Iraq's Sunnis view justice system as cudgel

Four-year-old Nour Ibrahim saw Iraqi security forces detain her father earlier this year in Garma. The family spent months trying to find him. Secrecy surrounding the status of detainees has led to the rise of fixers who charge high fees to find and help those lost in the system.
Four-year-old Nour Ibrahim saw Iraqi security forces detain her father earlier this year in Garma. The family spent months trying to find him. Secrecy surrounding the status of detainees has led to the rise of fixers who charge high fees to find and help those lost in the system. (Ernesto Londono)

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By Ernesto Londono
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 23, 2010

BAGHDAD - The soldiers yanked Arkan Subhi Ahmed al-Habshi out of bed shortly before dawn, screaming and striking him with their guns, a scene that has become routine in Sunni districts of Baghdad.

His family's futile attempts to navigate the criminal justice system into which he disappeared after his detention in July fit a pattern that has left Sunnis across the country feeling bereft and indignant.

"There is no evidence against him," said his wife, Besma Ali, 22. "This government wants to take revenge on the people."

Habshi is among the countless Sunni men who are ensnarled in Iraq's backlogged and corruption-plagued court system. In a country that is slowly coming to terms with a vicious sectarian war, their treatment has become among the most combustible flash points.

As the U.S. military's oversight of Iraq's increasingly powerful security forces declines, Sunni leaders charge that the Shiite-dominated government is using them to marginalize the once-empowered minority.

Segments of the security forces no longer carry out sectarian cleansing, as they did at the war's peak in 2007. But in the wake of high-profile attacks across the city in recent months, hundreds of Sunni men have been taken into custody in mass raids, often with no warrants.

Sunni leaders and relatives of imprisoned men say some have been released bearing signs of torture and have told harrowing tales of violent interrogations in police stations.

Others, like Habshi, have vanished inside the byzantine Iraqi criminal justice system, leaving relatives vulnerable to a cottage industry of corrupt people who present themselves as court-system interlocutors. They take bribes for a range of services that include disclosing the location of individual inmates, expediting cases and arranging phone calls.

Although Sunnis account for the vast majority of inmates, Kurds and Shiites also have reportedly been subjected to abuse while in custody. The Kurdistan Regional Government in northern Iraq routinely detains people without charges, and human rights organizations have accused its security forces of roughing up inmates. Members of Shiite militias also have alleged prison abuse, but their political allies have often been successful in negotiating their release.

The reappointment of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite, this month has raised concerns among Sunnis that abuses will continue unchecked because Sunni leaders were unable to get firm promises about reforms in detainee treatment as part of the government formation deal.

"The Sunnis will soon be in the same position as the Palestinians," said Habshi's cousin Ibrahim Ahmed Rababshi, 42. "We will be pushed out, and we eventually won't have a single Sunni mosque left."

The sudden strike

Habshi was taken into custody hours after a coordinated attack on an army checkpoint in the Sunni district of Adamiyah on July 29. A team of gunmen opened fire on soldiers, set the bodies of the slain on fire and raised the black-and-green flag of al-Qaeda in Iraq next to the smoldering corpses. As other soldiers and police officers arrived at the scene, remotely detonated bombs killed some of the first responders.


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