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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)

"This is a sectarian government," said Shafi Abdullah, 40, a resident of the Garma district in western Anbar province who has had several relatives detained. "A man cannot be safe in his own home. If the situation continues like this, we're all going to become terrorists. At least we will have died for something: defending our homes and our land."

Iraqi detention centers run by the Justice Ministry hold roughly 30,200 inmates, including about 11,750 awaiting trial. An unknown number of detainees who have not been tried are held in police and army custody. Amnesty International provided a higher estimate in a report this year, saying the untried inmate population could be as high as 30,000.

There are no official figures on the demographic breakdown of inmates, but the vast majority - perhaps as high as 80 percent, according to Iraqi lawyers and judges - are Sunni.

Iraqi judges and lawyers said police officials are often reluctant to formally transfer inmates to the main corrections system because the conviction rate is low, ranging from 10 to 20 percent. Instead, punishment is meted out mainly at police stations, according to defense lawyers and former inmates.

"You get electric shocks, beatings, hangings from the legs," Iman Naman Saleh, a Baghdad defense lawyer, said. "Electric shocks are their favorite because they don't leave scars."

Despite millions of dollars in U.S. rule-of-law initiatives in Iraq, the court backlog in Baghdad, which has by far the busiest dockets in the country, has increased about 10 percent in recent months. This is partly because of the thousands of inmates the U.S. military has transferred to Iraqi custody, overburdening the system.

Iraqi Justice Minister Dara Noor al-Din said the Interior and Defense ministries have been reluctant to turn over their detention facilities to the Justice Ministry, as mandated by law. "We have no authority over these detention centers," he said, referring to inmates held in prisons run by the army and police.

Asked about the detentions in Adamiyah, Busho Ibrahim, the deputy defense minister, grew exasperated.

"You are talking about the crimes of these monsters?" he said. "They killed policemen and burned them, and you're talking about human rights? If it were up to me, I would execute all of them in the same place as their crimes. An eye for an eye."

In Adamiyah, Habshi's family continues to wait for any news, be it of a court date or his release. Habshi's 2-year-old daughter frequently asks about her dad.

"We tell her he's traveling outside the country," Ali said. "We tell her, 'When he comes back, he will bring a doll for you.' "

Correspondent Leila Fadel contributed to this report.


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