BAGHDAD – Elite Iraqi troops controlled by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's office are holding prisoners at a secret jail and torturing inmates at another facility, Human Rights Watch said Tuesday.
The Shiite-dominated security forces have faced similar allegations in the past, but the report details a pattern of abuse as recently as December despite promises of reform.
The findings raise fresh concern about the government's treatment of detainees just six months after the U.S. military handed over full responsibility for the prison system to the Iraqis as part of its preparations to withdraw from the country by the end of this year.
Citing interviews and classified government documents, the New York-based rights group said the secret jails were under the control of the Iraqi army's 56th Brigade, also known as the Baghdad Brigade, and the Counterterrorism Service — both under the authority of the prime minister's office.
"Revelations of secret jails in the heart of Baghdad completely undermine the Iraqi government's promises to respect the rule of law," the group's deputy Middle East director Joe Stork said. "The government needs to close these places or move them under control of the justice system, improve conditions for detainees, and make sure that anyone responsible for torture is punished."
The group also called on the Iraqis to open the facilities for inspections and visits. It said it had obtained 18 documents, including a Dec. 6 letter from the prosecutor's office of the high court asking the prime minister's office to instruct officials at one of the sites to stop preventing visits from prison inspectors and relatives.
Iraqi government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh could not immediately be reached for comment. But senior Justice Ministry official Busho Ibrahim denied the report.
"These prisons are under the control of the Justice Ministry," he told The Associated Press in a telephone interview. "It is impossible that there is torture in our prisons."
Human Rights Watch quoted prisoners at a detention center called Camp Honor who described the use of torture during interrogations and cells "so crowded that we had to take turns standing and lying down."
One detainee told the group on Dec. 27 that his hands were tied over his head and his feet put in water.
"Then they shocked me in my head and my neck and my chest. The interrogators beat me repeatedly and told me that they would go to my house and rape my sister if I did not sign a confession, so I did. I did not even know what I was confessing to," he was quoted as saying. Others said they were hung upside down for hours at a time and plastic bags were tied over their heads until they passed out.
The Los Angeles Times reported on Jan. 23 that prisoners had been held in miserable conditions for months at a time without access to lawyers or families at Camp Honor, which is in the heavily protected Green Zone.
Human Rights Watch said a group of detainees was transferred in late November from Camp Honor to a secret site within the military base called Camp Justice, the location of the gallows at which ex-dictator Saddam Hussein was hanged in December 2006 in northwestern Baghdad.
"The hurried transfers took place just days before an international inspection team was to examine conditions at the detainees' previous location," the group said. It said the site was hidden within a legitimate Justice Ministry detention facility that holds more than 1,000 other prisoners.
International rights groups are worried about the Iraqis' ability to handle the detainees, with inmates repeatedly complaining about torture and beatings as well as overcrowding and poor condition behind bars.
The U.S. military faced similar claims but implemented widespread reforms in the wake of photographs showing abuse of inmates by American soldiers at Abu Ghraib in 2004. The U.S. now holds only around 200 detainees — at the behest of the Iraqi government — at the prison formerly known as Camp Cropper.
Associated Press writer Mazin Yahya contributed to this report.