Prisoners still sometimes grumble about the food, but Bakhtyar Amin, Iraq's human rights minister, said Thursday that conditions at the U.S.-run detention facility here have turned around since reports of prisoner abuse sparked a global scandal five months ago.
During a visit to the prison, where he met with some of the 425 detainees scheduled to be freed this week, Amin said he was more than pleased with the changes. These include putting air conditioning in the tents where detainees are housed, lengthening shower times and allowing regular family visits.
"Health care has improved immensely," Amin said as he toured the prison's new $26 million hospital. "We have one of the best hospitals in Iraq. The food has improved immensely. Their hygiene has improved. So the environment has improved enormously."
Amin said detainees had made few complaints during his recent visits to Abu Ghraib. More frequent, he said, are claims of innocence -- like the ones shouted at him Thursday by a crowd of detainees trying to get his attention from behind barbed wire.
"They all say they are innocent," he said. "I haven't met a single one who has not. . . . Once you get into the details, you find the reality."
"Please, minister," a man in a maroon polo shirt and dusty gray pants shouted, his brown, creased hands shaking. "I am injured. My whole family is killed. Just me and my mother are alive. Minister, I have just God and you."
Amin told an aide standing next to him to take notes, then turned to address the rest of the detainees, some of whom held up their identification bracelets for him to see.
"I don't want to see any Iraqi in prison," Amin told the men. "There are many innocent people who get killed. Don't let your families suffer because you are in jail. Don't be with the bad people, because the only thing they want is to destroy this beautiful country."
Amin, a former exile who ran a human rights organization in France, has been monitoring Abu Ghraib since May and working with U.S. authorities to improve conditions at the prison.
When he first visited the prison in May, he said, detainees were living in dirty, crowded tent compounds guarded by an understaffed military police force. At its peak, Abu Ghraib held more than 7,000 detainees. The population is now down to about 2,500, with about 700 detainees scheduled to be released by the middle of October, in time for the start of Ramadan, the Muslim holy month of fasting.
A nine-member review board, made up of six Iraqis and three representatives of the international military force here, meets three times a week to decide which detainees should be freed at Abu Ghraib and the other major U.S.-run detention facility in Iraq, Camp Bucca, near the southern port city of Umm Qasr.
One of the board members, who like the others was not identified by the military for security reasons, came to Abu Ghraib with Amin on Thursday to watch a release.
As she approached Camp Liberty, a new tent compound for detainees scheduled to be freed, the young lawyer shook her head. "I can't believe we've released all these people," she said. "I'm not quite sure we should. I see the crimes on their faces."
Asked why these detainees had been recommended for release, she said the board had no choice. "The problem is that the people are not threatening the general security of Iraq," she said. "We have to release them. Some of the people are 50-50. The others are teenagers caught up with their fathers or families."
As the freed detainees were allowed to leave, a soldier handed each man $25. Amin grabbed each detainee's hand and held it.
"Congratulations," he told a young man dressed in a new button-down shirt that the U.S. military had given him. "I don't want to see you next time. You're still young and your country needs you."
Special correspondent Luma Mousawi contributed to this report.