ABU GHRAIB, Iraq – The U.S. military released 272 security detainees Tuesday from Abu Ghraib (search) prison, once Saddam Hussein's (search) most notorious lockup. Many smiled or flashed V-for-victory signs, while others shouted angry complaints.
In a carefully choreographed event, the prisoners were brought out in groups from inside the prison. Given $10 each toward the cost of their journeys home, they left in buses chartered by the U.S. military for Baghdad (search) or the center of Abu Ghraib.
Reporters taken by the military to witness the event were not allowed to interview the men being released.
To the dismay of U.S. troops, some detainees, who mostly wore Arab robes or tracksuits, shouted a few words to the waiting reporters. Most refused to give their names or say which part of Iraq they came from or why they were detained.
"I just came out of hell," screamed one.
All those who spoke claimed innocence. "I never knew what I was accused of," said Yasser al-Badri.
Tuesday's event followed the release of 168 prisoners on Sunday without any publicity, and the disclosure that six American soldiers face charges of abusing prisoners at Abu Ghraib, used by Saddam to detain political foes along with common criminals.
The U.S. soldiers, members of a military police unit, were charged Saturday with cruelty and maltreatment, assault and indecent acts with another person. The military said about 20 Abu Ghraib detainees were involved.
On Tuesday, Lt. Col. Craig Essick, the Army officer in charge of the 5,500-6,000 security detainees at Abu Ghraib, said inmates were treated with respect. He refused to comment on the case of the six soldiers, saying their alleged crimes were committed before he took over the facility two months ago.
"We treat the detainees according to international law," said Essick, of Elgin, Ill. "Since we took over, we had no problems with the detainees. I am sure there is some anger, but it's not directed at us. Some don't like the food, but I have soldiers who also don't like the food."
The issue of security detainees held in coalition custody has been a sensitive one since the fall of Baghdad on April 9. Many detainees were captured in security sweeps by coalition forces searching for suspected insurgents, their financiers or arms traders. Iraqis say many arrests were arbitrary and based on tips from informers with ulterior motives, like settling old scores.
Many Iraqis complain they are unable to locate detained relatives and friends. Recently, the coalition has posted the names of detainees on the Internet, but most Iraqis have no access to the World Wide Web. Those who succeed in tracking down detainees often complain they cannot visit them.
Essick told reporters Tuesday that a visitation center at Abu Ghraib was being set up, but acknowledged some inmates could go for long periods without a visitor.
Amnesty International, the London-based human rights group, said last week that many former detainees claim to have been tortured and ill-treated by coalition troops during interrogation.
Methods often reported, it said, included prolonged sleep deprivation, beatings, exposure to loud music and prolonged hooding.
"Relatives of those held inside still wait outside (Abu Ghraib prison) for news of their loved ones, and lawyers are still turned away," the rights group said.
Detainees are supposed to be told within 72 hours of their arrest the reason for their detention. Additionally, a review board has met daily since Feb. 17 with a view to releasing the innocent.
"It's good for us, because it reduces our population," Essick, of the 16th Military Police Brigade out of Fort Bragg, N.C., said of the detainees released Tuesday. "They are no longer a threat to the security of coalition forces."
Two U.S. Army officers helped detainees get off Army trucks Tuesday that brought them from inside the high-walled prison complex to a secure area outside. Some detainees shook the officers' hands and at least one embraced them.
Some detainees were elderly. Some looked bitter, even angry, others were silent.
One detainee with a silver beard claimed to have been beaten, but refused to give his name.
"Thank you! thank you!" some younger detainees told the officers and soldiers in English. Many carried copies of the Quran supplied by prison authorities.
Some waved pink and green prison-issue towels, while others used them as turban-like protection against the sun.