Iraq denies crackdown after jailbreak
By Rawa Haidar
BAGHDAD/BAQUBA - Prisoners in two Iraqi prisons that saw mass breakouts earlier this year say they are victims of much harsher treatment as a result.
In exclusive interviews with RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq, three prisoners in Abu Ghraib and al-Taji prisons said guards have stepped up abuse since hundreds of prisoners escaped from the institutions in July.
"The food is very limited in quantity and of very poor quality to the point of being inedible even by animals," said one inmate at Abu Ghraib, on the outskirts of Baghdad.
"The treatment is very bad, and sectarian. Every other day they come and beat us with hoses and cables. The sick or injured do
not receive any treatment. We were not allowed any visits; whoever came to ask about us was turned away. This is how it is ever since the assault on the prison."
The prisoner's identity has been kept confidential for his own protection.
On July 22, hundreds of convicts, including senior members of al-Qaeda, broke out of Abu Ghraib jail when militants launched a synchronized military-style assault on it and al-Taji prison, north of the capital.
More than 50 people, including 26 guards and Iraqi soldiers, are known to have died in the nighttime attack by teams of heavily armed gunmen and suicide bombers. The al-Qaeda-affiliated Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant claimed responsibility for the operation.
Those prisoners who did not escape say that they are now paying the price for the ones who did.
'Commonplace' torture, murder
Another Abu Ghraib inmate told RFE/RL that previous privileges, such as receiving food provided by families, have been revoked and that that punishments are administered randomly.
"Inside the prison of Abu Ghraib, the counter-terrorism special forces beat us and this causes bruises on our bodies but the correctional officers do not beat us unless there are disputes," the inmate said.
"The special forces beat us randomly, on any part of our bodies that they chose. Every week they come to beat us, and then they leave. Our beatings last from early morning until about 2 pm. We can say nothing. We can't ask why."
Another prisoner at al-Taji prison, who also asked not to be identified, described torture and murder at the jail as commonplace. "We are subjected to abnormal torture; they call the prisoners names, then execute them or spray them with acid while handcuffed," he said. "Yesterday, they executed four who were in solitary confinement. Also they once tossed grenades in two cells and killed everyone there."
This inmate also said that, after the July assault on the prison, the number of guards was increased. But the new guards, who are particularly brutal, wear masks so that the prisoners are unable to identify them.
All of the inmates' testimony is impossible to independently confirm. But the common allegation in their accounts is that the Iraq government has cracked down on prisoners remaining in the two institutions as if they were part of the breakout conspiracy.
After the July breakout, some officials have alleged it was an inside job. At the same time, opposition politicians charged that the scale of the attack showed that the government had lost any semblance of control over security, which has been steadily deteriorating across the country since late last year.
Sectarian, political influences
Iraqi officials asked by Radio Free Iraq to comment on the prisoners' allegations say there is no organized program to introduce a harsher regime in the two prisons.
"There are many infringements and violations but they are all carried out by individuals and not by the government; they are not part of an official policy, and we have never denied their existence," said Kamil Amin, a spokesman for the Human Rights Ministry.
"They are a source of concern; we are talking about one-and-a-quarter million personnel in the armed forces and the police, and it is to be expected that a significant number of them will abuse their authority as a result of sectarian, geographic, or political influences."
Abuses within the prison system are regularly brought to the attention of the Iraqi parliament's Human Rights Committee. But the chairman of the committee, Salim al-Juburi, said the complaints about abuse were sometimes exaggerated.
"We have received many complaints, some of which are supported by photos and video clips, depicting inhumane practices against prison inmates," he said. We do not consider this information as being totally accurate, but we do assign committees to investigate them further in order to establish the facts. Regrettably, some of the complaints are true."
Juburi added that any reports of brutality were worrisome because there should be no abuse in the prison system at all. "Even if abuse is resorted to during investigation and interrogation, such abuse should not be used on prisoners who have been duly tried and convicted," he said.
The human rights organization Amnesty International routinely gives Iraq abysmal marks for its treatment of prisoners. A report in March said that "torture is rife and committed with impunity by government security forces, particularly against detainees arrested under anti-terrorism legislation".
Written by Charles Recknagel based on reporting by Rawa Haidar with additional reporting by RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq correspondents Hassan Rashid in Baghdad and Sami Ayyash in Baquba