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.
More disturbing were occasional accounts of torture. Among other testimonies was that of 39-year-old Khreisan Khalis Aballey, whose brother was shot and killed when coalition troops raided their home last April, and who was detained, along with his 80-year-old father, after that raid. “During his interrogation,” the Amnesty memo alleges, “he was made to stand or kneel facing a wall for seven-and-a-half days, hooded, and handcuffed tightly with plastic strips. At the same time a bright light was placed next to his hood and distorted music was playing the whole time. During all this period he was deprived of sleep.”
Another Amnesty informant, a Saudi national named Abdallah Khudhran al-Shamran, alleged that after his arrest in April he “was subjected to beatings and electric shocks. Other torture methods reported included being suspended from his legs and having his penis tied. He also reported sleep deprivation through constant loud music.”
The Amnesty memorandum recounted the case of Radi Nu’ma, who was arrested by the British Royal Military Police in May and died in custody the day of his arrest. British soldiers allegedly gave his family a letter stating, “Radi Nu’ma suffered a heart attack while we were asking him questions about his son. We took him to the military hospital. For further information, go to the hospital.”
British authorities have promised to investigate the case of Radi Nu’ma, as well as the death of Baha al-Maliki in Basra. They have been somewhat more forthcoming about acknowledging the possibility of abuses than the coalition’s U.S. command. Though coalition officials responded in December to other sections of Amnesty’s July memorandum, Nicole Choueiry, an Amnesty spokesperson, said, “Nowhere in the reply is there any mention of the allegations of torture or the use of excessive force.” Since the memo’s release, she added, “We have continuously been receiving allegations of torture.”
If Amnesty International’s allegations have been publicized widely in the European press, the American media have largely been silent on the issue. Former Green Party candidate Medea Benjamin, who visited Iraq in December with the group Occupation Watch, speculates, “It’s beyond the comfort zone of the media to even be talking about U.S. torture of detainees.”
Occupation Watch is one of several groups continuing to interview former detainees (Amnesty left Iraq last August for security reasons) and has also collected allegations of beatings and the use of electric shock in interrogation. In an e-mail, Dahr Jamail, an Occupation Watch associate in Iraq, recounted the case of Sadiq Zoman Abrahim, a 55-year-old man who was detained by U.S. troops during an August home raid in Kirkuk. His family learned, Jamail reports, that he had been transferred to a detention center at the Tikrit airport. They eventually found him at a hospital in Tikrit, where, Jamail says, he had been dropped by American soldiers. “The doctors at the hospital in Tikrit,” Jamail writes, “after performing diagnostic tests, informed the family that Mr. Abrahim had suffered massive head trauma, electrocution, and other bruises on his arms . . . The family was told that he was in an unrecoverable state and would be in a coma for the rest of his life.”
Christian PeaceMaker Teams (CPT), another U.S.-based peace group, has been aiding the families of detainees and collecting testimony from former detainees since last May. After several requests for help from Iraqis with relatives in custody, says Gene Stoltzfus, a CPT spokesman, “We decided to take on a few cases and see if we could work our way through the system, meaning could we get confirmation that they existed, could we locate them, why were they there, just basic questions.” They were able to successfully locate detainees in less than half of the cases they took on, Stoltzfus says, though the situation has improved somewhat since. The group now focuses most of its resources on detention issues.
One CPT report describes the home raids in which many Iraqis are detained. Coalition troops, it says, “storm houses in the middle of the night where families with small children live in the same manner that they storm military facilities. They often break through the front gate with armored vehicles or explosives and break through the doors and/or windows of the house with their weapons aimed at anything that moves. Sometimes they come in shooting.” Iraqis are frequently injured and sometimes killed in these raids, and allegations that soldiers confiscate money and property are common. “The Iraqis say there’s no difference between the Americans and Saddam,” Stoltzfus says. “This is what used to happen, and this is what’s still going on.”
CPT has produced a statistical summary of 72 of the detention cases it has handled. In not one of them was the detainee allowed legal representation, tried or convicted for a crime, and in no case did coalition authorities on their own initiative inform relatives of a detainee’s whereabouts. In 10 cases, the detainees reported abuse ranging from beatings and electrocution to deprivation of food and water.
In one particularly bizarre case, CPT recorded the testimony of a man named Abd
al-Rahman, a former employee of the Ministry of Agriculture. His home was raided three times last June. He was not there the first two times, but alleges that soldiers took money and
jewelry and held his wife and 10-year-old daughter at gunpoint. Al-Rahman was arrested on the third raid. Soldiers accused him of
being a member of the Fedayeen militia, which he denies.
“The soldiers took me to their base in the Al-Shaab district of Baghdad. They kept me alone in a room with my hands zip-tied behind my back for two days, feeding me only one spoonful of Army-rationed food per day and giving me a total of two glasses of water during that time,” al-Rahman alleges. He was repeatedly beaten during that period, he told CPT researchers.
He was then taken to a prison camp at the Baghdad airport: “When I finally got inside the prison, the soldiers took me to see the ‘doctor,’ who was a large, muscular, violent U.S. soldier, at the prison hospital. The ‘doctor’ examined me by kicking me to make me roll over or turn around and boring his fist into my chest to check my consciousness. The ‘doctor’
reported to the other soldiers that I was still alive and conscious.”
According to his testimony, al-Rahman was interrogated for several days, and was taken again to the prison’s clinic. “This time, the ‘doctor’ examined me by listening to loud music and dancing for a while, and then he turned me back over to the guards.” Later, he says, his interrogators “punished me by shocking me with a powerful electric prod for three continuous minutes.”
Al-Rahman reports that he was later transferred to Camp Bucca, hundreds of miles from Baghdad, where conditions were much better. Despairing of his release, al-Rahman says, he attempted suicide while at Camp Bucca, and spent three weeks in the prison infirmary. He was released from custody in Baghdad on September 14, nearly three months after his arrest.