Iraq’s Sunni vice president promised better treatment and a review for the inmates crowding the country’s prison system in a video released Saturday showing a boisterous welcome from prisoners jammed inside tarp-covered cages.
In the visit Wednesday to the crowded eastern Baghdad prison, Tariq al-Hashemi said his moderate Sunni party was working to improve prison conditions and to free the innocent, though the party itself has not taken part in the Cabinet since Aug. 1.
A Sunni political alliance, the Accordance Front, which includes al-Hashemi’s Iraqi Islamic Party has pulled its five ministers out of the government, saying Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki failed to respond to a set of demands, including the release of security detainees held without charges.
Rights groups also have complained about random detentions and overcrowding in Iraq’s prisons. Most of the inmates are believed to be Sunnis accused of participating in the insurgency, but critics say many are innocent and have been held for long periods without charge.
The video’s release appeared timed to boost al-Hashemi’s profile at a time when al-Maliki is trying desperately to shore up his crumbling government.
In it, many of the prisoners, who were jammed into outdoor wire cages covered with tarps, shouted out complaints of mistreatment and prolonged detentions.
“There is a new procedure in the works to review your files. Just be patient for a while,” he told the prisoners, often crouching to address them face-to-face below the tarp that covered the upper half of the bars.
“Those who are outside are not much better off than you. It is true that you are in prison, but at least you live in safety here, believe me you are more secure than those outside,” he added.
Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, hosted more talks among the political factions on Saturday, seeking support for an alliance of Kurdish and Shiite parties touted as a partial solution to the crisis.
“There are some issues that have not been resolved because they require time,” said Naseer al-Ani, the head of the president’s office. He singled out a law on the equal division of Iraq’s oil wealth.
Al-Hashemi’s party has refused to join al-Maliki’s new alliance, which is intended to ensure a parliamentary majority to pass key U.S.-backed legislation ahead of a pivotal progress report on Iraq due to be presented to Congress by the top commander in Iraq Gen. David Petraeus and U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker in September.
“If they insist on not returning to the government, the participating blocs will choose other Sunni Arab figures to fill the vacant posts. The political process should not be frozen,” insisted Ali al-Adeeb, a Shiite lawmaker.
During his prison visit, al-Hashemi told the inmates the authorities were working to speed up a resolution of their cases.
“I just want the names of the officers who tortured you, give me reports that mention where and when it happened and who was to blame,” al-Hashemi said as he walked from cage to cage. “I will not quit advocating for your rights.”
The inmates pressed against the wire, shouting and whistling in appreciation as al-Hashemi passed with a large delegation that included the Shiite Vice President, Adel Abdul-Mahdi.
Al-Hashemi acknowledged innocent men were among them, but he also urged patience.
‘They destroyed my life’
One inmate demanded to know his legal status, saying he was the director of a honey company and didn’t even know the charges against him.
“They stole my car and my wife’s jewelry,” he said. “They destroyed my life. I have been in here for two years now.”
Al-Hashemi responded that three of his own brothers had been killed in the violence roiling the country.
“This is part of the price all will pay, so just be patient,” he said. “There is oppression and we should all cooperate to remove it.”
Deputy Justice Minister Busho Ibrahim said the Rusafa complex that al-Hashemi visited had been opened to relieve the overwhelmed prison system and it was supposed to take 4,000 inmates.
“The whole prison is groups of tents. Each tent is supposed to hold 30 people,” Ibrahim said. “The reason it is overcrowded now is that the construction has not yet been completed.”
The facility’s guards received training by Americans in neighboring Jordan.
In violence Saturday, a string of mortar rounds slammed into Baghdad and surrounding areas as at least 30 people were killed or found dead nationwide. Those included 19 bullet-riddled bodies bearing signs of torture, apparent victims of so-called sectarian death squads usually run by Shiite militias.
The deadliest mortar attack struck a residential area in the Shiite enclave of Khalis, 50 miles north of Baghdad, with at least seven people killed and 18 wounded.
An Iraqi army officer, who gave the casualty toll on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to release the information, said a 4-month-old girl was among those killed and her mother was among the 18 wounded when about 16 mortar shells rained on the community, which is in the volatile Diyala province and is a frequent target of suspected Sunni insurgents.