After a Dark Time, A Walk Into the Sun
Friday, June 16, 2006
BAGHDAD, June 15 -- The desert hut that became his home for more than a year, the place he lived in captivity with some 30 other men at Abu Ghraib prison, was No. 6 -- known, he said, as the "freedom tent."
At the prison, Omar Taha, 24, pined for his girlfriend and his favorite nightclubs, passed time playing soccer and listening to the radio and never got over his bewilderment at being arrested for what he says was simply being too close to an explosion in Baghdad.
"I was just driving my car," he said. "Two soldiers came up to me and said, 'Why are you stopped?' I said, 'I am scared.' Then they took me here."
On Thursday, Taha was one of 489 detainees who walked under a harsh sun out of the chain-link pen at Iraq's most infamous prison. The mass release, part of a larger plan to free 2,500 prisoners this month, is intended to bolster Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's efforts to defuse the Sunni Arab insurgency.
This week Maliki, a member of the Shiite Muslim majority, expressed a willingness to talk with insurgents and proposed pardoning people involved in the resistance that has destabilized Iraq. A fuller description of his reconciliation plan is expected soon.
The prisoner release on Thursday was the third this month. Before walking out in single file, the men stood quietly behind the fence as Deputy Prime Minister Salam al-Zobaie addressed them from atop a wooden platform.
"We want to see people who are innocent released, and go back to their homes, and go back to their normal lives," Zobaie said, adding: "Anyone who is innocent must be released. Anyone whose hands are drenched in blood must not be let go."
Some of the men were barefoot; others wore sandals. They were each given a copy of the Koran, a new set of clothes, $25 and a bus ticket. Some held up their Korans to reporters, who were kept outside the fence, and others put towels over their heads to block the sun. One elderly man, missing his left leg, hobbled out of the prison on crutches.
Mizher Jasim, 20, said he had fallen behind his economics classmates at the University of Tikrit after 6 1/2 months in prison for a "random arrest."
"There was some shootout, and they brought a lot of people in," he said, calling his treatment "not so bad."
"But I was still in detention," he said.
As of early June, more than 15,000 inmates were being held in five U.S. prisons in Iraq, according to the Iraqi Justice Ministry. Abu Ghraib currently holds 3,600 prisoners, but the number fluctuates because the prison serves as a transfer point for detainees moving to and from other detention centers, said Lt. Col. Keir-Kevin Curry, a spokesman for the American military command.
To gain their freedom, the detainees -- most of whom have not been formally charged -- had to renounce violence and pledge to be good citizens, Curry said. Their cases were reviewed, and those who were found to be "relatively low risk" were released, he said.
"In the spirit of unity and reconciliation, we need to reintegrate the detainees who were found not guilty of the serious violent crimes -- bombing, torture, kidnapping, murder," Curry said.
Iraq's deputy justice minister, Pusho Ibrahim Ali Daza Yei, sharply criticized the U.S.-led forces for imprisoning so many people.
"If there is an incident in this neighborhood or that neighborhood, they will arrest the whole neighborhood, 400 or 500 people, and there are only four or five criminals. This is why they don't send them to court," he said in an interview this week. "I say, why keep them here? They are chickens? They say, if we send them to the court, the court will release them. I say this is the law, but it's in one ear and out the other."
Correspondent Jonathan Finer contributed to this report.