Image: Staffan de Mistura
Hadi Mizban  /  AP
Staffan de Mistura, the U.N.'s special representative in Iraq, speaks during a press conference in Baghdad, Iraq, on Tuesday.
updated 12/2/2008 6:05:30 PM ET 2008-12-02T23:05:30

The United Nations expressed concern Tuesday about overcrowding and "grave human rights violations" of detainees in Iraqi custody — in one case, 123 men crammed into a single cell.

The warning comes as the U.S. prepares to turn over control to the Iraqis of thousands of security detainees in its custody under a new security pact that would end the U.S. mission here by 2012. The pact, approved last week by Iraq's parliament, calls for American forces to transfer all detainees believed to be a major threat and to release the rest "in a safe and orderly manner."

But as overall violence declines in the country, the U.N.'s 13th report on the human rights situation in Iraq casts doubt on whether the Iraqis will be ready to take custody of more detainees properly.

"There is no secret that the (Iraqi) prisons are overcrowded and frankly not in very good condition," U.N. envoy Staffan de Mistura said at a news conference where the report was released.

Reports of mistreatment, torture
He cited one recent example of a detention facility in which 123 detainees were crammed into a 540-square-foot cell — about the size of a studio apartment. "That's obviously something that cannot be sustained," he said.

Reports of widespread mistreatment and torture of detainees also continue and need more thorough investigation, he said, adding that none has been prosecuted.

"Grave human rights violations ... remain unaddressed," the report said, citing "ongoing widespread ill-treatment and torture of detainees by Iraqi law enforcement authorities, amid pervasive impunity of current and past human rights abuses."

The report covered only the six-month period that ended in June, so the numbers of detainees included was outdated. The U.S. has released thousands since then under an amnesty program.

De Mistura, the U.N.'s special representative in Iraq, estimated Tuesday that there were now a total of 40,000 detainees, including some 15,800 being held by the U.S. military.

The report also renewed concern about the U.S. detention of suspects for prolonged periods without judicial review of their cases.

The U.N. urged the Iraqi government to speed up legal reforms and strengthen the judicial system as it asserts more control over its own affairs.

"More sovereignty means more responsibility. More responsibility means less impunity," de Mistura said. "All that makes sustainable security gains."

Training projects in human rights
To assist the government, the U.N. and other international agencies have implemented training projects in human rights and the administration of detention facilities.

"But we aren't going to see the effects immediately," acknowledged Jose Maria Aranaz, a senior human rights officer for the U.N. in Iraq.

The U.N. also singled out the problem of so-called honor killings of women in the semiautonomous Kurdish region in northern Iraq and in the mainly Shiite southern area of Basra. A U.S.-Iraqi crackdown against Shiite extremists in Basra has failed to stop the killings.

De Mistura said 80-82 women had reportedly been killed there so far this year but there has been only one prosecution. "That shows that the problem needs to be addressed more forcefully," he said.

The Shiite-dominated government has made a more concerted effort to stop the killings in Basra, but the grim statistics show that "progress needs to be faster," he said.

The U.N. human rights report, which previously was issued quarterly but is now biannual, used to be closely watched for Iraqi civilian casualty figures. That practice stopped when the Iraqi government refused to release the spiraling figures to the U.N.

De Mistura said the situation had improved and he was hopeful casualty figures could be included in the next report.

Iraqi deaths have declined drastically
The number of Iraqis killed has declined drastically over the past year following a U.S. troop buildup. But the U.S. military has warned insurgents are likely to step up attacks ahead of Jan. 31 provincial elections.

Underscoring the continued threat, a suicide car bomber detonated his explosives near an Iraqi checkpoint Tuesday in the northern city of Tal Afar, killing at least five people and wounding 30, according to police and hospital officials.

A bomb hidden in a wooden cart exploded near an elementary school in the northern city of Mosul, killing four civilians and wounding 12 others, police said.

A roadside bomb also struck an Iraqi army convoy in Iskandariyah, 30 miles south of Baghdad, killing five Iraqi soldiers, police said.

The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to release the information.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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