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Iraqis languish in crowded jails

U.S. hopes a new legal aid clinic can clear some of the backlog.

September 22, 2008|Tina Susman | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — Just five minutes.

That's what Iraqi soldiers said they needed when they took Ahmed-Hussein Juma in for questioning in February 2007.

"And now here we are, 1 1/2 years later," Juma said with a hopeless laugh last month as he stood in a holding cage, metal handcuffs on his wrists and a prison number stitched crookedly on his green jumpsuit.

Dozens of other men sat on benches at Baghdad's Rusafa detention center, all waiting to visit a new U.S.-funded legal aid clinic that American officials hope will help clear the backlog of detainees lost in Iraq's severely overloaded prison system.

In its bid to get the men fair trials or release, the clinic faces immense obstacles, not the least of which is a case file system that consists of paperwork tied together with bits of string. But even more worrying are the sectarian overtones: Most of the detainees are Sunni Arabs accused of terrorism-related offenses, and many claim to be targets of the Shiite Muslim-dominated security forces who they say used trumped-up charges to achieve sectarian "cleansing."

As the Bush administration touts security gains, the issue of the detainees raises questions about the Iraqi government's commitment to human rights, and undermines Sunni trust in the Shiite-led government -- a disenchantment that could even send some Iraqis into the arms of the waning insurgency.

"Unsurprisingly, someone who's been deprived of their liberties for months and years without even a hint of due process . . . of course they're going to be angry," said Joseph Logan of Human Rights Watch, who recently spent time in the country researching the Iraqi justice system. "As the Americans found in 2003, the enemies you create are going to be there down the road. I think there is definitely political impact down the road from this."

A concern for the Iraqi lawyers working at the clinic is whether the Shiite-led government will foot the bill when U.S. funding runs dry.

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Odd concept for Iraqis

Kareem Swadi Lami, a former police officer and longtime attorney who heads the clinic and oversees its 25 Iraqi lawyers, acknowledges that most Iraqis would find it "very odd" that anyone was offering free legal assistance to Sunnis accused of terrorism. "If the Americans stop providing the money, I don't think the Iraqi government will sponsor us," he said.

Lami estimates that about half of the approximately 6,500 men in the Rusafa complex have been held at least three years. They are among about 26,000 detainees in Iraqi-run prisons; in addition, nearly 20,000 prisoners are held in U.S.-run facilities in Iraq.

As a former policeman, he acknowledges he is skeptical of many of the claims of innocence. But as an attorney, Lami says he finds it unconscionable that anyone should end up like Juma or the other detainees who say they have been held months or years without being brought before a judge or formally charged. Iraqi law mandates that detainees be brought before a judge within 24 hours of their arrest.

"I consider them neglected," said Lami, who has headed the clinic since it opened May 12 with a $900,000 grant to the Iraqi Bar Assn. The U.S. military's Law and Order Task Force provides advisors and logistical support. "Even if someone is a criminal, if I don't have any evidence against him I can't keep him."

Yet Lami and U.S. officials acknowledge that this is exactly what is happening, despite an amnesty law passed in February by the Iraqi parliament. The law was supposed to unclog the system by freeing detainees who had been languishing on minor charges, but factors such as mistrust, bureaucratic laziness and a lack of computers in Iraq's justice system are slowing things down.

Since the law passed, 5,062 cases have been submitted for consideration and 1,420 Rusafa inmates have been freed, but new detainees arrive each day.

William V. Gallo, director of the Law and Order Task Force, said the system had "improved tremendously" in recent months. Security improvements nationwide have made it easier for judges and lawyers to do their jobs, and more judges have been hired, he said.

But speaking of the amnesty law, Gallo said, "It hasn't worked as well as we thought it would."

Part of the problem is the mistrust of Justice Ministry officials, who suspect that some release orders are forged and don't honor them until they can be convinced of their authenticity. In most cases, when a judge signs a release order, there is a "mad scramble" by ministry officials to ascertain that the detainee isn't wanted elsewhere on other charges, such as murder, not covered by the amnesty, Gallo said. Phone calls must be made or messages sent via courier to dozens of police precincts.

In a country where detainee files are nothing more than pages held together with straight pins and string, there is no computer database to check for an inmate's records. It can take months to get responses, during which time the detainee ordered freed sits in prison.

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