Mistreatment Of Detainees Went Beyond Guards' Abuse
Ex-Prisoners, Red Cross Cite Flawed Arrests, Denial of Rights
By Rajiv Chandrasekaran and Scott Wilson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, May 11, 2004; Page A01
BAGHDAD, May 10 -- Problems in the U.S.-run detention system in Iraq extended beyond physical mistreatment in prison cellblocks, involving thousands of arrests without evidence of wrongdoing and abuse of suspects starting from the moment of detention, according to former prisoners, Iraqi lawyers, human rights advocates and the International Committee for the Red Cross.
U.S.-led forces routinely rounded up Iraqis and then denied or restricted their rights under the Geneva Conventions during months of confinement, including rights to legal representation and family visits, the sources said.
In a report in February, the Red Cross stated that some military intelligence officers estimated that 70 percent to 90 percent of "the persons deprived of their liberty in Iraq had been arrested by mistake." Of the 43,000 Iraqis who have been imprisoned at some point during the occupation, only about 600 have been referred to Iraqi authorities for prosecution, according to U.S. officials.
The Red Cross study, posted Monday on the Wall Street Journal's Web site, concludes that the arrest and detention practices employed by U.S.-led forces in Iraq "are prohibited under International Humanitarian Law."
Now, facing international outcry over photographs of prisoner abuse less than two months before the planned handover of sovereignty to an interim Iraqi government on June 30, U.S. officials plan to dramatically reduce the number of Iraqis in military custody, from more than 8,000 to fewer than 2,000, according to people with knowledge of the issue. The release will send legions of prisoners, many of them angry and hardened by their incarceration, home to Sunni Muslim-dominated parts of north-central Iraq where resistance to the U.S. occupation has been fiercest.
American detention tactics have turned Iraqis such as Satae Qusay, a kebab chef, against an occupation they once supported. Qusay said he was arrested in June while visiting the house of his brother, a former low-ranking Baath Party official, and did not see an attorney during his subsequent three-month detention in a fog-bound prison camp in the southern city of Umm Qasr. There, he said, he was forced to endure a shower of soldiers' tobacco juice, eat food off a dirty floor and urinate on himself when he was prohibited from using bathrooms.
"They freed us from an oppressor," said Qusay, 40. "But now I think they came to laugh at us."
Prisoners and relatives of detainees interviewed for this article produced prison release papers, Red Cross visitation documents or identification bracelets as evidence of incarceration over the past year. The descriptions of abuse during arrest or imprisonment could not be independently verified.
The focus on abuse inside the Abu Ghraib prison and other U.S.-run detention facilities has obscured broader problems that began well before Iraqis arrived at the facilities, according to lawyers and rights advocates.
The 24-page Red Cross report describes a pattern of excessive force used by U.S. soldiers during raids at homes or businesses, frequently occurring after midnight. The Red Cross wrote that "ill-treatment during capture was frequent" and that it often included "pushing people around, insulting, taking aim with rifles, punching and kicking and striking with rifles."
Such tactics, which "seemed to reflect a usual modus operandi," the Red Cross report says, "appeared to go beyond the reasonable, legitimate and proportional use of force required to apprehend suspects or restrain persons resisting arrest or capture."
Most of the time, according to an assertion contained in the report and corroborated by former prisoners, U.S. soldiers arrested all the men found in a suspect's house. Most of those detained, judging by a sample of prisoners and their descriptions of fellow inmates, have been young to middle-aged men from Baghdad and the Sunni Triangle, the area north and west of the capital that is the heart of the anti-occupation resistance.
Ahmed Moeff Khatab, a 32-year-old plumber, said he was getting a shave in his local barbershop in Baghdad's Adhamiya neighborhood on Nov. 11 when a group of soldiers in U.S. military uniforms entered carrying AK-47s. Red-and-white scarves covered their faces, he said.
"They pulled me from the shop and put me in a Nissan pickup," said Khatab, who said the men spoke English and accused him of being a member of former president Saddam Hussein's paramilitary forces. "They threw me face down, then blindfolded me and handcuffed me."
© 2004 The Washington Post Company
High-risk detainees are kept in this facility at Abu Ghraib prison, parts of which journalists were allowed to visit.
(Photos Khampha Bouaphanh -- Fort Worth Star-telegram Via Krt)
_____Red Cross Report_____
Video: Red Cross spokesman says report describes "a pattern and a broad system" of abuse.