Image: Iraqi detainees
Ceerwan Aziz  /  Reuters
Iraqi detainees wait for an Iraqi judge to sign their release papers at a U.S. military base in southern Baghdad on Wednesday.
updated 10/10/2007 10:28:56 PM ET 2007-10-11T02:28:56

Sixty prisoners, 10 of them youths, raised their hands Wednesday and swore to live a peaceful life. In return, U.S. authorities set them free.

As a gesture of good will, the U.S. military has pledged to release more than 50 detainees a day — about 10 more than average — during Ramadan, which ends this week. It is traditional in Muslim countries to pardon some prisoners or shorten their terms during the holy month.

More than 25,000 Iraqis still in American custody haven’t been so lucky. The security crackdown in Baghdad has raised the rolls in U.S.-run detention centers to 10,000 more detainees compared with this time last year, worsening already serious backlogs in the court system.

Several men being released Wednesday interrupted the judge’s speech to complain that they had been held for months, even years, without cause.

The Iraqi judge, who requested anonymity because of fears for his safety, explained that as long as parts of the country remain dangerous, authorities will err on the side of caution and round up hundreds of men at once, without taking the time to listen to individual stories.

“We cannot investigate every single one of you to get to the truth,” he told the group of men and boys who sat on wooden benches and wore striped shirts, rolled up trousers and sandals purchased for their release by the U.S. military. “Please, I’m begging you. This is the message we’re sending to the public. Help us. Help others. Help your families. Work only for peace.”

Most detained for a year
According to U.S. military figures, the average age of inmates is 35 to 37 for adults and 15 to 17 for youths. About 85 percent are Sunni, 14 percent are Shiite and 1 percent are neither. Most remain in custody for about a year.

The prisoner release during Ramadan brought the 60 men and several dozen friends and family members to the ceremony in a canvas tent on this sprawling U.S. base west of Baghdad. Another 60 prisoners were freed Tuesday, said U.S. Navy Capt. Brian Bill, legal adviser for the detainee program.

Ashwak Ali Hassan traveled from Dora, a Sunni neighborhood in southern Baghdad, to pick up her 16-year-old son who had been held for more than four months. Her husband remains in custody at Camp Bucca in southern Iraq. She said father and son were captured because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time after a U.S. convoy was attacked in their neighborhood.

“Our house was closest,” she said. The boy, crying and allowing himself to be rocked gently by his mother, said only that he was happy to be leaving the prison.

Maj. Gen. Douglas M. Stone, deputy commander of detainee operations, said prisoners in U.S. custody include some 860 youths, meaning they are under 17 years old, and 280 foreigners, including Egyptians, Syrians, Iranians and Saudi Arabians.

“Ultimately, we want all detainees who are no longer a peril to Iraqi and coalition forces to be released,” Stone said, adding that about 60 people are detained each day across Iraq.

Few detainees charged
Most detainees are held in limbo where few are ever charged with a specific crime or given a chance before any court or tribunal to argue for their freedom. Of those who receive a proper trial, about 50 percent will be acquitted, the military says.

All prisoners get their cases evaluated within the first three months they are in custody. Then, each case is reviewed every six months. At those proceedings, the review board can release someone for hardship reasons, at the request of the Iraqi or U.S. government or when it determines the detainee is no longer a security threat, Bill said.

The so-called pledge program, which began in July, requires the detainees to take an oath to renounce violence, then they are fingerprinted and they face a fine if they are against accused of wrongdoing, Bill said. About 1,500 detainees have been released under the program.

The judge told the new program is a test “we don’t want to fail. This is going to prove you were not criminals, not terrorists.”

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