New Detainees Strain Iraq's Jails

By Joshua Partlow
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, May 15, 2007

BAGHDAD -- The capture of thousands of new suspects under the three-month-old Baghdad security plan has overwhelmed the Iraqi government's detention system, forcing hundreds of people into overcrowded facilities, according to Iraqi and Western officials.

Nearly 20,000 people were in Iraqi-run prisons, detention camps, police stations and other holding cells as of the end of March, according to a U.N. report issued last month, an increase of more than 3,500 from the end of January. The U.S. military said late last week that it was holding about 19,500 detainees, up more than 3,000 since the U.S. and Iraqi governments began implementing the security plan in mid-February.

Estimates of those inside Iraqi facilities, where reports of beatings and torture are common, vary widely because detainees are dispersed among hundreds of locations run by different ministries. The U.S. military holds detainees at two main centers, Camp Bucca in southern Iraq and Camp Cropper near Baghdad, and officials say they are committed to avoiding the abuses that occurred at the Abu Ghraib prison following the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.

Iraq's prisons for convicted criminals are managed by the Justice Ministry, but because of crowding in Iraqi army detention centers, authorities have transferred many untried detainees to live with convicts.

"We made some space for them, but now our space is full," said Deputy Justice Minister Pusho Ibrahim Ali Daza Yei. Referring to the military, he added, "This is their problem, not mine."

Yei, in an interview at his Baghdad office, said the Justice Ministry had taken in 1,843 such detainees from the military from the start of the security plan in February through April 21, an influx that now accounts for more than 15 percent of the ministry's prison population.

"The reason why there's more detainees is because there's more forces on the ground, both Iraqi and coalition, out there doing operations. So you've got more people to go out and detain them," said Brig. Gen. Joseph Anderson, chief of staff for the top American military field commander in Iraq. "The bottom line is we have more than we can handle collectively."

The Iraqi constitution mandates that documents outlining the preliminary investigation must be submitted to a judge within 24 hours of a suspect's arrest, with a possible extension of another day. But the flood of prisoners has worsened a situation in which many often wait weeks or months before their cases are heard.

To filter through the rapidly growing list of detainees, authorities have dispatched teams of judges, prosecutors and investigators -- known as "tiger teams" -- to determine whether there is enough evidence in a case to hold the suspect, according to a Western official in Baghdad familiar with the prison system. But the teams cannot keep up with the influx.

"We're just storing up a tidal wave of cases, with a judicial system that cannot cope with what they've got," said the official, who is not authorized to speak publicly and was interviewed on condition of anonymity. "They're basically closing their eyes to the problem under the Baghdad security plan."

Human rights officials say Justice Ministry facilities offer the best an Iraqi prisoner can hope for, as they generally meet international standards for space and treatment. But officials are increasingly concerned about the detention camps run by the Iraqi army and the Interior Ministry, which oversees the police force. In particular, several officials raised concerns about a detention center in Kadhimiyah, a predominantly Shiite neighborhood of northern Baghdad. The center, built to hold about 400 people, is said to house more than 1,000, with juveniles mixed into the population, officials said.

Some former inmates at Kadhimiyah have told human rights officials that they were tortured.

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