Anguish for families of Iraq's disappeared
By Ibrahim Saleh
BAGHDAD - Each day before noon prayers, Sahera Ibrahim lights a candle at the
Sunni shrine of Abu Hanifa in the Adhamiya district of east Baghdad to pray for
the return of her son.
Ibrahim is among thousands of Iraqis whose loved ones disappeared during the
worst days of sectarian warfare between 2005 and 2007. Some were seen picked up
by uniformed militias and piled into lorries, others simply seemed to vanish.
Iraq's Minister of Human Rights Wijdan Mikhail told the Institute for War and
Peace Reporting that her ministry had received more than 9,000 complaints in
2005 and 2006 alone from Iraqis who said a relative had disappeared.
Human-rights groups put the total number much higher.
The fate of many missing Iraqis remains unknown. Some, like
Ibrahim, hold out hope that their loved ones remain languishing in one of
Iraq's notoriously secretive prisons.
"It was July 26, 2006. I was returning home with my son, when I saw a military
vehicle parked in our neighborhood. I was shocked when they came and grabbed my
son and took him away," Ibrahim said.
In the following months, Ibrahim scoured the prisoner lists at Iraq's detention
centers. She found no evidence he was being held in Iraqi or American custody.
Ibrahim said she was about to give up the search when she saw an international
report on Iraqi prisons showing an image of her son in custody. She recorded
the program, and its grainy footage remains her only hope. Ibrahim said that as
far as she knows, her son was never charged with any crime or tried in any
This fate is not uncommon in Iraq's extensive prison network, according to a
recent report by Amnesty International. The report on unlawful detention,
enforced disappearance and torture, estimated that 30,000 prisoners are in
custody without trial in some 35 detention centers run by Iraq's ministries of
Justice, Defense and Interior. The last United States-run prison at Camp
Cropper was handed over to Iraqi security forces in July.
The Amnesty report said that enforced disappearances are a serious violation of
international human-rights law. "Causing suffering to relatives of the
disappeared - an inevitable and at times deliberate outcome of enforced
disappearance - is also a human-rights violation, and has been endured by
countless Iraqi families over the years," it argues.
Stories of such suffering are easy to find in Sunni neighborhoods of Baghdad.
Amnesty reported that the "vast majority" of Iraq's detainees are Sunnis
suspected of aiding insurgents.
"My aunt called me on December 30, 2005, to tell me that her two sons were
detained with another 50 young men from their [Sunni] neighborhood in Saideyah
by Iraqi security forces," Haider al-Obaidi said.
"At that time, the eldest son was 33 and a father of a two-year-old girl. The
other son was 30 and had an infant son. My aunt still doesn't know where her
sons were taken or why. All she knows is that the men who took my cousins were
wearing military uniforms."
Human-rights minister Mikhail said it is still unclear to her investigators
which groups were responsible for many of the disappearances. She said a
database was created in 2007 in cooperation with Iraq's security forces to
identify and locate the thousands of Iraqis reported missing.
"Between 2005 and 2006, there were militias dressing as police forces and
arresting and kidnapping people. This is when our ministry received the most
complaints," Mikhail said.
Officials in the Ministry of Interior declined to comment about missing Iraqis.
The deputy minister of Justice agreed to be interviewed, but said his superior
would not allow him to answer any questions on the subject.
"The ministry is following up on the missing people and trying to learn their
fate. We believe most of them were kidnapped by militias," Mikhail said, adding
that while some of the missing had been located in prisons, the whereabouts of
the majority was still unknown.
Hasan Shaaban, an activist with the non-governmental organization (NGO) Human
Rights and Democracy in Iraq, estimates there are some 12,000 missing people
still detained in Iraqi prisons.
"As an NGO, we received many requests from many detainees' relatives enquired
about them at the ministries of Defense, Interior, Justice and Human Rights, as
well as with the American side, but found nothing," Shaaban said.
"The truth is, the whereabouts of the thousands of missing Iraqis, and the
reasons behind why they were taken away, are still unknown."