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Corruption plays key role in Iraqi justice

As the American era in Iraq draws to a close, recent arrests highlight a long-standing problem: Iraqis going to jail for political reasons. The country's judiciary has ordered an investigation.

June 29, 2009|Ned Parker

BAGHDAD — Sheik Maher Sirhan says his interrogators tortured him with electric rods and demanded $50,000 in cash to free him from the Iraqi jail where he is being held on terrorism charges.

But the Sunni Arab paramilitary leader, who has worked closely with U.S. forces, says he is hanging tough.

"I said that I'm not giving you the money," Sirhan said in a phone conversation from his latest jail cell. "There is a government and coalition forces. Justice will release me, not you."

The accounts of Sirhan and two other prominent Sunni paramilitary leaders, one recently released and the other on the run, provide a window into the role that political disputes and corruption appear to be playing in at least some arrests as the American era in Iraq draws to a close, with this week's departure of most U.S. troops from the nation's cities.

An Iraqi government official who works on security issues said the problem of Iraqi forces jailing people for ulterior motives is a long-standing one.

"There are many cases of ransoms and deals," the official said, adding that some Sunni paramilitary leaders who have fought alongside American forces to eliminate such insurgent groups as Al Qaeda in Iraq have been jailed by Shiite Muslim-led security forces at least in part for purposes of extortion.

Two months ago, several senior interrogators at the Defense Ministry's Harthiya Detention Center were arrested for shaking down businessmen they had jailed, the official added.

Questions of collusion between corrupt security forces and judges who issue warrants are so great that Iraq's Supreme Judiciary Council ordered an inquiry into the matter this month, the official and a Western advisor to the Iraqi government confirmed.

The government official, who was not authorized to speak publicly, said security forces are also dealing with credible reports of torture and of undisclosed or secret prisons.

Last month, a Defense Ministry delegation found more than 100 detainees held secretly by the Iraqi army in the city of Mosul, the official said, adding that 73 of them had been immediately picked back up by the Iraqi army after being released by the Americans.

Despite such cases, Iraqi lawmakers say the army and police are making strides in ridding their forces of corruption, human rights abuses and allegiance to political parties.

This month, Interior Minister Jawad Bolani announced that 43 police officers were under investigation on suspicion of torturing detainees and Prime Minister Nouri Maliki had ordered an inquiry into prison abuse. But with a country clawing its way out of anarchy and facing myriad political, ethnic and religious divisions, officials believe it will take years to right the system.

Some U.S. officials continue to express serious reservations about arrests that have been carried out, particularly of some Sunni paramilitary leaders they have worked with.

"If [the security forces] have evidence, then why do they hide it from us? If they truly have credible evidence, OK, then we should have someone with every one of these [government and security] organizations and we have a right to look at that evidence," a senior U.S. military officer said.

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Sheik Maher Sirhan

The soldiers came for Sirhan in the Baghdad suburb of Hor Rajab early one morning in March, according to his family. Iraqi forces knocked down the gate to his yellow brick villa. His wife describes watching them beat her husband with sticks, and then take him away.

"It seemed like they wanted to kill him. They didn't have to attack the house. They could have done it quietly," says Shaada Rashid.

The arrest warrant, she said, stemmed from the testimony of three women who said their husbands were killed in the last two years by Sirhan's men. However, the husbands had been fighting for Al Qaeda in Iraq when they were killed, Rashid said.

U.S. military officers have confirmed that the Iraqi government has started enforcing warrants against Sunni paramilitary commanders based on statements from relatives of slain fighters from the insurgent group.

At first, Sirhan was held in what some detainees have described as a secret jail. There, Sirhan said, he underwent 16 days of beatings and torture, including the use of electric rods, to extract confessions. Officers gave him the option of paying $50,000 to have his accusers drop their allegations.

"They forced me to say things I did not do. They forced me to say I killed [people]. . . . I don't [even] know what I said. I was in pain. . . . I requested to see a doctor. They refused and hid me from the Americans," Sirhan said by phone. Sirhan has since been moved to a general population prison, where, his wife worries, he is a sitting target for Al Qaeda in Iraq supporters. Her brother, Hadi Jamal, a retired engineer, said he is sure that Sirhan's release will come only after they have paid a ransom.

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