent incidents or arrested by the largely Shiite-run Iraqi security forces because they're Sunnis, according to interviews with detainees and American military personnel on a rare visit with U.S. Army inspectors last month to an Iraqi army-run run jail.

There was little the U.S. military could do for Hamed, said Army Lt. Col. John Knox Mills, who was visiting as part of a routine inspection. But he promised to ask when a judge would visit the jail. Hamed thanked Mills but said he remained angry at the Iraqi security forces for his detention.

"I think I have something bad in me now that makes me hate everyone here," he said.

The jail at Camp Constitution is considered one of the better facilities that Mills' team from the Judge Advocate General corps inspects.

There was no door to the barn-shaped, concrete building, but a concentrated blast of body odor still assaulted the nostrils. Sparrows flitted about in the rafters, dodging dim fluorescent lights. Men, dressed mostly in yellow jumpsuits, sat cross-legged on thin mats in holding cells that were little more than large cages.

"You've got the most evil, dangerous people with those who have been brought in for nothing more than their faith," Mills said. "There has to be a fair process for figuring out which one is which. You want amnesty, but you don't want it for a mass murderer."

Mills' team is responsible for inspecting 11 Iraqi army and police detainee facilities in Baghdad, which hold about 1,200 detainees, a fraction of the estimated 20,000 in Iraqi custody. Another 23,000 are at two U.S. facilities in Baghdad and the southern port city of Basra.

Ever since U.S. military abuses were exposed at Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison, detainee mistreatment has been a sensitive subject in Iraq. After the Iraqi security forces began handling detainee facilities a few years ago, international human rights groups accused them of torturing detainees, although the groups have had a difficult time gaining access to the facilities to document their charges.

In late 2005, the U.S. military discovered a secret jail run by the Iraqi Interior Ministry in a southeast Baghdad neighborhood where more than 170 Iraqi detainees had been tortured and underfed.

Mills, who's been in Iraq since September, acknowledged the concerns about detainee abuse.

"We haven't witnessed it ourselves, but we have received reports" in the media and elsewhere, he said. He gave no details.

"You don't know" if someone is guilty of a crime or not, Mills said. "You have less confidence because of stories of corruption, ill-training, those sorts of things. You have less confidence in an arrest made by the Iraqis than one made by a trained law officer back home."

The detainee facilities that Mills and Capt. Richie Couch, both of the Kentucky Army National Guard's 138th Fires (field artillery) Brigade, monitor are similar to county jails.

They're usually the first stop after an arrest. A judge decides if there's enough evidence to hold a person for trial. If not, the person can be released. If there's enough evidence, he or she is sent to another detainee facility to await trial.

Mills and Couch look for signs of mistreatment and try to guarantee that a judge is hearing detainees' cases.

Mills walked among the cages and asked detainees through an interpreter about their situations. He asked if they're being given enough food and water. Yes, they said.

Mills walked over to a cell in a corner with juveniles in their mid-teens. They said they'd been treated well. A judge ordered their arrests based on intelligence information, a deputy warden said. Many young teens from poor families are paid by insurgents to watch army patrols or other targets.

The teens said they'd been there just a few days, but some men in other cells said they'd been held for several days without seeing a judge.

A Kentucky district judge in civilian life, Mills said some detainees have to wait two or three months before the equivalent of an arraignment and preliminary hearing.

The goal, he said, is a hearing within 24 hours, as in the United States.

"I don't want to say it's going at a glacial pace, but neither is it going by leaps and bounds," Mills said.

There aren't enough judges and investigators in the new Iraqi criminal justice system to keep up in a country dominated by terrorism and other horrific violations of law. Those who are there can become targets for insurgents and other criminals.

"They're starting from scratch," said Couch, an assistant state prosecutor in Kentucky.

Last year, as part of a huge security crackdown to secure Baghdad, detainee centers filled up.

In the nearly eight months he's been on the job, the massive overcrowding has decreased somewhat, Mills said. Still, there are problems associated with it, such as hygiene and health.

"If you've got 600 people in a facility built to hold 400 and there is no running water or air conditioning, you can see how that can be a problem," Mills said.

The conditions vary widely, he said.

A recent law passed by the Iraqi parliament requires the release of any detainee held longer than six months without a trial. That won't help many of the detainees held in the places he inspects, Mills said.

Many of the detainees they see are at the first step of the judicial process. They have to wait for a judge with broad enough powers to hear their cases and determine if there's enough evidence to hold them. If so, then they're sent to larger detainee facilities, where they may have to wait several months before trials.

According to Mills, the new law could have a trickle-down effect and help reduce the backlog of cases that keeps detainees waiting.

(Lannen reports from the Lexington Herald-Leader.)

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