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The Conflict in Iraq

Long Jailings Anger Iraqis

A large proportion of inmates at Abu Ghraib and another facility are held months without charges. Critics urge a transfer to Iraqi custody.

May 29, 2005|Doug Smith and Raheem Salman | Times Staff Writers

ABU GHRAIB, Iraq — A year after the Abu Ghraib abuse scandal erupted, Iraqi anger has flared anew over the growing numbers of detainees held without charge at the notorious detention center and another prison in the south.

In the battle against the insurgency, U.S. military sweeps net many guerrillas, but also thousands of people whose offenses are nonexistent, minor or impossible to prove. They are often held for months, only to be released without explanation.

The population of long-term detainees at Abu Ghraib and the larger Camp Bucca, near Basra, has nearly doubled since August and now tops 10,000. With a large operation by Iraqi security forces underway in Baghdad, that number could rise.

The military has established a multitiered system to ensure that innocent people caught up in chaotic events are not held for extensive periods. Records provided by the military, however, show that the evidence against suspects justifies prolonged detention in only about one in four cases. Nonetheless, more than half are held three months or more before being freed.

The men are detained as security risks under the U.N. Security Council resolution that gives coalition forces the authority to maintain order in Iraq. After secret reviews of their cases, some are released. But the futures of those who remain in custody is unclear. There is no limit to how long they can be held.

U.S. military officials did not respond to questions from The Times about why so many detainees have been held so long before being freed.

However, Army Lt. Col. Guy Rudisill, a spokesman for detention operations, said the board that reviews the evidence against long-term detainees had been expanded to speed up the process.

Almost without fail, those who know someone in detention contend that he is a loyal citizen who did nothing wrong. The high rate of release shows that, at the least, it is difficult to prove them wrong.

Mazin Farouq, a 35-year-old photo lab technician, was held for six months. Farouq was shot by U.S. soldiers as he and two friends drove home to Baghdad one November night last year after a vacation in Syria. He said they did not see a checkpoint but fled in panic when they heard shots hitting their car. Several soldiers drove up and searched them. Finding nothing, the soldiers immediately freed the two friends and took Farouq to nearby Abu Ghraib for treatment at its field hospital.

He said he received excellent medical care and expected to be released. Instead, he was placed in detention. Two months later, he was transferred to Bucca. After making numerous calls and visits to the ministries of interior and human rights, Farouq's parents were finally told that his case would be reviewed in early May. Farouq was released May 9.

In an interview, he said he believed his incarceration was a cover-up.

"They did not suspect me, but I think they made a mistake, and all these procedures are to protect the soldier who committed this mistake," he said.

Long internments such as Farouq's have raised the ire of civil rights groups, Iraqi media outlets and some political leaders, who accuse the U.S. of being indiscriminant in its search for insurgents. Some have called for the immediate transfer of custody to Iraqi authorities.

"This is the Iraqi perception -- let the Iraqi people judge them," said Ahmed M. Salih, a professor of linguistics at Tikrit University and spokesman for the governor of Salahuddin province, echoing a common theme. "The majority of Americans depend on bad information. They come immediately to arrest you without asking for more information."

Abbas Sweedi, head of the Iraqi Civil Society Commission, said his group was formed by 15 organizations "to stop the indiscriminate detention of the people."

He has urged street protests against the U.S. and Iraqi security forces, such as the elite Wolf Brigade, which has been accused of using torture to extract confessions from innocent people.

"We will stand against [the Wolf Brigade] or the American troops if there is any Iraqi who is detained without reason," he said.

Emotions remain raw over the Abu Ghraib scandal, in which guards beat detainees and photographed them in humiliating positions. Several lower-level soldiers have pleaded guilty or been convicted in the case.

The Army, completing what it called an exhaustive review of top commanders in Iraq and any roles they may have played in the abuse, recently demoted Brig. Gen. Janis Karpinski, the Army Reserve commander once in charge of the prison, to colonel.

In response to the prisoner abuse scandal, the military has revamped the structure of detainee operations and beefed up training and supervision. To ensure that the detainees are treated well, the Iraqi Human Rights Ministry and the International Committee of the Red Cross make regular visits.

Bakhtiar Amin, the interim minister of human rights before a new government was formed last month, acknowledged that conditions at Abu Ghraib had markedly improved.

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