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'It was punishment without trial'
Hundreds of Iraqis civilians are being held in makeshift jails run by US troops - many without being charged or even questioned. And in these prisons are children whose parents have no way of locating them. Jonathan Steele reveals the grim reality of coalition justice in Baghdad
Friday August 15, 2003
It was a warm spring evening in a Baghdad suburb when American troops stopped the car in which 11-year-old Sufian Abd al-Ghani was riding close to his home with his uncle and a neighbour. They were ordered out and told to lie face down on the road. Sufian's father heard the commotion and rushed out to find the soldiers pointing their rifles at his son and the others. Claiming the uncle had fired at them, they started beating the three captives with their rifle butts, according to the father.
A neighbour confirms that a shot had been fired, but it was part of a row between the Ghanis and another family. "In Iraq this is normal. Almost every household in Baghdad owns a weapon. One man was drunk. The Americans must have heard the shot as they were passing. It was not directed at them," says the neighbour, who prefers not to be named.
The American soldiers searched the Ghanis' house, but found nothing. For three hours Sufian was kept on the ground with the two adults. Then the Americans put hoods over their heads, tied their hands with tight plastic bracelets, and drove them away. "Why are you taking my son?" a desperate Abdullah Ghani pleaded. "Don't worry. As he's a child, we'll send him back in a couple of days," a Sergeant Stark assured him.
The three were driven off to Baghdad airport, where US forces have set up a makeshift prison in large tents. Around 500 Iraqis are held in miserable conditions, sleeping on the ground, with inadequate water rations and not enough blankets to go round, according to former detainees.
Sufian spent eight days in a tent with around 20 adults. They were given yellow packets of ready-to-eat meals, the standard US army fare, but no change of clothes. Then the hood went back on and Sufian was taken to the Salhiyeh detention centre for women and juveniles - a holding facility in a police station just outside Saddam Hussein's Republican Palace, which has become the headquarters of the coalition authority.
A woman prisoner spotted Sufian and realised he was much younger than the other inmates. On her release she went to see the Ghanis, who had been searching frantically for their son. It was now June 17, almost three weeks after his arrest on May 28.
They brought the boy food and clean clothes, and four days later obtained an order from Mohammed Latif al-Duleimi, a US-approved investigating judge, for Sufian's immediate release. Sufian's father took it to the US military police who run the detention centre. But they told him that orders by Iraqi judges had no legal authority.
Ghani turned for help to the new US-founded police academy. He met a Captain Crusoe, who took up the case and rang a US army lawyer at the airport. The lawyer ordered the boy's release on June 21 - but still the military police refused to act.
Ghani went back to Crusoe, who made more phone calls, to no avail. Finally Crusoe went to the detention centre with Ghani, and brought Sufian out himself. "Take your son," he said.
After 24 days the boy's ordeal was over, but he regularly has nightmares. However, his case is not the worst in the four months since the Americans occupied Iraq. Several children have been shot dead, some as passengers in cars which fell foul of American checkpoints, some mistaken at night for adults. But if those deaths were the result of accidents, how is it that an 11-year-old could be held for over three weeks without anyone in authority asking questions?
The answer is: easily. Sufian's detention highlights the problems faced by hundreds of Iraqis: arrests followed by incompetent interrogation, or none at all; the lack of an efficient trial-or-release system; shocking prison conditions; constant buck-passing; and sloppy paperwork by the coalition authorities. The result is that in almost every case families take weeks or months to find out where their loved ones are being detained.
Ahmed Suhail, a final-year high-school student, was with his father, a well-known Baghdad vet, when they were stopped at a checkpoint on May 15. His father had a pistol (the coalition banned the carrying of weapons outside the home from June 14, but at the time it was not an offence). Both were hooded and taken to Baghdad airport. "We were in a tent for 150 people. We only got 25 litres of water a day for everyone, which means about a cupful per person, in temperatures of over 40C," Ahmed recalls. "There was a small ditch in the open for a toilet, which meant you were naked in front of everybody. There was no shower. We slept on the sand. My father could speak some English and two soldiers gave us overalls as a change of clothes."
After three weeks, for no apparent reason, Dr Suhail was taken to Abu Ghraib, Saddam's notorious Baghdad prison, which has been pressed back into service by the Americans. A week later he was released, but Ahmed remained at the airport. "Then I was told I was being taken to a prison camp at Umm Qasr. No reason was given."
Umm Qasr is close to the Kuwaiti border, about 400 miles from Baghdad, and Ahmed said he was taken with 21 other men, lying on the floor of an American army lorry for 11 hours, with a stop for the night in Nassiriyah. Conditions in the camp in Umm Qasr were much better than at Baghdad airport, and the prisoners had regular access to showers.
After 33 days there, and 66 of detention in all, Ahmed was brought back to Baghdad and released. "At no time was I questioned or interrogated, or charged. It was just punishment without trial. When the Americans first came to Baghdad I was happy, but I don't want to speak about my feelings towards them now," he says.
One reason for Iraqi suspects' lengthy stays in the tented camps at Baghdad airport and Abu Ghraib is the coalition authority's decision to award itself 90 days before a detainee needs to be brought before a magistrate or judge. Amnesty International, which has produced a detailed memorandum of concern about the coalition's handling of law and order, points out a bizarre double standard: suspects held by the Iraqi police have to have their case reviewed by a magistrate within 24 hours.
Amnesty also reported that the coalition's rules require that suspects should be allowed to consult a lawyer within 72 hours of "induction" into a detention camp. In practice, there is no deadline for induction and "detainees appear to be invariably denied access to lawyers, sometimes for weeks," it said.
Another reason for the chaos is the coalition's failure to keep an accurate central list of detainees, with names in Arabic, to which searching families can refer.
In her home in al-Mansour, a suburb of Baghdad, Eftekhar Medhat relates the arrest of her husband, Zakariya Zakher Sa'ad. He is a gardener and nightwatchman at the home of the Russian consul. The consul had left during the American bombing and the house remained an obvious target for looters and burglars long after the first turbulent days of the occupation.
Alerted one night by a neighbour, Sa'ad went out with a Kalashnikov. He ran into an American patrol and was thrown to the ground and arrested. The neighbour tried in vain to tell the soldiers he was not a thief. "At first we went to Abu Ghraib," says Medhatas, her 19-year-old daughter, Huda, sitting nervously beside her. "The Americans told us to go to the airport. At the airport they told us to go to the International Committee of the Red Cross. We went to the ICRC but got no help."
They then turned to the 101st Airborne's civil military operations centre, located in a disused supermarket. Here they found two unusually sympathetic officers, Major Hector Flores and his sergeant, Paul Holding. Their work was in sharp contrast to the behaviour of most US troops, who patrol in vehicles in conditions of increasing tension as attacks on convoys show no let-up.
Flores and Holding present a different face: "I'm the happiest man in the US army. We are in contact with ordinary Iraqis and we can really help them. We call them customers," says Holding. Their job includes processing claims by Iraqis for damage when American troops shoot at vehicles or homes, or when Iraqis are wounded by unexploded bombs.
Trawling through lists of thousands of badly transliterated Arabic names, Flores finally found a reference to an "Ahmed Mahjoub Zakariya, born in 1948". "I think it is your husband," he told Medhat. "I'm going to fax a photo of him to Camp Bucca, and I hope they will then let him out."
A system which requires an individual act of kindness by an American officer to locate a detainee, or in Sufian's case to insist on implementing a release order made by an Iraqi judge, is clearly inadequate.
The coalition authorities are aware of the problems. In addition to Amnesty, the coalition has also come under pressure from the UN and the ICRC. Sergio Vieira de Mello, the secretary-general's special representative in Iraq, recently reported that he had told the US administrator, Paul Bremer, and his British counterpart, John Sawers, about his anxiety over "searches, arrests, the treatment of detainees, duration of preventive detention, access by family members and lawyers, and the establishment of a central prison database". He said he found them "receptive", and they had explained what was being done to address the problems.
The ICRC is also alarmed by the lack of a proper database. "The lists provided by the coalition are not comprehensive and far from complete. The process needs to be improved. They are willing to improve it and are really trying to help", says ICRC spokesperson Nada Doumani.
In their defence, coalition spokespeople point to the appalling legacy of the Saddam regime. "In his time people had to scrawl their names on cell walls to get remembered. There was no list of any kind," says Charles Heatly, a spokesperson seconded from the Foreign Office.
Work was almost complete on repairing cell-blocks at Abu Ghraib so that medium-security prisoners could move from tents into proper buildings "comparable to UK prisons," he adds. A large prefabricated building for several hundred other detainees should be ready at Abu Ghraib in a week's time. The tents at Baghdad airport would then be emptied and its 500 prisoners transferred.
Mobile teams of magistrates were being trained to handle cases faster. He acknowledges that US military lawyers sometimes overruled Iraqi judges' release orders. "That's probably true. It shows the difficulties in getting systems to match", he says.
The message is that things are getting better. But the occupation forces' shocking handling of civilian prisoners will not be forgotten quickly by the victims. They are one more example of how badly those who planned the war on Iraq failed to plan the peace.