The capture of thousands of new suspects under the three-month-old Baghdad security plan has overwhelmed the Iraqi government's detention system, forcing hundreds of people into overcrowded facilities, according to Iraqi and Western officials.
Nearly 20,000 people were in Iraqi-run prisons, detention camps, police stations and other holding cells as of the end of March, according to a U.N. report issued last month, an increase of more than 3,500 from the end of January. The U.S. military said late last week that it was holding about 19,500 detainees, up more than 3,000 since the U.S. and Iraqi governments began implementing the security plan in mid-February.
Estimates of those inside Iraqi facilities, where reports of beatings and torture are common, vary widely because detainees are dispersed among hundreds of locations run by different ministries. The U.S. military holds detainees at two main centers, Camp Bucca in southern Iraq and Camp Cropper near Baghdad, and officials say they are committed to avoiding the abuses that occurred at the Abu Ghraib prison following the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.
‘Our space is full’
Iraq's prisons for convicted criminals are managed by the Justice Ministry, but because of crowding in Iraqi army detention centers, authorities have transferred many untried detainees to live with convicts.
"We made some space for them, but now our space is full," said Deputy Justice Minister Pusho Ibrahim Ali Daza Yei. Referring to the military, he added, "This is their problem, not mine."
Yei, in an interview at his Baghdad office, said the Justice Ministry had taken in 1,843 such detainees from the military from the start of the security plan in February through April 21, an influx that now accounts for more than 15 percent of the ministry's prison population.
"The reason why there's more detainees is because there's more forces on the ground, both Iraqi and coalition, out there doing operations. So you've got more people to go out and detain them," said Brig. Gen. Joseph Anderson, chief of staff for the top American military field commander in Iraq. "The bottom line is we have more than we can handle collectively."
The Iraqi constitution mandates that documents outlining the preliminary investigation must be submitted to a judge within 24 hours of a suspect's arrest, with a possible extension of another day. But the flood of prisoners has worsened a situation in which many often wait weeks or months before their cases are heard.
To filter through the rapidly growing list of detainees, authorities have dispatched teams of judges, prosecutors and investigators -- known as "tiger teams" -- to determine whether there is enough evidence in a case to hold the suspect, according to a Western official in Baghdad familiar with the prison system. But the teams cannot keep up with the influx.
"We're just storing up a tidal wave of cases, with a judicial system that cannot cope with what they've got," said the official, who is not authorized to speak publicly and was interviewed on condition of anonymity. "They're basically closing their eyes to the problem under the Baghdad security plan."
Human rights officials say Justice Ministry facilities offer the best an Iraqi prisoner can hope for, as they generally meet international standards for space and treatment. But officials are increasingly concerned about the detention camps run by the Iraqi army and the Interior Ministry, which oversees the police force. In particular, several officials raised concerns about a detention center in Kadhimiyah, a predominantly Shiite neighborhood of northern Baghdad. The center, built to hold about 400 people, is said to house more than 1,000, with juveniles mixed into the population, officials said.
Some former inmates at Kadhimiyah have told human rights officials that they were tortured.
"They described routine ill treatment or abuse while they were there," said a U.N. official in Baghdad who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue. "Routine beatings, suspension by limbs for long periods, electric shock treatment to sensitive parts of the body, threats of ill treatment of close relatives. In one case, one of the detainees said that he was forced to sit on a sharp object which caused an injury."
An Interior Ministry spokesman, Brig. Gen. Abdul-Karim Khalaf, denied that detainees are abused at the Kadhimiyah facility.
A government legal committee, created under the security plan to monitor prisons, was denied access to Kadhimiyah when it requested an inspection, said Jasim al-Bahadeli, who heads the committee.
Understanding the scope of the Interior Ministry's detention program is difficult because prisoners are scattered across more than 800 police stations throughout Iraq, and the tracking system is not up to the standards of other ministries, officials said.
"The concern with the [Interior Ministry] is it's a black hole and no one knows what's going on inside," said the Western official.
Under the security plan, the Iraqi army maintains at least five detention facilities in Baghdad, but these are filled with scores, if not hundreds, more people than they were designed to hold, Bahadeli said.
During a recent visit to a detention center in the town of Mahmudiyah, south of Baghdad, his committee found 827 prisoners in four wards built for a total of 300 people. A visit to the detention center at Muthana air base in Baghdad revealed 272 people crammed into a facility intended for 75, said Maan Zeki al-Shimmari, another official with the committee.
In cells intended for individuals, "there were six people in every one," he said. "And if they want to use the bathroom, they have to do it inside these rooms using a bottle."
The spokesman for the Defense Ministry, Mohammed al-Askari, was not available for comment despite repeated attempts to reach him.
Ahmed Kadhum Latif, 20, said he was imprisoned a year ago at Muthana air base on suspicion of planting a roadside bomb. His account of his detention could not be independently confirmed, but it echoes the reports of human rights officials.
Soon after he was arrested, Latif said, guards demanded he confess. For a while, he refused. "They hung me in the air by my legs and beat me with a stick," he said in a telephone interview. "They beat me with pipes on my back and my stomach. They said, 'Will you be confessing now or not?' "
Latif said the guards, who were drinking alcohol, used electric shocks to burn his hands and held him for three days without food.
"I finally said, 'Yes, I have planted the explosives.' I didn't do it, but because of the beating, I confessed."
"No detainee goes in that doesn't get beaten," said Shimmari. "They take confessions by force."
Iraqi government officials acknowledge that the prisons are overcrowded and that abuses have taken place, but they tend to characterize mistreatment as an aberration rather than a systemic problem. Iraq's minister of human rights, Wijdan Salim, said the soldiers who serve as guards in Iraqi military prisons are not trained to care for detainees.
"It's not their job," she said. "They don't know how to deal with them."
The State Department chronicled a series of detainee abuses in its human rights report published in March. The report found "many, well-documented instances of torture and other abuses by government agents and by illegal armed groups."
Instances of abuse inside Defense and Interior Ministry facilities reported by local and international human rights groups included "application of electric shocks, fingernail extractions, and other severe beatings. In some cases, police threatened and sexually abused detainees and visiting family members," the report said.
To accommodate the burgeoning prison population and try to prevent such mistreatment, U.S. and Iraqi authorities are building two detention facilities in eastern Baghdad, one at an existing prison complex in Rusafa, capable of accommodating 5,250 people. At a camp in Baladiyat, to hold 850 prisoners, detainees will live in tents built for 30 people each, said Yei, the deputy justice minister.
The new prison space is part of a massive project called the Rusafa Law and Order Complex, a fortified compound near the Interior Ministry building that, when finished, will include a courthouse and dormitories for lawyers and judges, within a guarded perimeter. The goal is to create a second Green Zone-style haven where authorities can push through the growing backlog of criminal cases.
"This represents a small step forward -- and it must be emphasized that this is merely a foothold -- on two fronts: the political will to embrace the rule of law and the capacity to render justice through secure and legitimate proceedings," U.S. Army Col. Mark S. Martins, senior staff judge advocate, said in a statement.
Special correspondents Saad al-Izzi, Naseer Nouri and Naseer Mehdawi contributed to this report.