Iraqis released from U.S. prison camps tell of abuse, resistance

(The Canadian Press/AP, 04 November 2003)

BAGHDAD In U.S. prison camps in Iraq forbidden talk can earn a prisoner hours bound and stretched out in the sun and detainees swinging tent poles rise up regularly against their jailers, recently released Iraqis said.

In the secretive camps in a scorched landscape, "they don't respect anyone, old or young," Rahad Naif said of his U.S. army guards.

He and others told of detainees in wheelchairs and of a man carried into a stifling hot tent in his sickbed.

"They humiliate everybody."

Naif, 31, is one of three brothers - butchers from the East Baghdad slums - who were thrown into the three biggest detention centres in July after a nasty quarrel with an influential neighbour. They never faced charges; the last brother was finally freed Oct. 15.

The camps and prisons hold a mixed population: curfew-breakers, drivers who tried to evade U.S. checkpoints, suspected common criminals, anti-U.S. resistance fighters and many of the Baath Arab Socialist party leadership.

A Naif brother released in September, Hassan, 32, said there are "good people" among the U.S. guards, like an older man the Iraqis respectfully dubbed "al-Haji" - Pilgrim. Ex-detainees also said conditions improve at times, as new underwear, toothbrushes and other supplies arrive and some facilities are better than others. On Oct. 1, the most notorious U.S. centre, the Baghdad airport's overcrowded Camp Cropper, was closed.

For the third brother, however, the bitterness is too fresh.

"They confined us like sheep," the newly freed Saad Naif, 38, said of the Americans.

"They hit people. They humiliated people."

Although details cannot be otherwise confirmed, the accounts by a half-dozen former detainees in interviews corroborated each other on key points and meshed with what Amnesty International has heard from released Iraqis. The human rights group has accounts of detainee uprisings, punishment by exposure to the sun and other examples of what it calls "inhumane conditions."

Brig.-Gen. Janis Karpinski, the U.S. army commander of Iraq's detention facilities, has said prisoners are treated humanely and fairly. Specific questions about the ex-detainee accounts were submitted to the U.S. command Oct. 18 but no response has been received.

Two pending U.S. military legal cases may offer a glimpse at problems in the detention system: in one, four soldiers are accused of beating Iraqi prisoners; in the other, two marines are charged in connection with an Iraqi's death in detention.

The number of prisoners is in dispute. The U.S. command said it holds 5,500 but some lawyers and other Iraqis believe the figure is higher. In toppling the Iraqi government last April, the U.S.-British invasion force inherited a legal vacuum and began incarcerating ordinary criminals with prisoners of war and less well-defined detainees.

Iraq's chief U.S. administrator, Paul Bremer, said he has moved to speed up release of unjustly held Iraqis and Iraqi lawyers and judges are slowly taking on criminal cases. The International Committee of the Red Cross, responsible under international law for inspecting wartime prison camps, said the listing and processing of detainees has improved in recent weeks.

The Baghdad spokeswoman for the ICRC, whose representatives are the only outsiders allowed into the camps, said the organization's policy does not allow any public comment on abuse or other poor conditions detected. Nada Doumani noted, however, the law - the Geneva Conventions - forbids all physical pressure on detainees.

The ICRC's decision to reduce its Baghdad staff, because of the bombing of its headquarters, may limit its ability to visit detention sites.

Baathists deemed "high-value detainees" by the Americans have been concentrated at a detention site in southern Iraq called Camp Bucca.

Before he was moved to Camp Bucca, one of them, former parliament speaker Saadoun Hammadi, shared a tent with more than 100 men at the Baghdad airport camp and "was in miserable condition, very thin," said a former tentmate, Hassan Ali Muslim.

Hammadi, a man in his late 60s who once served as prime minister, "didn't speak with anybody. In the morning and afternoon, he walked alone for an hour, back and forth along the fence," Muslim said.

The famous Baath politician was dressed in shorts, his dyed hair had gone white and he'd grown a long beard, the freed detainee said.

At Camp Bucca, in the wastes near Basra, "we were suffering, sitting in the desert," said one of the Naif brothers, Rahad, who was released from Bucca on Sept. 22.

Water was the first concern for internees everywhere, especially as summer temperatures topped 49 degrees Celsius. There was never enough to drink and wash with, they said.

"They'd give us hot water while we'd see them drinking cold water," said Ra'id Mohammed Hassan, 41, freed from Bucca on Oct. 15 after two months' detention for having a weapon in his car.

Rahad Naif said 1,000 men in his section at Bucca had to share just 10 water taps.

"They would come, especially the Kuwaiti translators, and throw ice into the sand just to make us suffer psychologically," Naif said.

At the airport's Camp Cropper, Muslim, a 28-year-old factory worker, tried to keep a bottle filled and hidden from thieves. When the Americans finally erected a tank for showers, there was so little water the detainees had vicious arguments over it, he said. Skin diseases became common, he said.

The ex-prisoners, uniformly, said the sick men among them were the camps' saddest sight.

"There were crippled people at Bucca. Some were in wheelchairs," said Rahad Naif.

He said two died in the next tent while he was there.

"At the airport, they brought in a chronically ill man in a bed and put him near me. He was very sick," Hassan Naif said.

One crippled man had to be carried up the steps to a toilet, he said.

The prisoners staged protests or hunger strikes demanding better care for their sick comrades. At other times, they would erupt in anger over their own plight.

"Twenty or so of us would start shouting: 'Get us out! Let us go!"' said Muslim, who was freed Sept. 20 after two months' detention, accused of attempted carjacking.

"The demonstrations happened almost every day at Bucca," said Rahad Naif, who described scenes in which military police countered with the tools of U.S. prison guards.

"Sometimes we'd fight the Americans with tent poles. The Americans would come at us behind riot shields, firing plastic bullets and electric pistols (stun guns)."

"We can't fight against that. We knew they'd win."

"We'd never manage to get out."

The ex-detainees said the common punishment, even for such lesser infractions as shouting over to the next tent or stealing food, was "The Gardens" - a razor-wire enclosure where prisoners were made to lie face down on the burning sand for two or three hours, hands bound.

They said they would also be punished by having rations reduced or withdrawn, or by being denied two staples - cigarettes and tea. They were allotted two cigarettes a day.

At Camp Cropper, Muslim said, he endured four days in solitary confinement, in a dark, sweltering one-by-two-metre cell, after a confrontation with a notoriously tough guard over cigarettes.

"It felt like my skin was melting," he said of the heat in the cell.

A doctor came on the second day to check on him and the Americans apologized after he was freed, Muslim said. The guard responsible was moved elsewhere, he said.

"There are some good ones who don't like to punish people," Hassan Naif said of his time at Cropper.

"There was an old black soldier we called 'al-Haji' who argued with the other Americans if they weren't respecting our rights."

But much of what detainees saw was intolerable, Naif said, "especially when we saw Iraqi women punished in the same way as men."

When one detainee shouted to his sister in a nearby women's tent, the guards punished the woman, Naif said. Seeing her lying bound in the sun, the brother angrily started to cross the razor wire ringing his tent "and they shot him in the shoulder," Naif said.

"The worst thing was their treatment of the women," said Saad Naif, who spent time both at the airport and at Abu Ghraib prison outside Baghdad, where tents spread across the prison yards.

"Innocent women were kept for months in the same clothes," he said.

He said he remembered in particular an elderly woman "whose hands were tied up and she was lying in the dust."

Saad Naif said he saw a prisoner shot dead at Abu Ghraib when he approached the razor wire.

Amnesty International said it has received credible reports of such shootings. AP queried the U.S. command about deaths in the camps but received no response.

Not knowing what they were charged with and when they might be released, detainees grew angrier and more depressed, said Ziad Tarik, 24, a friend who was swept up with the three Naif brothers after the fateful quarrel and spent more than a month at Abu Ghraib before abruptly being freed.

"They interrogated me about Saddam's family, about al-Qaida terrorists, about weapons markets - things I know nothing about," he said.

"I thought they'd ask me about my case. Why was I arrested?"

"There's no law," Rahad Naif said.

"It's up to them. It's arbitrary."

Tarik gave an example: An Iraqi colonel was released from Abu Ghraib but the Americans still hold his wife and, Tarik said, "she didn't do anything."

That account could not be verified.

The Naif brothers' mother, black-veiled Fawzia Ibrahim, 59, said she feels "like a bird" since their release but she dreads the memory of the mid-July night when 16 U.S. soldiers, with Iraqi police, stormed into her house to take her sons away.

"Death would be better than the Americans again!" she said.

© The Canadian Press, 2003

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