NAJAF, Iraq – The last time Hadi saw his brother, his hands were tied behind his back and blood was running down his swollen face.
They were both prisoners at a religious court operated by the office of rebel Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr (search), accused of helping foreign troops. Hadi, who asked that only his first name be used because he fears retribution, was released after six days. Five months later, his brother is still missing.
"Enough!" Hadi heard his brother, Abdul Salam, plead with his captors. "By Hussein, don't hit me anymore," he said, invoking the name of a revered Shiite saint. The jailers didn't stop, Hadi said.
A symbol of the power al-Sadr's followers once wielded here, the court stopped functioning when the cleric's militia returned control of Najaf's Old City to Iraqi police late last month. Many residents — too scared to talk about the court in the past — are now sharing horror stories of its work.
To al-Sadr's aides, the court and others they ran elsewhere under its auspices were an attempt to apply their interpretation of Islamic justice to a lawless society, but they say all have been shut down.
To many people in Najaf, the court was the arm that the militia used to terrorize people who opposed it.
Many outsiders heard about the Najaf court for the first time when television stations beamed images of at least 13 bodies that police said were found after many of al-Sadr's militiamen left last month.
Eager to discredit al-Sadr and his group, police said the bodies were victims of the court's summary justice. The cleric's aides insisted the corpses were people who died during the fighting in Najaf. Like many details of those weeks of violence, the true story of the bodies was probably buried with them.
Najaf's police chief, Maj. Gen. Ghalib al-Jazaari, said Wednesday only two of the dead were identified before burial and they were policemen, one of whom had his eyes gouged out. The other bodies included a woman and a child, and many showed signs of torture, he said.
On Friday, about 1,000 protesters marched through Najaf's old quarter Friday to demand that the Iraqi government investigate the court and punish those in charge of it. They also demanded that al-Sadr leave Najaf (search).
Chanting, "Muqtada, the trash, is a leader of looters," the demonstrators walked past buildings hit by three weeks of fighting and insisted that al-Sadr's office be shut down. Iraqi soldiers kept the protesters from marching to al-Sadr's office.
Sheik Ali Smeisim, an aide to al-Sadr, said the demonstration was an attempt to create tension.
"We were expecting such things," he said. "Whenever there is a chance for peaceful solutions, some people hold protests to escalate the situation."
In its heyday, the court issued accreditation to foreign journalists. Women swathed in black squatted in a narrow alley outside the two-story, dust-covered tan building to ask about detained relatives.
Plaintiffs could file complaints with the court, whose turbaned judges ruled on family issues and personal disputes. People accused of theft, drinking alcohol or selling CDs deemed immoral were dragged there by al-Sadr's militiamen.
Militants also often snatched police, seen as collaborators with the Americans, and sometimes civilians who dared criticize al-Sadr or disobey his loyalists, residents said.
Najaf's more senior Shiite leaders refrained from interfering with al-Sadr. Some feared creating divisions in the Shiite community while others failed to act out of respect for al-Sadr's father, a prominent Shiite cleric murdered by suspected Saddam agents in 1999.
In Iran, a senior cleric, Sheik Hassan Hosseini, said Sunday that al-Sadr's image had been blackened in part by the religious court.
"The excesses that Muqtada al-Sadr and his group carried out in Najaf, and the catastrophe of the religious court, provoked the anger of Muslims and Shiite leaders," said Hosseini, a lecturer at Iran's Qom Seminary.
Al-Sadr's aides maintain they set up the court to apply God's words.
"We came to serve the people and not hurt them," said Hashim Abu Regheef, a court official. "People used to come to the religious court because here their needs were met," unlike state courts, he added.
Many of those held by the court disagree.
"These are lies, lies, lies," said Muslim al-Senobli. "By God, they are monsters."
Al-Senobli said he was taken to the court on unfounded accusations of helping police. "They destroyed me," he said, punching the air with his fists to mimic his jailers, adding he was released only after his tribe threatened to cause al-Sadr's followers problems.
Militiamen deny abusing prisoners, though some acknowledge flogging was one of the sentences meted out by the court. They also say the court never sentenced offenders to death, but al-Senobli and others say they know people who died from torture.
Hadi said he was taken by militiamen who mistook him for his brother, who catered food for Iraqi government forces undergoing training. His brother was detained later.
Hadi said he was taken to the basement and beaten by five men with electrical cables and iron rods. "You are an agent of the Americans," he said they yelled. "You give the Americans alcohol."
He said he fell to the ground, blood gushing from his head as the beating continued. "Kill me and save me from this," he told the men.
Eventually, Hadi said, he was carried to a tiny room and locked inside. He lay on the floor in pain for six days. He said he heard cries of pain from other prisoners.
On the seventh day, Hadi said, he was led to a room where a turbaned cleric sat cross-legged on the floor. The judge told Hadi, whose face was bruised and robe stained with blood, that no beatings took place in the court and that he should be grateful he was alive. He was then driven to his house and warned to keep quiet.
Many like Hadi don't know the fate of loves ones.
A man interrupted a recent news conference by Najaf's governor and U.S. officials talking about rebuilding the violence-ravaged city.
"What about the fate of those missing, such as my son?" demanded the man, Fadhil Hijab, his hands shaking. He said militiamen snatched his son, a police officer, from home four months ago and took him to the religious court.
"If he's alive, I want him," he told the officials. "If he's dead, I still want him."