Iraq’s justice system and prisons have been troubled for decades, and the latter have shown little improvement since the fall of Saddam Hussein. The civil war and continuing insurgency have led to massive abuses. Suspects are routinely detained without warrants, prisoners are held with no access to lawyers, waiting days to months for a court date, abuse and torture are rampant, prisons are overcrowded and have poor conditions, secret facilities exist, with authorities shifting prisoners around to keep them locked up. The lack of oversight, and official denial of any problems perpetuate this system. In March 2011, it resulted in the closing of two detention facilities, the release of prisoners, and a riot.
First, on March 14, a spokesman for the Justice Ministry announced that it would be shutting down Camp Honor in the Green Zone because of human rights violations after a month long investigation. In January, the Los Angeles Times ran a story on the facility saying that it was run by the Baghdad Brigade and the Counter Terrorism Bureau, which report directly to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. At the camp, prisoners had been held incommunicado with no access to legal representation or their families. The Deputy Justice Minister refuted all elements of the story, and claimed that his ministry as well as the Red Cross had visited Camp Honor and discovered nothing wrong. The Red Cross denied that they had ever gone to the prison. A February Human Rights Watch report uncovered Iraqi papers that showed Maliki and the Baghdad Brigade in fact ran the camp, and that they had blocked any inspection of it. The closure would be a small victory as there are plenty of other secret bases where prisoners are held.
Next, on February 21, Premier Maliki released 10,000 detainees for lack of evidence. He said that there should be no arrests without warrants, and denied the existence of any secret prisons. It was reported that he took this move to placate demonstrators who demanded the release of prisoners. The Iraqi Human Rights Society criticized the premier stating that there were lots of prisons run outside the official system, and that Maliki had wide ranging powers to conduct raids and arrests how he saw fit.
Three days later there was a riot at the Rusafa Detention Facility. Earlier, inmates had set up tents in the courtyard to protest poor conditions, mistreatment, and accused the warden of being pro-Shiite. On March 24, some Sunni and Shiite prisoners got into a shouting match that led to fighting, and the tents being set on fire. Seven ended up being wounded as a result. The site has been plagued by problems for years. In 2008, the BBC visited it and found 150 prisoners in a room the size of a classroom. The men there had to take turns sleeping it was so crowded, and many had never been formally charged with a crime. In 2009 prisoners protested against torture there.
Parliament’s human rights committee was already investigating Rusafa, and said that it was being closed as a result on March 26. The committee chairman, Salim Jabouri said that it had found that members of the staff had abused prisoners. For example, prisoners claimed that guards assaulted them, leading to one death and several others being wounded. At the time, the prison claimed that civilians had stormed part of the prison and caused the casualties in an attempt to cover up the incident. The committee also found prisoners being held without charges, and said that they should be amnestied.
None of these are a solution to Iraq’s justice or prison system. Abuses will continue. Secret prisons will remain. They do show that parts of the government are concerned about the issue, and are trying to take some action. Unfortunately, the problem is both institutional, and personal. The justice system relies upon confessions, which encourages abuses. Fighting the insurgency has also provided a never-ending number of detainees that leads to overcrowding, and the courts being backed up. Then Maliki refuses to acknowledge any violations, and in fact, actively commits and protects such acts. Until those at the top change their view, nothing else will.
Abboud, Assad, “Iraq minister denies prisoner abuse,” Agence France Presse, 1/24/11
Abdul-Kadir, Saad, “Iraqi police put down riot in Baghdad prison after inmates set fire to tents inside,” Associated Press, 3/24/11
Alsumaria TV, Al-Hayat, “Al-Maliki Releases 10,000 Prisoners, Denies Existence of Secret Prisons,” MEMRI Blog, 3/21/11
Associated Press, “Iraqi Policemen to Face Charges of Prison Abuse,” 6/17/09
- “Official; Iraq to close prison rife with abuse,” 3/14/11
Human Rights Watch, “Iraq: Secret Jail Uncovered in Baghdad,” 2/1/11
Al-Issa, Fadi, “Tasfirat prison employees violate human rights says commission,” AK News, 3/26/11
Parker, Ned, “Alleged abuse at Iraqi detention center prompts oversight concerns,” Los Angeles Times, 1/23/11
Tawfeeq, Mohammed, “Iraqi protesters rally in the rain,” CNN, 3/25/11