Wednesday, August 29, 2012

How The World Found Out That Iraq Still Tortured People

In November 2005, an American military unit found a secret prison in an Iraqi Interior Ministry building in Baghdad. It contained over 170 prisoners, many of which showed signs of torture. U.S. and Iraqi officials knew that abuses were taking place within the country for quite some time, but had said little about it beforehand. Human rights groups had also noted mistreatment, but gotten little coverage. The detention center however, received worldwide attention, and let the world know that Iraq had not progressed much when it came to human rights despite the fall of Saddam Hussein.

On November 13, 2005, 173 prisoners were found in a basement in an Interior Ministry building in Baghdad. The facility was located in the Jadriya neighborhood across from the Green Zone. A unit from the 3rd Infantry Division went to the site after several people had come to them looking for missing family members. Many of those in the prison had been tortured, with one prisoner claiming that 18 people had died as a result. The controversy caused by the discovery, forced Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari to admit that abuse did occur at the building, which was a first. (1) He also ordered an investigation into the matter. At the same time, Interior Minister Bayan Jabr told the press that only seven of the detainees had been abused. The Deputy Interior Minister for Intelligence Ali Hussein Kamal said that the Special Investigative Unit was responsible for the bunker. He went on to say that a general and a colonel were in charge, and that the latter reported directly to Minister Jabr. Both of them were members of the Badr Brigade, the militia of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq. When Jabr became the Interior Minister under Jaafari’s government he immediately set about recruiting members of his militia into the security forces, especially the commando units. They started going after Sunnis in what was the beginning of the sectarian civil war. The Jadriya prison was one sign of the emergence of this conflict as almost all of the detainees there were Sunnis.
Interior Minister Jabr (right) was a commander in the Badr Brigdae and brought in hundreds of his militiamen into the security forces while in office (AP)
The Jadriya story opened the door to Iraqi officials talking about abuses going on within the security forces. An Interior Ministry official told the New York Times that there were 8-10 unofficial prisons in Baghdad, which were used to hold people picked up without warrants. The former head of special forces at the Ministry General Muntadhar Muhi Samarraie and the Deputy Human Rights Minister Aida Usayran said that members of the Badr Brigade within the police were torturing prisoners. The Inspector General at Interior added that there were extrajudicial killings going on. He too pointed to militia elements within the security forces as being the culprits. Even before men from Badr were being recruited into the police there were stories of abuses going on under Interior Minister Allawi Falah Hassan al-Naqib who served under the interim Premier Iyad Allawi. The rapidly deteriorating security situation led to thousands of men being brought into the security forces with no real checks on their backgrounds. Some were former police, some were insurgents, and some were militiamen. All of them had grown up under dictatorships either in Iraq or abroad in places like Iran where the Badr Brigade was based before the 2003 invasion. The U.S. were in charge of training all these new recruits, but never committed the necessary resources. There was also a rush to get as many police into the field as quickly as possible to deal with all the chaos and violence. The Americans were therefore never able to change the culture of the Iraqis who were used to beatings and torture, and repeated those techniques as new policemen mostly to gain confessions, which is the basis of the Iraqi justice system.

The U.S. knew about the mistreatment by the Iraqi security forces as well. The State Department detailed cases that occurred during Allawi’s time in office including torture, rape, and illegal detention in its annual human rights report of 2005. In April, General John Vines, the senior tactical commander in Iraq, issued an order that soldiers had to prevent any abuses by Iraqis, and report it. The next month, General George Casey, commander of Coalition forces, sent a letter to his troops saying that they needed to make sure Iraqi forces treated detainees correctly. That same month, the 1st Cavalry and 3rd Infantry Divisions collected over 120 allegations of abuse by the Iraqi security forces including beatings, electric shock, and choking. In June, General Casey issued a memo that Iraqi forces had to respect the rule of law and human rights after he received reports of mistreatment. By 2005, Iraq was a sovereign country meaning that the only thing the U.S. could do about this issue was inspect any joint facilities they had with the Iraqis to see whether any torture was going on, protest when they found any, and demand the Iraqi government follow up on cases like the Jadriya prison. The Americans also pushed for Interior Minister Jabr to be removed, but to no results until a new government was named in 2006 since his Supreme Council was an important element in the ruling coalition. Almost all of this occurred behind closed doors however, as the U.S. did not want to expose the wrong doings of its ally.

Human rights groups and the United Nations also tried drawing attention to the situation in Iraq. In January 2005, Human Rights Watch’s “The New Iraq? Torture and Ill Treatment of Detainees in Iraqi Custody” documented abuses under Allawi’s interim government committed by the Iraqi intelligence and police forces, and accused Iraqi officials of either supporting torture or not caring about it. (2) The paper said that abuse was routine, and there was no effort to stop it. The United Nations found that the Iraqi government was carrying out illegal arrests, extrajudicial killings, and torture, some of which was due to militias within the security forces. An official from the Human Rights Ministry told the Times of London that Jaafari’s government was no better. While these groups’ reports were all noted in the press, they were only blips amongst all the other stories about the growing violence in Iraq. They therefore had little to no impact, and were mostly missed by the general public.

The Jadriya story put the spotlight on Iraq’s poor human rights situation. Iraq was supposed to be transitioning to a democracy, but its treatment of prisoners showed that some things had remained the same. The incident only brought to light what U.S. and Iraqi officials already knew, and what outside groups had warned about before. The large number of stories exposed the dark side to the new Iraq. Little has changed since then with the security forces still routinely torturing prisoners in order to gain confessions. The government also continues to run secret prisons showing a basic lack of due process and a respect for rule of law. Baghdad is as uninterested in solving these problems today as it was back in 2005 meaning that they will only continue. The difference now is that everyone knows.


1. San Francisco Chronicle, “Iraq concedes detainees likely were tortured,” 11/16/05

2. Edmonson, George, “Iraq routinely torturing prisoners, group says,” San Francisco Chronicle, 1/26/05


Allbritton, Christopher, “Why Iraq’s Police Are a Menace,” Time, 5/20/06

Burns, Robert, “Documents show top brass knew of abuse,” Associated Press, 12/7/05

Edmonson, George, “Iraq routinely torturing prisoners, group says,” San Francisco Chronicle, 1/26/05

Fadel, Leila, “Abuse of prisoners in Iraq widespread, officials say,” Knight Ridder Newspapers, 11/28/05

Graham, Bradley, “Iraqi police accused of abuses,” San Francisco Chronicle, 5/20/05

Hider, James, “West Turns Blind Eye As Police Put Saddam’s Torturers Back To Work,” Times of London, 7/7/05

Knowlton, Brian, “U.S. alleges rights abuses by Iraqis,” San Francisco Chronicle, 3/1/05

Moore, Solomon, “Killings Linked to Shiite Squads in Iraqi Police Force,” Los Angeles Times, 11/29/05

Said, Yahia, “Misunderstanding Iraq: Recommendations for US Policy,” Revenue Watch, November 2005

San Francisco Chronicle, “Iraq concedes detainees likely were tortured,” 11/16/05

Wong, Edward and Burns, John, “Iraqi Rift Grows After Discovery of Prison,” New York Times, 11/17/05

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