Protests hit Iraq as public outrage against Maliki's abuses rises
As the world's eyes were fixed on the drama in Egypt last week, Human Rights Watch investigators in Iraq filed a depressingly familiar chapter in the country's recent history, making new allegations of torture and of a secret prison that they say is run by special counterterrorism forces who answer directly to the office of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
The watchdog group reported that, in November, more than 280 prisoners were transferred from their prison in the Green Zone to the secret prison, known as Camp Justice, just days before a team of rights observers were planning to visit and monitor conditions. Two separate security forces, the 56th Brigade and the Counter-Terrorism Service, both of which take orders from Maliki, are tasked with running the secret prison -- and have proven adept at keeping its detainees beyond the reach of international aid groups, relatives, or the state's own Ministry of Human Rights.
When I called Samer Muscati, a Human Rights Watch investigator, in Baghdad on the final day of his fact-finding trip, he was exhausted. Muscati, who is Canadian-born of Iraqi parents, denounced the continued existence of "black site" detention centers where he said torture and sexual brutalization are regular practice and called Camp Justice "a new franchise" for Maliki's elite forces. "We're seeing a pattern of abuse. It shows these forces are working in unison to control different prisons."
All the men held at Camp Justice are there on terrorism charges, Muscati told me. "We got a list of what every prisoner was accused of. There's maybe one murderer." And while they are predominately Sunni, he cautioned against interpreting their imprisonment as a sectarian political act. "They're not being rounded up because they're Sunni. They're being rounded up because they're in areas where terrorists operate." The real problem, he said, is that Maliki's rogue forces are acting outside either the Ministry of Justice or the Ministry of Defense. "They're hunting down what they think are terrorists. And if you look at what the Prime Minister said to the Associated Press, calling out report lies, he mentioned that everyone there is either a terrorist or Baathist. There's this sense that it's okay, because these guys aren't even worthy of their rights to begin with." He continued, "They're not approaching it in a way that's going to end the impunity. They're approaching it in a way of damage control."
Many Iraqis know this story all too well, and Camp Justice is just the latest scandal marring the country's nascent criminal justice system. Human Rights Watch and the Los Angeles Times first discovered the existence of Iraq's parallel secret prison system last April, when they published lurid accounts of the cruel sexual violence that came at the hands of the Prime Minister's special forces. In response, Maliki distanced himself from the prisons, saying they would be immediately shuttered, their detainees transferred to Ministry of Justice-run sites, and their operators prosecuted. Last week, Minister of Justice Busho Ibrahim followed suit, stating that no prisons in the country that fell outside the authority of his ministry. "Why would Maliki have special prisons?" he said. "Isn't he the leader of Iraq?"
But detainees from Camp Honor, the Green Zone prison from which the 280 Camp Justice detainees were transferred, said in interviews this winter with Human Rights Watch that the brutalities had gone unchecked. "My hands were tied over my head and my feet were put in water, then they shocked me in my head and my neck and my chest," one former prisoner told investigators. "The interrogators beat me repeatedly and told me that they would go to my house and rape my sister if I did not sign a confession, so I did. I did not even know what I was confessing to." Others said that their captors hung them upside-down for hours or suffocated them with plastic bags.
"Torture is not a new phenomenon," Muscati pointed out. "It was pervasive under Saddam, and then we had the Americans at Abu Ghraib, then the British in Basra. Unfortunately, this seems to be a baton that's handed from one power to the next."
Muscati has spent time in too many Iraqi prisons, secret or not, to remain an idealist; he understands the sheer geopolitical inertia that Human Rights Watch is battling in Iraq. "In fairness to the government," he said, "They do have an enormous problem with Al Qaeda of Mesopotamia, which didn't exist before 2003. A month doesn't go by in which you don't have mass casualties because of a spectacular attack. This is a place where violence is festering. The concern is, how do you deal with it in a way that doesn't create new terrorists, alienate a large part of the population, or trample on people's human rights?"
So while Egyptian lawyers, students, and grandmothers took over the streets of Cairo and Alexandria, unwilling to accept President Mubarak's concessions and unwilling to concede to his security thugs, Iraqis struggled to make sense of yet another torture scandal. And they began protesting, too -- demanding better government services, more jobs, and an end to Iraq's notorious corruption, in which torture and secret prisons now play a significant role. The first few days of February saw scattered protests across Iraq, including a demonstration of about 700 in Diwaniyah, south of Baghdad. The demonstrations never coalesced into a national movement as they did in Egypt and Tunisia, but they didn't need to. On February 5, Maliki, in an interview with reporters, announced that he would not seek a third term as Prime Minister.
Photo by Wathiq Khuzaie/AFP/Getty