BAGHDAD – Iraqi officials outraged by the abuse of prisoners at the U.S.-run Abu Ghraib prison are trying to contain a scandal of their own as allegations continue to surface of mistreatment inside Iraqi jails.
Accounts of Iraqis being beaten with clubs, blindfolded and coerced into signing false confessions are attracting increased attention partly because the United States is getting out of the prison business in Iraq. The U.S. has transferred 841 detainees into Iraq's crowded prison system and more are on the way.
Allegations of mistreatment have persisted since 2005, when U.S. troops raided an Interior Ministry lockup in a predominantly Shiite area of southeastern Baghdad and found scores of emaciated prisoners. The matter returned to the spotlight after the June 12 assassination of Sunni lawmaker Harith al-Obeidi, an outspoken advocate of prisoner rights.
The issue is a test of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's commitment to the rule of law and to reconcile with the Sunni minority, who account for most of the prisoners held in security cases. Sunnis claim they are being unfairly targeted by security forces run by al-Maliki's Shiite-dominated government.
"The cases are as bad as what took place at Abu Ghraib, but it is painful when these things take place in Iraqi prisons," said Sunni lawmaker Salim Abdullah. "We met some of those who were released and saw the scars on their skins. They use different kinds of torture like tying the shoulders and hanging the body, which normally leads to dislocation of the shoulders."
The allegations pale in comparison with the horrific accounts of Saddam Hussein's prisons, where inmates were systematically beaten, jammed into tiny windowless cells and executed on the flimsiest of evidence and where men were forced to watch their wives and daughters raped.
Still, the current Iraqi leadership came to power with the promise to hold itself to a higher standard and respect human rights.
Iraqi officials acknowledge some abuse and insist improvements are being made. The issue, however, poses a thorny question for Americans: How can the United States transfer detainees into a system where abuse has occurred?
The U.S. military says it sends Iraqi prisoners only to detention facilities approved by Iraq's Ministry of Justice.
However, Iraqi lawmakers, human rights advocates and the Human Rights Ministry claim most of the abuse is not taking place in prisons run by the Justice Ministry, but in those operated by the Interior and Defense Ministries. Prisoners there are generally accused of links to Sunni and Shiite insurgent groups.
Abu Ali al-Rikabi, a father of five who owns a vegetable shop in Diwaniyah, said scars on his legs and back are evidence of his mistreatment at the hands of the Iraqi police who accused him of being involved with a former Shiite militia.
"At dawn one day in November 2007, I was sleeping in my room with my wife when the Iraqi police broke in, handcuffed me and took me blindfolded to their headquarters," al-Rikabi told The Associated Press. "As soon as they reached the place, they began beating me severely with thick clubs and batons, hitting every part of my body, especially my legs and back. They kept on doing that for three days."
He said he was ultimately transferred to another prison in Diwaniyah, 80 miles south of Baghdad, and was released the following October. "No one told me why I was arrested or why I was released," he said.
An eight-member panel that al-Maliki set up after al-Obeidi's assassination to look into abuse is expected to complete its investigation in a month of two.
A military spokesman, Maj. Gen. Qassim al-Moussawi, said the panel has visited three detention centers in Baghdad and will inspect others. He said most of the abuse uncovered so far took place in Rusafa prison in eastern Baghdad.
At a human rights symposium this month, al-Maliki said allegations would be investigated. The prime minister said detainees should have rights but that no one should ignore the victims of crime — "orphans and the widows who lost their husbands because of terrorism."
"If every imprisoned person is innocent ... then who has destroyed the country? Who killed people?" he asked.
Al-Maliki's prison investigation follows a limited Interior Ministry probe of 112 complaints of abuse. Of those, the ministry found 23 cases of human rights abuses and 20 cases where inmates were incarcerated without warrants. Interior Minister Jawad al-Bolani said 43 police officers face charges.
A 2008 report by the Human Rights Ministry identified 307 cases of alleged torture and ill-treatment among 26,249 detainees in Iraqi custody at the end of last year. The Iraqi prison population has risen to nearly 30,000 since then and is slated to grow as the U.S. either releases or transfers its remaining 10,429 detainees.
The ministry report stated that most of mistreatment occurs when the detainee is first arrested and taken to facilities run by combat soldiers and not trained prison guards.
"It's an uncomfortable place to be in an (Iraqi) Ministry of Defense facility," said David King, a British adviser to Iraq's Ministry of Defense. "They are very overcrowded and they are very poorly equipped."
King said, however, that the Iraqi government was interested in improving the system and supplying clean bedding and clothing and allowing relatives to visit detainees.
That's little consolation to Iraqis who say they have been abused.
Mohammed al-Obeidi, 28, a Sunni, told the AP that he was selling mobile phones in a rented shop in Amiriyah, 25 miles west of Baghdad, when Iraqi soldiers arrived in Humvees and apprehended him and six others in 2006. He said they were taken to a prison in northern Baghdad where he was blindfolded and handcuffed during interrogation.
"The investigation officer used to tell me to confess that I was a terrorist and was planting roadside bombs," said al-Obeidi, who was never charged and was released for lack of evidence. "They used insults and sectarian slander. They normally tied me to a hook on the ceiling to keep me hanging, and then they were beating me with electric sticks. In one of these investigation sessions, my left shoulder was dislocated."
Politicians loyal to Muqtada al-Sadr, a firebrand anti-American Shiite cleric, also are pressuring the government on the issue. Al-Sadr's followers were rounded up in droves last year as part of a government crackdown against militia fighters.
Sadrist lawmaker Falah Hassan Shanshal said he visited a month ago with detainees facing the death sentence.
"One of them was 22 years old. He was crying and asked to talk to me in private," Shanshal said. "He told me that officers raped him and abused him sexually and then forced him to confess things he did not commit."
"These officers were committing the same violation conducted during the former regime," he said.