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Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Iraqi Prisons: Horrors Behind Bars

Iraqi Prisons
An Iraqi woman holds pictures of relatives held in jails during a demonstration calling for their release in central Baghdad on March 25, 2011 as four different groups gathered at the capital’s Tahrir Square to protest against the government, the US interventions in the war-battered country, corruption and call for the release of prisoners. AHMAD AL-RUBAYE / AFP

Ali al-Ajeel

During Saddam Hussein‘s era, the absence of criminal justice was the main culprit responsible for Iraq’s infamous reputation at the end of the 20th century. Saddam, his sons and his men used systematic torture to end all dissent and opposition to their ruling party.

After the regime fell following the 2003 invasion of Iraq, Iraqis expected torture in their prisons to end or at least decrease. Prisoners’ screams, however, still echo to this day in those same Saddam-built cells. But now, with much less noise and an indifferent international opinion.

Iraq enacted Law No. 30 of 2008 to legalise its accession to the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, which has, however, not yet been implemented.

Unchanging Iraq

Iraqi media have acquired more space to address torture in prisons. It is a subject constantly monitored by activists and local, regional and international human rights organisations. This has, nevertheless, not deterred some security force members from mistreating and torturing prisoners, in some cases going as far as videotaping the torture without obstacles preventing them from doing so.

Over time, the prevalence of torture in Iraq has intensified. Under Nouri al-Maliki‘s government, these violations skyrocketed during the era of the ‘secret informants system’ between 2006 and 2014. The violations committed by secret informants continued until the cabinet issued a decision in 2013 to end such practices. These practices were in part exacerbated by the Ministry of Justice’s incorporation of hundreds of unqualified armed militia members into the Ministry of Interior’s staff. This was part of the plans to counter ISIS before it invaded Iraqi cities in 2014.

Torture methods in the new Iraq were not very different from practices under Saddam’s rule. According to a report by Amnesty International, “detainees had been blindfolded, stripped and suspended by their wrists or hung in contorted stress positions for hours at a time”. In addition to being “subjected to electric shocks to the genitals, ears, tongue and fingers; beaten on the soles of their feet (falaqa), whipped and beaten with canes, hosepipes and metal rods; burnt with cigarettes or having their hands pierced by electric drills or having their toe or fingernails ripped out.” The report also mentioned the infamous Abu Ghraib prison scandal involving American Forces, amongst other violations.

It should be noted that Iraqi prisons are overcrowded, lack requirements to meet basic needs, and have poor medical facilities, resulting in the prevalence of diseases such as scabies, allergies, skin infections and other conditions.

Extortion

The case of Iraqi prisons is not limited to systematic torture, malnutrition, overcrowded cells and the spread of diseases among detainees but extends to the blackmailing of prisoners and detainees’ families.

The most prominent form of extortion is the recording and coercing of detainees’ statements while using threats of torture in interrogations. If failing to comply, detainees are tortured into confessing, possibly leading to their execution. Families may also be forced to pay bribes in order to visit their relatives, provide them with food and clothing, ensure that they are not subjected to torture and ill-treatment, or transfer them to clean cells with clean air, air conditioning and sanitary bathrooms. The cost of a single transfer can run in the thousands of dollars. Where it concerns prominent prisoners, the costs might exceed tens of thousands of dollars. In various governorates (e.g. Nineveh), certain prisons rent out their air-conditioned cells to affluent detainees in return for large sums of money.

Other forms of extortion are those related to sick detainees, as wardens blackmail their families in order to let them provide food and medicine to the detainee or refer the person to a hospital for treatment.

Sectarian Discrimination

Sectarianism played a significant role in the Iraqi crisis following the demise of Saddam Hussein’s regime. Sectarian discrimination has permeated almost all aspects of life, prisons being no exception.

Most reports and studies addressing violations in Iraqi prisons agree that Iraqi prisons are segregated. A report by the Baghdad Center for Human Rights stated that prisoners are separated according to sectarian affiliation and that some prison halls are specifically designated for either Shiites or Sunnis.

According to statistics on human rights violations, 39,000 men and women and their families have been subjected to abuse and mistreatment by reason of being Sunni while, contrarily, detainees in Shiite prisons might have access to smartphones and laptops with Wi-Fi networks. Fearing mistreatment because of their sect, numerous Sunni detainees have converted to Shia Islam.

Women Suffer Like Men, and Even More

The way women are treated in prisons is almost uniform in the new Iraq. Many women are arrested to be used as a pressure tool in the interrogation of suspected male relatives or for their alleged support of militants rather than for crimes they are suspected of committing.

Early on during the American invasion of Iraq, American soldiers realised the sensitivity of approaching women in Iraqi society. This was exploited by arresting militants’ female relatives and forcing the militants to surrender as a condition for these women’s releases. After the invasion ended, this method was consolidated, and gangs that kidnapped women for organ trafficking, sexual exploitation or financial extortion through ransom demands flourished in Baghdad and various Iraqi governorates.

Female Iraqi prisoners were not spared torture, beatings, kicks, slaps and electric shocks. Moreover, they have been subjected to rape or threatened with the sexual assault of themselves or their daughters.

Government Denial and Humiliating Silence

The Iraqi government denies the existence of grave violations inside Iraqi prisons. While it denies torture or human rights violations in prisons, the Iraqi government admits that the prisons suffer from overcrowding and poor medical care.

Although reports of alleged torture are ample, authorities have often ignored them, taken minimal measures to bring offenders to justice and rarely punished perpetrators. As a result, due to mistrust and for fear of reprisals, many detainees have been reluctant to report such treatment.

To this day, there is no accurate count of prisoners subjected to violations and abuse in Iraqi prisons. However, all reports disclosed by humanitarian associations, human rights organisations, government officials and parliament members strongly confirm the continuation and increase of these practices. Moreover, the Iraqi Ministry of Justice facilitates the violence inside prisons by turning a blind eye to their poor conditions.

Thus, the situation of Iraqi prisoners remains the same 19 years after the American invasion and the fall of a regime whose brutality everyone acknowledges.