As recently reported, the State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, And Labor released an evaluation of Iraq’s human rights situation in March 2010. One of its main complaints was that Iraq lacked rule of law due to arbitrary arrests, torture, mistreatment, overcrowding, and poor facilities. The Los Angeles Times revealed the latest example of all of these when it ran an article on the discovery of a secret prison at the Muthanna Airport in western Baghdad.
The prison was found to have over four hundred detainees who were all Sunnis rounded up as part of the Ninewa Wall security campaign launched on October 3, 2009. Ninewa is one of the most violent provinces remaining in Iraq. As a result, it saw four military crackdowns from 2008 to 2009. Immediately after Ninewa Wall started, the provincial council, governor, and citizens in the governorate all complained. They said that none of them was informed of the operation, and that innocent civilians were being rounded up. On October 8, for example, around 150 people demonstrated in the provincial capital Mosul claiming that the Ninewa Operations Command had arrested 350 people. It was also noted that 100 prisoners had been transferred to Baghdad at that time, which the Ninewa council also complained about.
Eventually 431 prisoners were taken to Baghdad out of fear that they would be released if they stayed in Ninewa. The security forces got a court order and transferred them to a facility in Camp Honor, located in the Green Zone within Baghdad. Later the prisoners were sent to the Muthanna airport secret prison. There they faced two sets of interrogators. At first, they were questioned by investigative judges, which is a normal procedure, but then later in the day members of the Baghdad Brigade came in, a unit under Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s command who are in charge of protecting the Green Zone. It was then that the abuse began.
On March 10, 2010 the Iraqi Human Rights Ministry found out about the detainees and secret facility from family members who were looking for their missing relatives. When they gained access to the Muthanna jail they found that the prisoners had been handcuffed together in stress positions, and at least 100 of them had been tortured. That included electric shock, sodomy, and rape. One prisoner died due to his mistreatment. A U.S. Embassy report on the incident claimed that at least four of the Baghdad Brigade members who questioned the prisoners were indicted in 2006 for selling Sunni prisoners to Shiite militias so that they could be killed. Guards were also extorting money from the detainees so that they could make phone calls to their families.
When the story broke in April Prime Minister Maliki declared that he would shut down the prison. Already 75 detainees have been set free, and 276 were sent to regular jails. While Maliki claimed that he was against torture, he said that it was due to his political rivals. He also stated that he was justified to use secret prisons and the Baghdad Brigade to secure the country. It was a positive sign that the Human Rights Ministry acted quickly when it found out about the Muthanna jail, and that Maliki said that he would shut down the facility and release some of the occupants. At the same time, it was farcical that the Prime Minister blamed torture on his enemies when it was found going on in a prison under his direct command. That practice is also unlikely to end in Iraq any time soon because not only does it have a long tradition within the country that the overthrow of Saddam did not end, but a justice system that relies upon confessions usually leads to abuse in developing countries.
Aswat al-Iraq, “Detainees’ parents demonstrate in Mosul,” 10/8/09
- “NOC returned 100 detainees to Baghdad- official,” 10/3/09
- “Over 200 arrested under Mosul’s fresh security operations,” 10/5/09
Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, And Labor, “2009 Human Rights Report: Iraq,” U.S. State Department, 3/11/10
Parker, Ned, “Secret prison revealed in Baghdad,” Los Angeles Times, 4/19/10
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