Iraqis are accustomed to torture--no sooner were Saddam Hussein's murderous prisons finally closed than came photos of Abu Ghraib and a grinning Lynndie England--and Baghdad's latest abuse scandal is galvanizing officials leaders along sectarian lines. In recent weeks, emerging evidence that state-run forces operated a black site prison where hundreds of Sunni men were sexually brutalized has gripped the nation. And given the uncertainty surrounding Iraq's latest contentious election, Shiite leaders seem intent on using the outrage to undermine the stability of the ruling Sunni coalition. But human rights investigators say that torture is probably less a political tool than a daily reality in Iraq's broken justice system.
Samer Muscati, an Iraq researcher for Human Rights Watch, began to hear rumors of torture trickling in before the Los Angeles Times broke the story: A secret prison on the outskirts of Baghdad, at the site of Old Muthanna airbase, where more than 400 Sunni men had been held for months by special forces reporting to Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
There, according to a slim report released by Human Rights Watch last week, which has been widely disseminated in the Iraqi press and is based on Muscati's interviews with 42 Muthanna detainees, nearly all the suspected insurgents--among them academics, physicians, and teenagers--were regularly tortured, including being "hung upside-down, deprived of air, whipped, beaten, given electric shocks, and sodomized."
"We received authorization to visit the prisoners before the story was broken," Muscati, a 36-year old Canadian born to Iraqi parents, when I reached him late last week in Baghdad. "Otherwise, we wouldn't have been allowed to."
The prisoners at Muthanna were from Mosul, Iraq's predominantly Sunni second city and an al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia stronghold. In a series of anti-insurgent raids last fall, which Sunni provincial officials protested as warrantless, Iraqi forces swept the men up and threw them into the secret detention center, outside the purview of either the ministries of justice or defense.
The abuses were as regular as they were sadistic. Some men had their teeth knocked in, or fingernails pulled out. Others were sexually assaulted--with broomsticks and pistol barrels. Forced sex, involving both inmates and guards, was rampant. A son, standing before his naked father, was told to confess or see his father raped.
"The interrogators would tie my arms behind my back and blindfold me before they would hang me upside down and beat me," one detainee told Human Rights Watch. "They would suffocate me with a bag until I passed out and would wake me with an electric shock to my genitals."
Muscati said this was unique because it was so routine and systematic.
"The scars and bruisings we saw were identical on detainees--it seems that there was a practice, a policy, in this facility to use certain methods to extract information."
It was close to midnight in Iraq and even through the static Muscati's exhaustion was audible. "Sorry if I sound sedate. It's just...it's been a long day."
In late March, when Iraq's minister of human rights, Wijdan Salim, discovered the existence of Muthanna, the prison was shuttered and its detainees moved elsewhere.
"I think there are people in government who are just as disgusted as we are, and are trying to end these kinds of abuses," said Muscati, praising Salim and her ministry for airing the scandal. "But not everyone in government is on the same page."
Prime Minister Maliki has categorically denied any prior knowledge of the site. "There are no secret prisons in Iraq at all," he said last Monday. (Asked how Maliki could have not known his special forces were operating the black site, Muscati demurred. "If he didn't know what was going on, he should know now.")
In early April, Muscati, along with his colleague Olivier Bercault, was given access to more than 300 of the men, in the new Baghdad prison where they're being held in "cagelike" cells. Permitted just a few hours, and stripped of their cell phones, cameras and audio kits, Muscati and Bercault asked the groups of men to "show us their wounds. It was horrific what we saw: the welts on peoples back, the bruising on arms, nails that had been ripped out, these horrible marks."