By Walter Pincus
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 15, 2007
U.S. military operations associated with the troop increase in Baghdad have boosted the number of detainees held in American facilities in Iraq to about 23,000, up 5,000 from four months ago, according to Army Col. Mark Martins, the top military lawyer in Iraq. That number represents an all-time high since the U.S. occupation began in 2003.
Iraqi security forces have picked up 4,052 detainees during the increase, bringing the overall number of security detainees now held in Iraqi prisons to 60,000, said Judge Abdul Satar Bayrkdar, spokesman for the Iraqi Higher Judicial Council. About 1,100 of those picked up since the increase began were later released for lack of evidence, while the rest were transferred to the criminal court system, he said.
Martins, the chief judge advocate for Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, said that while Iraq is holding detainees under its domestic law, the United States holds them under "the law of armed conflict" standards set by the Geneva Conventions. That means that U.S. military forces have determined "that a detainee represents an imperative threat to the security and stability of Iraq."
Martins said at a news conference in Baghdad that a detainee's status is reviewed every six months, but that detainees are transferred from U.S. custody to the Iraqi criminal court system only if adequate evidence is available.
The disclosures of a burgeoning prison population came amid continuing criticism of the detention system's fairness. Anthony H. Cordesman, a specialist in Middle East military matters at the Center for Strategic and International Studies who recently returned from an eight-day trip to Iraq, wrote last week that although the United States has made major improvements in its handling of detainees, "the process of review and release is still ineffective."
Cordesman said that U.S. military commanders told him their detainee numbers could grow to 30,000 by the end of this year, and up to 50,000 in 2008.
He said he found that Shiite detainees "are often freed, while Sunnis are warehoused." He added that the two main U.S. prison facilities, Camp Bucca and Camp Cropper, "are still de facto training centers for hard-liners." The United States has only recently developed "a systematic method of segregating and training detainees and developing a coherent non-sectarian release program that contributes to the perception and reality of fairness," Cordesman said.
Martins and Bayrkdar, who also spoke at a Baghdad news conference, said that some of the detainees who were recently seized in Baghdad are being sent to a new, heavily guarded complex in the Rusafa District. In that walled-in compound, judges and investigators, along with some family members, are housed along with detainees and witnesses.
Martins described it as "a secure place in the heart of Baghdad for all participants in the criminal justice system -- police, investigators, witnesses, judges, court personnel, detainee guards -- so that they can work free from attack or intimidation." He said that within the complex there are now 4,800 "detention spaces" for those under investigation or awaiting trial, and that the number will soon grow to 7,000. In addition, according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the complex will also house "up to 200 people testifying for the prosecution."
Martins said that 12 judges are working at the Rusafa complex, which opened in April, and already have received more than 2,000 cases. Since that time, Martins said, they have completed more than 700 investigations, which under Iraqi law are conducted by judges, "and importantly, after scrutinizing the evidence, they had dismissed 325 cases." Sixty other cases have gone to trial.
"Let me emphasize that no one is saying the rule of law yet prevails across Iraq, and this is only a small step," Martins said.