57 Iraqis Charged In Abuse At Prison

By Sudarsan Raghavan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, November 7, 2006

BAGHDAD, Nov. 6 -- Iraq's Interior Ministry has charged 57 employees, including high-ranking officers, with human rights crimes for their roles in the torture of hundreds of detainees once jailed in a notorious eastern Baghdad prison known as Site 4, officials announced Monday.

The charges marked the first time the present Iraqi government has taken criminal action against members of its own security forces for operating torture chambers inside Interior Ministry prisons, said Brig. Gen. Abdul-Karim Khalaf, a ministry spokesman.

Sunni Arab detainees and human rights groups have long alleged that members of the ministry's police force, made up mostly of Shiite Muslims, took revenge on Sunni captives through beatings and other brutal methods. For months, Shiite officials have said such accusations are exaggerations, branding them attempts by Sunnis to discredit the Shiite-led government.

But on Monday, senior Interior Ministry officials acknowledged there was clear evidence of such abuses, following a probe by three separate investigative committees that lasted 2 1/2 months.

A U.N. human rights report reached a similar conclusion in the summer, after Iraqi and U.S. officials uncovered the torture during a visit to Site 4 in May. More than 1,400 detainees at Site 4 were held in "overcrowded, unsafe, and unhealthy conditions" and "suffered systematic physical and psychological abuse" by Interior Ministry officials, the report said. Investigators also took photos that "documented lesions resulting from torture as well as equipment used for this purpose."

"Whoever abuses power and authority will be held accountable, regardless of their position or background," Interior Minister Jawad al-Bolani told reporters in an opulent room in one of Saddam Hussein's former palaces. "This is giving a lesson for those in our ministry who may want to violate the law."

The action was the latest move in a series of recent Interior Ministry crackdowns on the police forces it runs. The Iraqi government is engaged in an intense struggle to bring under control sectarian reprisal killings, death squads and criminal gangs.

U.S. pressure is also growing to get rid of militias and death squads that are widely believed to have infiltrated Iraq's security forces. U.S. officials said they have warned the Iraqi government that U.S. law bars financially backing any foreign security force that violates human rights with impunity.

In recent months, Bolani has fired more than 3,000 employees. In early October, the ministry suspended an entire police brigade on the suspicion that its members could be linked to Shiite death squads. Two weeks later, the ministry removed two of its highest-ranking police generals, who led its special police commandos and its public order brigade, both widely known to be infiltrated by Shiite militias.

Khalaf said one of the generals had played a role in the Site 4 abuses and "was disciplined within the military's legal system." The U.N. report said the Site 4 prison was holding detainees who were previously held by the public order brigade and the Wolf Brigade, a special Interior Ministry police commando unit.

Khalaf declined to name the commander, saying the names of all the accused would be released after they faced a criminal trial. In all, the investigating committees indicted 20 commissioned officers, 20 noncommissioned officers and 17 policemen and civilians. They were dismissed from their jobs and served with arrest warrants, Khalaf said. They could receive jail sentences.

"If the officer carried out the torture with his own hands, or supervised it, or it occurred while he was in command, it's all the same thing," Khalaf said.

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