A year after the Abu Ghraib abuse scandal erupted, Iraqi anger has flared anew over the growing numbers of detainees held without charge at the notorious detention center and another prison in the south.
In the battle against the insurgency, U.S. military sweeps net many guerrillas, but also thousands of people whose offenses are nonexistent, minor or impossible to prove. They are often held for months, only to be released without explanation.
The population of long-term detainees at Abu Ghraib and the larger Camp Bucca, near Basra, has nearly doubled since August and now tops 10,000. With a large operation by Iraqi security forces underway in Baghdad, that number could rise.
The military has established a multitiered system to ensure that innocent people caught up in chaotic events are not held for extensive periods. Records provided by the military, however, show that the evidence against suspects justifies prolonged detention in only about one in four cases. Nonetheless, more than half are held three months or more before being freed.
The men are detained as security risks under the U.N. Security Council resolution that gives coalition forces the authority to maintain order in Iraq. After secret reviews of their cases, some are released. But the futures of those who remain in custody is unclear. There is no limit to how long they can be held.
U.S. military officials did not respond to questions from The Times about why so many detainees have been held so long before being freed.
However, Army Lt. Col. Guy Rudisill, a spokesman for detention operations, said the board that reviews the evidence against long-term detainees had been expanded to speed up the process.
Almost without fail, those who know someone in detention contend that he is a loyal citizen who did nothing wrong. The high rate of release shows that, at the least, it is difficult to prove them wrong.
Mazin Farouq, a 35-year-old photo lab technician, was held for six months. Farouq was shot by U.S. soldiers as he and two friends drove home to Baghdad one November night last year after a vacation in Syria. He said they did not see a checkpoint but fled in panic when they heard shots hitting their car. Several soldiers drove up and searched them. Finding nothing, the soldiers immediately freed the two friends and took Farouq to nearby Abu Ghraib for treatment at its field hospital.
He said he received excellent medical care and expected to be released. Instead, he was placed in detention. Two months later, he was transferred to Bucca. After making numerous calls and visits to the ministries of interior and human rights, Farouq’s parents were finally told that his case would be reviewed in early May. Farouq was released May 9.
In an interview, he said he believed his incarceration was a cover-up.
“They did not suspect me, but I think they made a mistake, and all these procedures are to protect the soldier who committed this mistake,” he said.
Long internments such as Farouq’s have raised the ire of civil rights groups, Iraqi media outlets and some political leaders, who accuse the U.S. of being indiscriminant in its search for insurgents. Some have called for the immediate transfer of custody to Iraqi authorities.
“This is the Iraqi perception – let the Iraqi people judge them,” said Ahmed M. Salih, a professor of linguistics at Tikrit University and spokesman for the governor of Salahuddin province, echoing a common theme. “The majority of Americans depend on bad information. They come immediately to arrest you without asking for more information.”
Abbas Sweedi, head of the Iraqi Civil Society Commission, said his group was formed by 15 organizations “to stop the indiscriminate detention of the people.”
He has urged street protests against the U.S. and Iraqi security forces, such as the elite Wolf Brigade, which has been accused of using torture to extract confessions from innocent people.
“We will stand against [the Wolf Brigade] or the American troops if there is any Iraqi who is detained without reason,” he said.
Emotions remain raw over the Abu Ghraib scandal, in which guards beat detainees and photographed them in humiliating positions. Several lower-level soldiers have pleaded guilty or been convicted in the case.
The Army, completing what it called an exhaustive review of top commanders in Iraq and any roles they may have played in the abuse, recently demoted Brig. Gen. Janis Karpinski, the Army Reserve commander once in charge of the prison, to colonel.
In response to the prisoner abuse scandal, the military has revamped the structure of detainee operations and beefed up training and supervision. To ensure that the detainees are treated well, the Iraqi Human Rights Ministry and the International Committee of the Red Cross make regular visits.
Bakhtiar Amin, the interim minister of human rights before a new government was formed last month, acknowledged that conditions at Abu Ghraib had markedly improved.
“I asked immediately to have a watchdog group, an office there,” he said in an interview shortly before he was replaced. “They provided a trailer. So my people are visiting regularly and looking at the situations.”
He also credited the military with setting up the field hospital.
Despite such positive reports, the military remains guarded about allowing wider access to the prisons. A Times request to view the Abu Ghraib prison through a 24-hour cycle was denied, as was a request to photograph the facility.
A three-hour visit was limited to a tour of the yard, where 3,500 inmates live in tents, and a walk through the field hospital, where insurgents injured by U.S. troops receive emergency care alongside the Americans they were battling.
Military intelligence activities were off-limits, as well as the assembly area where family members arrive to visit inmates.
Rudisill, the spokesman, said Abu Ghraib and Camp Bucca allow visits for 150 detainees a day, six days a week. At that rate, Abu Ghraib inmates could receive visitors once every 23 days; those at Camp Bucca, once every 40 days.
While acknowledging that living conditions, medical care and food services were greatly improved in the last year, Hamza Kafi, administrator of the Human Rights Organization in Iraq, a group known for its moderate views, said detainees’ families consistently complain about visiting procedures and the difficulty of getting information about their loved ones.
After making the daylong trip to Bucca, he said, visitors are sometimes turned away when objects as innocuous as paper clips are found during searches. Then they must wait for another cycle.
Finding information about detainees is also fraught with obstacles.
In Baghdad, people seeking information must go to one of three government buildings. One is in the heavily fortified Green Zone. To get there, women in flowing black abayas must negotiate narrow aisles of concertina wire and several searches. Then they face questions to identify the detainee: What was the date of arrest, his full name and date of birth?
“There are 15 ways to spell Mohammed,” said Lt. Col. Darwin Concon, the officer in charge of the center in the Green Zone.
At two lower-level detention facilities, one at brigade level and the other at a division headquarters, lawyers examined each case file to determine whether there was sufficient evidence to hold a detainee.
Each detainee has an evidentiary file that must include at least two sworn affidavits from arresting officers and often has photos of the person with evidence.
The file gets its first review at the brigade detention facility by a judge advocate such as Army Maj. Dean Lynch, a military lawyer with the 1st Battalion, 3rd Infantry Division. Lynch has 72 hours to decide whether to hold, release or refer the detainee to Iraqi authorities for criminal prosecution.
Lynch said he orders the release of about one in five detainees. The standard for holding a detainee is whether he represents a threat to U.S. or Iraqi forces, said Lynch, who has considerable latitude in interpreting that standard.
A farmer caught with two guns in his house, one more than the law allowed, probably would be let go, he said.
“Is he technically in violation? Yes,” Lynch said. “We’re not going to keep that guy.” But one more weapons violation would tip the scale, he said.
A more intensive review begins when the detainees move from brigade level to a larger facility at division headquarters. There they are held for up to 14 days.
Records provided by the 42nd Infantry Division, which covers north-central Iraq, show that since February, 36% of detainees have been released after the second review. Those retained at the division level are moved to Abu Ghraib, about 30 miles west of Baghdad.
Once in the Abu Ghraib prison, a detainee enters a more elaborate and time-consuming judicial process. A board made up of three representatives from the United States and six from the Iraqi ministries of interior, defense and human rights reviews each case within 90 days, Rudisill said.
The board’s proceedings are not adversarial, Rudisill said. Neither the detainee nor the military has a lawyer to argue the case. A neutral officer is present to explain the evidence. The board makes its decisions immediately, Rudisill said.
Family members are not informed of the board’s decisions or the dates of proceedings involving the detainee. For those retained after the initial review, additional reviews are required every six months.
The board, established in August, had reviewed about 9,400 cases through late April, Rudisill said.
More than half of the prison reviews resulted in releases for insufficient evidence. About 2,200 were released unconditionally and about 3,100 were released under the signature of a guarantor, such as a tribal leader, figures provided by Rudisill showed.
He would not characterize the circumstances that would require a guarantor. Requests to interview a member of the board were turned down.
But Amin, the former human rights minister, said it was his understanding that release with a guarantor meant that the evidence was weak, and unconditional release indicated “very weak” evidence. Amin was pushing for faster reviews so that such incarcerations would be shortened.
An additional 1,600 detainees were turned over to the Iraqi judicial system. Rudisill said about 450 had been tried, with 301 convicted. Sentences ranged from time served to 20 years.
Releases, however, have not kept pace with arrests. From August to late April, the number of Iraqis in U.S. custody climbed from 5,495 to 9,946.
In early April, dozens of insurgents attacked the Abu Ghraib prison, nearly breaching the wall with a truck bomb that exploded at an entrance.
Their goal? To cause a mass breakout.
Times staff writer Saif Rasheed in Baghdad contributed to this report.