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Horrors of Iraq prison torture continue

Amjad al Dayawi says he was beaten with electrical cable, forced to smash his head against a wall and finally raped.

Men sit in a crowded cell in a jail in Baghdad, where human rights groups say inmates are kept in appalling conditions and routinely tortured.
Men sit in a crowded cell in a jail in Baghdad, where human rights groups say inmates are kept in appalling conditions and routinely tortured.

BAGHDAD // Kept in a squalid and overcrowded Baghdad prison cell for two months, Amjad al Dayawi says he was beaten with electrical cable, forced to smash his head against a wall and finally raped. Such brutal interrogation practices were not uncommon under Saddam Hussein, but Mr al Dayawi was not one of the former dictator's victims. Instead, the 24-year- old is among a growing number who say they have been tortured by the security services in the new, democratic Iraq.

Mr al Dayawi was arrested more than a year ago on suspicion of being a militia fighter in Baghdad's Kadhamiya neighbourhood. Most of his two months in detention, he said, was spent in a room with 70 other prisoners. "The cell wasn't big enough for that many people," he recalled. "It was impossible to sleep, we weren't fed properly, sometimes there would be one meal a day. The toilet was overflowing and the prisoners were getting diseases. It was a difficult situation."

According to Mr al Dayawi, the prison guards routinely beat the inmates with cables, hitting them across the back and feet. Then, after the first week, his interrogation started. Blindfolded, he was taken from the cell and told to admit that he was a member of a militia group and had made attacks against Iraqi government forces. "I explained to them that I was working in a shop and had no interest in militias," he said. "They were not happy with that, and told me again to admit I was in a militia. I refused. Each time I denied being a militia fighter, they got more angry. Then I was told that, unless I confessed, I would never get out of the prison alive."

One of the interrogation techniques Mr al Dayawi described involved his being blindfolded and then told to run as quickly as he could across the room. Not knowing its size, he would smash into the wall. He said he was made to do this on more than on occasion and that eventually it fractured his skull. Still refusing to confess, he said prison guards threatened to rape him and then carried out the threat.

"I felt so angry and ashamed and all I could think about was taking revenge on the people who took my dignity. I had done nothing to deserve that." It has not been possible to independently verify the claims made by Mr al Dayawi. He agreed to be interviewed after weeks of discussion and was visibly traumatised as he gave the account. He refused to be photographed and would not allow his description to be recorded on audio, saying he feared retribution from government forces.

"They turned my life into hell," he said. The case against Mr al Dayawi never went to court, and no formal charges were brought. He said he was released, suddenly, without explanation. Amnesty International published a report on the Iraqi justice system last week, saying court trials that have convicted and sentenced 1,000 prisoners to death failed to meet international standards. The report also said defendants commonly complain that confessions were extracted from them under torture.

In June, the Iraqi interior ministry announced that more than 40 police officers had been charged with abusing prisoners after Iraqi members of parliament held a debate on prison conditions. Investigators found inmates had been jailed without warrants and that other basic rights had been violated. The same month, Harith al Obeidi, the MP heading the National Accord Front bloc, and a major campaigner against prisoner abuse, was murdered after vocally raising human rights cases.

Shatha al Abbosi, also of the National Accord Front and a member of the Iraqi parliament's human rights commission, said there had been "numerous" cases of abuse of prisoners and that many had no idea why they had been taken to jail. "I've visited the prison in Kadhamiya and there were complaints of hideous torture by Iraqi investigators and officers," she said. "Many complained of brutal rapes committed against them, and a lot of former Iraqi prisoners are still asking for help."

She confirmed that conditions in prisons were unacceptably grim and that it was far from uncommon for detainees to be held in a cell for three months without any progress being made on their case. "I have seen them at close quarters and they are very bad", she said. "Most prisoners are suffering from some infectious disease, and epidemics may spread because of the neglect and large number of prisoners."

Ms al Abbosi said she had lodged a complaint against the interior ministry, which oversees the prison system and main security force branches, in part because it was making "random arrests" of Iraqi citizens. "We will try to bring all interrogators and Iraqi officers who assaulted prisoners to trial," she said. "There must be investigations made of Iraqi officials at all prisons where there are allegations of torture."

The Iraqi government's human rights ministry has also documented cases of abuse, poor sanitary conditions and long detentions without trial. Kamen al Sabawi, a human rights ministry official, said "hundreds" of abuses had been recorded and that investigations had shown similar numbers were being held in prisons with no evidence against them. Detailed reports on these cases had been sent to the ministry of interior, ministry of defence, the Iraqi cabinet and parliament, he said. In an effort to improve prison conditions - so bad that prisoners in Baghdad's jails have been holding hunger strikes, according to Mr al Sabawi - the government has set up joint committees, including the ministry of human rights, to monitor police stations and detention areas. A plan is also in place to expand Kadhamiya prison. While admitting abuse was happening, Mr al Sabawi said torture was not authorised as a matter of government policy. "The nature of these violations are individual, not because the ministry of interior or ministry of defence are giving orders."

Such assurances offered no comfort to those who have suffered abuse themselves or to their families. Sayed Maher al Shargawi, a 28- year-old living in Siwarah, 40km south of Baghdad, is still hoping his brother will not be paralysed for life after being detained in an Iraqi prison. "He went in to visit a friend who was being held on a murder charge and was himself detained and badly beaten," Mr al Shargawi said. "The doctors have said he may be paralysed along one side of his body forever because of how hard his head was hit."

According to Mr al Shargawi, Iraqi police officers involved in the case threatened him and his family in an effort to stop them from reporting the attack. "I will not be silenced," he said. "I will speak and I will submit a complaint against the men who destroyed my brother's life. They should pay the price for that." nlatif@thenational.ae