By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
A widower and the father of two young boys, Baha al-Maliki worked as a hotel receptionist in the Iraqi city of Basra until September 14 of last year. That day, British soldiers arrested him and seven other hotel workers, saying they had found a stash of weapons hidden in the hotel. His family learned nothing of his whereabouts until three days later, when British soldiers came to their door to tell them he was dead. When al-Maliki’s father retrieved his body from the hospital, according to Amnesty International’s Khaled Chibane, “it was severely bruised and covered in blood.” The cause of death listed on his death certificate, says Chibane, was asphyxiation, apparently from being hooded during his interrogation. “It was obvious that he had died,” Chibane says, “as a result of torture.”
Al-Maliki is not the only Iraqi to have died under disturbing circumstances while detained by coalition forces. Though they have received minimal attention in the U.S. press, allegations of mistreatment of detainees have been surfacing persistently for at least the last six months. The allegations range from generalized neglect — unsanitary conditions and exposure to the elements — to beatings, electric shock and other forms of torture.
It was not until early this month, though, that the U.S. military’s Central Command released a brief and tersely worded statement announcing, “An investigation has been initiated into reported incidents of detainee abuse at a Coalition Forces detention facility.”
The announcement, so vague as to be enigmatic, came after several days of Defense Department denials in response to repeated inquiries by the L.A. Weekly about allegations of the torture and mistreatment of Iraqi detainees. Just two days earlier, a Defense spokesperson said, in regard to the over 13,000 Iraqis currently in coalition custody, “No rights have been violated to my knowledge.”
A military spokesperson would say only that Lieutenant General Ricardo Sanchez ordered the investigation following allegations of abuse at Abu Ghraib, a Baghdad prison, and that investigators would look at all the coalition’s detention facilities.
On any given day in Baghdad, dozens of Iraqis wait outside prison gates, hoping for news of detained relatives. Interviews with representatives of human-rights groups active in Iraq paint a distressing picture of the military’s treatment of the Iraqis held behind those gates. While they have almost universally been denied entry to detention facilities, several groups have been able to gather information by interviewing detainees after their release.
Many of the detained are arrested in violent late-night home raids and never formally charged with any crime (nearly half of all those detained are noncriminal “security detainees”). Family members report being unable to find relatives, who, after arrest, may be taken to one (and sometimes several) of 13 prisons administered by the coalition — some built hastily in the months since the invasion; others, such as Abu Ghraib, with a legacy of infamy dating back to the rule of Saddam Hussein.
Former detainees allege that they could not contact lawyers or relatives and were not told why they were being detained or for how long. They complain of crowding and unsanitary conditions, insufficient food and water, inadequate shelter from extremes of temperature, and a lack of access to medical care. Some report being tortured through so-called “stress and duress” methods during interrogations: being restrained in painful positions for extended periods, being hooded or deprived of sleep for days through bright light and loud music. Others allege that they were beaten and even electrocuted, and rights groups report several cases in which the bodies of prisoners who died while in custody showed signs of torture.
A coalition official denied the bulk of these allegations, asserting, “Detainees are afforded humanitarian treatment in accordance with international law.” Detention conditions, he said, “are improving on a daily basis.”
He specifically denied that the families of arrested Iraqis are unable to locate detained relatives: “Every detainee we have, our people make contact with their family to let them know they are detained. That is a matter of course.
“We demand the utmost from the people who look after the detainees, and if they do not abide by the rules they are supposed to abide by, they will be charged,” he said, pointing to the early-January discharge of three American soldiers for beating prisoners held at Camp Bucca, near the southern Iraqi city of Um Qasr. In December, Lieutenant Colonel Allen B. West, whose court martial briefly made him a cause célèbre in right-wing Internet circles, was fined and allowed to retire rather than face charges for beating and threatening to kill a detainee.
The official later added, “There’s always allegations. You’ve got some pretty desperate people in there. We’re not talking about 4-year-olds, or angels with halos. They’re obviously going to stretch the truth.”
Accounts of abuse first surfaced last July, when Amnesty International released a “Memorandum on Concerns Relating to Law and Order” drawing on interviews with former detainees who reported “suffering extreme heat while housed in tents; insufficient water; inadequate washing facilities; open trenches for toilets; no change of clothes, even after two months’ detention; no hygiene packs and no books, newspapers, radios or writing materials. This is in addition to their denial of access to family and lawyers.” Amnesty investigators were allowed inside a detention camp at Mosul, where they found detainees sleeping outdoors on the ground with only a single blanket each.