KUT, IRAQ // After a month of being held in detention by US forces, Sayyed Serag was told he had been cleared of suspected involvement in a Shiite insurgent group and was to be released.
The 26-year-old was handed to the Iraqi security services for some formalities to be dealt with before being set free. But two weeks later he was still in Kut prison, with little prospect of being let out. "One of the officers came to me and said if I wanted to leave, I could not rely on a judge or the Americans. I would have to pay," he said. "The officer said if I gave them US$10,000 [Dh36,700] I could go. I remember he told me: 'This is a small price for you to pay for freedom'."
He was given a phone and called his brother, who agreed to sell his lorry to raise most of the money. Within two days the cash had been collected and given to an officer in Kut central police station, on the same fortified compound as the prison. Mr Serag was immediately released. His claims cannot be independently confirmed and he asked that his full name not be used for fear of retribution. But other former prisoners interviewed by The National in Wasit province, south-east of Baghdad, have recounted similar stories. And US officials involved in the prison system in Kut, the provincial capital, have said they are aware of such corruption.
Kut central jail is an old detention centre designed to hold 150 people on a temporary, pre-trial basis. Yet it routinely has 250 inmates - sometimes as many as 280 - including women. Convicted murderers on death row are held in the same overcrowded cells as suspected petty thieves. Staff Sgt Thomas Heuer, a US military police officer, spends many days at the prison, monitoring and advising Iraqi security forces. "It's better than it was," he said. "They've made some improvements, but it's small and the conditions are not good. If you're given a 10-year sentence, you need better conditions that this."
Staff Sgt Heuer, 24, on his third tour of Iraq as an MP, said allegations of bribery and extortion by prison officers were common. "There is corruption, but it is reducing, and they're starting to adhere to some of the Geneva Conventions," he said. "I've heard about people having to pay to get released, but it doesn't happen here. I've heard it goes on at the Swat [special police] compound in Kut. I've heard of it happening there. It's always in the back of peoples' minds here that that is what goes on."
When the Swat unit gets a release order from a judge, it will free a prisoner, then immediately re-arrest him. "They're pretty decent, but they'll capture a bad guy and won't have enough evidence against him," Staff Sgt Hueur said. The Swat team is supposed to deal with suspected insurgents and the most serious criminals. Its detention facility is separate from Kut central prison, where ordinary criminals are held.
Lt Col Qais Abdul Raheem al Abedi heads day-to-day operations at the prison, a post he has held for little more than a month. In an interview at the jail, he admitted there was corruption in the system, but said his main concern was to raise living conditions. "On corruption I will only say that we are getting better," he said. "We are trying to modernise. I went to Germany and saw their prisons and they're unbelievable, not like a prison at all. There's a jail in Nasariyah [a city in southern Iraq] and they have two people to a cell.
"We need a bigger prison and we're hoping to have a new facility built here. The building is old and in a bad state. We need to do something about that." US soldiers vouched for Lt Col Abedi and said his reform attempts had already produced results. "The prison commander here is a good man and he's been making changes," Staff Sgt Heuer said. "There is air conditioning now, clean drinking water and three proper meals a day."
Kut is apparently far from being the worst jail in Wasit. Badra, a town near the Iran border, has a detention centre largely filled with people caught crossing into Iraq without visas. Most are poor Iranian pilgrims who want to visit the holy sites in Najaf and Kerbala, but who cannot afford to pay the $40 visa fee. "They arrest families and treat them exactly the same as they treat drug smugglers," one senior US military officer said. "They have the families facing the same penalty as smugglers - six years. Badra jail. It's not a good place. Not good at all."
The main prison in Diwaniyah, a province neighbouring Wasit, also has a poor reputation. Staff Sgt Heuer said it was far worse than Kut. "The prison in Diwaniyah is bad compared to this. They had an outbreak of scabies recently. Kut has the best jail I've seen in Iraq." At the end of October, the cells in Kut's central prison each contained on average 30 men. There were nine women held separately in a single cell. One of them, Nada Mehsin Dafir al Omayrie, has been held for five months after her husband, a suspected Shiite militiaman, was killed by the security services.
"My husband was shot; the police said he was in the Mahdi Army and they arrested me because of that," Mrs Omayrie, 20, said. Her son, Jafa'a, is not yet one, and was a few months old when his father died. Through a lawyer, Mrs Omayrie has requested a judge review her case. She has also asked that her son be brought to her in prison so she can breast feed. Both requests have thus far been denied. One of the US officials working with the prison confirmed her story and said there was no reason for Mrs Omayrie to be held. "The system is a mess," he said, on condition of anonymity because he was not authorised to talk to the press. "She's lucky to have a lawyer - many don't even get that. The judges are busy with various things and don't spend much time looking at cases. The system works slowly and unfairly. Fairness isn't high on the list of priorities."
Another woman being held in the same cell claimed that her house had been confiscated for political reasons, and that she had been detained after protesting against the seizure. An Iraq-based official of the US State Department, also speaking on condition of anonymity, said the allegations of corruption were not surprising. "This is a third world country and these things happen in third world countries," he said. "In Mexico, people routinely have to pay to be let out of prison and that's the way it works here. We don't like it, but it happens."
Mr Serag said he wanted US forces, which are relatively new to Wasit province, to keep a closer watch on the Iraqi security apparatus. "They are arresting people who are innocent and then stealing our money," he said. "Why do the Americans hand us over to them if they know this is happening?" Iraqis have, in principle, been in charge of civilian affairs in Wasit province since 2004. They are due to take control over security services at the end of this month, although the US military will remain in significant numbers and is playing a key role in training and patrolling the border with Iran.
Iraq's security services remain highly politicised. The police in Wasit are largely under the control of the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council, an Iranian-backed Shiite religious party that rose to power after the US-led invasion. The SIIC dominates the ministry of the interior in Baghdad and holds power in key southern provinces, despite having limited on-street support. Its disproportionate influence is under threat from the Sadrists, the mass religious and political movement headed by Muqtada al Sadr. Highly popular among the urban poor, it poses a potential threat to SIIC's control. For that reason, Sadrists say they are unfairly targeted by police, both to raise money and to prevent any political activism.
Another former inmate of Iraq's jails, who asked to be named only as Mohammed, said he was still afraid of being re-arrested. Mohammed, 32, was accused of being a militia member and detained by the US military in Hilla province - neighbouring Wasit - before being handed over to the Iraqi security services. According to his account, his family paid a $15,000 ransom to police and had to sell a house to raise the money.
"We don't have anything left and we've been reduced to sleeping on the floor of my uncle's house," he said. "All of this because of corruption in the Iraqi police and army." email@example.com firstname.lastname@example.org