BAGHDAD – Iraq's infamous Abu Ghraib prison reopened, with a new name and official promises Saturday of humane treatment in a lockup notorious as a center for abuse — both under Saddam Hussein and the U.S. military.
Judicial authorities showed off the renovated compound during a tour for journalists that included a sewing room, exercise equipment, computers, a library, outdoor recreational areas, greenhouses and a barber shop.
"We turned it to something like a resort not prison. The first step was to change the name," Mohammed al-Zeidi, the assistant director of the Iraqi Rehabilitation Department, said as he led journalists through the halls decorated with plastic flowers and streamers and still smelling of paint.
Abdul-Mutalb Jassim, general-director of the Iraqi Rehabilitation Department, said about 400 convicts have been transferred to the prison. A total of some 3,000 inmates are expected shortly with an eventual total capacity of 12,000 to 15,000, according to the Justice Ministry.
Officials defend their decision to reopen the prison — now called the Baghdad Central Prison — saying they need the space as the U.S. military hands over about 15,000 detainees in its custody to the Iraqis under a new security agreement that took effect on Jan. 1.
The compound of gray, stonewalled buildings and watchtowers west of Baghdad became the center of a global scandal in 2004 after photos were released showing U.S. soldiers sexually humiliating inmates.
Outrage over the pictures fueled support for the insurgency as well as anti-American sentiment among Iraqis.
The 280-acre prison, which was already notorious as a torture center under Saddam Hussein, closed in 2006.
"All kinds of human rights violations took place in this prison. So, we, and the government felt that it was our duty to rehabilitate the prison ... and we did this in accordance to the international standards," al-Zeidi said.
American authorities implemented a series of policy changes following the Abu Ghraib scandal, including separating extremists from prisoners considered more moderate and implementing educational programs, although they still faced complaints about prolonged detentions without charges.
More recently, human rights groups have raised concern about the Iraqis' ability to care for inmates, with the United Nations warning in a recent report about overcrowding and "grave human rights violations" of detainees already in Iraqi custody.
Iraqi officials said that would not be the case at Abu Ghraib.
"This prison has had a bad reputation," Jassim said. "Now it is a place where law and justice are respected and prisoners are rehabilitated."
Last year, the government said it would turn a section of the prison into a museum documenting Saddam's crimes but not the abuses committed by U.S. guards.