In Iraq, 'a Prison Full of Innocent Men'

Iraqi officials preparing to inherit the U.S. detention system say despite improvements in centers like southern Iraq's Camp Bucca, many prisoners are innocent, with no formal way to challenge their detention.
By Amit R. Paley
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, December 6, 2008

CAMP BUCCA, Iraq -- U.S. officials in Iraq have turned prisons once described as training camps for would-be insurgents into something more closely resembling American-style vocational schools. Religious and technical training are offered to detainees, who are allowed to visit with relatives through teleconferencing calls.

But the recently approved U.S.-Iraqi security agreement will soon require the American military to release the 16,000 Iraqi detainees -- the vast majority of them held in this southern desert prison -- or refer them to the nation's courts. As the U.S. military detention system here begins to come under Iraqi control, a complicated joint effort is underway to determine which of the men are safe to release and which may be insurgents.

"Most of the people they detain are innocent," said Iraqi Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi.

Over the past year, senior U.S. military officers have sought to transform a system that had become a symbol of American abuses in Iraq into one that is more consistent with the principles of a counterinsurgency strategy designed to win support of the population. The process has improved prisoner conditions since the abuses committed by U.S. soldiers in Abu Ghraib but has not created a system to determine the guilt or innocence of thousands of Iraqi detainees.

On a scorching morning earlier this year, Talib Mohammed Farkhan, who had been imprisoned for 15 months, shuffled into Hearing Room 3 to hear his U.S. captors explain the allegations against him for the first time.

Farkhan, a Shiite Muslim, appeared to follow along as the American officers said he had been detained for membership in the Mahdi Army, the anti-American Shiite militia. But he looked totally baffled when they also accused him of working with al-Qaeda in Iraq, the extremist Sunni Muslim group that kills Americans and Shiites.

"I don't understand how that could be possible," said a visibly flustered Farkhan, a welder from the southern city of Iskandariyah, who denied all the accusations. "They are Sunni. I am Shia."

Yet the three U.S. servicemen before him, a panel of non-lawyers convened as part of a new quasi-judicial process to review each detainee's case every six months, did not need to decide whether Farkhan had violated the law. Their task was to decide whether he posed an "imperative security threat" to the U.S.-led coalition or the Iraqi people. And they concluded that credible evidence, which they would not describe to Farkhan or a Washington Post correspondent allowed to view the 19-minute hearing, suggested that he probably did.

"I'm not looking at whether they are guilty or innocent," said Air Force Maj. Jeff Ghiglieri, the president of the review board that convened in May. "We're trying to determine as best we can whether they will do bad things if we release them." Minutes later, the panel unanimously voted to detain Farkhan for another six months.

This proceeding is what has amounted to due process for many of the 100,000 prisoners who have passed through the American-run detention system in Iraq. Although the legal controversy over detainees at the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, has attracted far more attention, 100 times as many prisoners have been held at Camp Bucca and other Iraqi sites with far fewer legal rights and no oversight by the American court system. The Iraqis are not charged with crimes, permitted to see the evidence against them or provided lawyers.

But the Iraqi captives are now offered religious, academic and vocational classes. They are permitted to meet with relatives in person or long distance via videoconferencing equipment. The detainees at Camp Bucca, many of whom like to read Agatha Christie mysteries and watch Jackie Chan movies, have their own choir, intramural soccer league and a workshop to produce stuffed animals called Bucca Bears.

"This used to be a jihadi university that was just breeding more terrorists," said Maj. Gen. Douglas M. Stone, who ran the detention system until this summer. "Now we are engaging the detainees and using detainee operations to teach the Iraqis here and improve their perception of Americans."

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