Some don't know why they were arrested, and many are held for months without seeing a judge. Justice officials deny the accusations, but evidence points to deep-rooted problems.
March 22, 2008
BAGHDAD -- Sad, tired eyes peer out from behind the bars of Kadhimiya Prison. The pleas are desperate: "I swear I am innocent." "The criminal investigators raped us." "I have been here eight months and I have not seen a judge."
Nearly 200 women, some with their toddlers and infants living with them in their cells, are imprisoned in Baghdad's only detention facility for women. Suspected killers bunk with women charged with petty crimes. Some don't know why they were arrested.
"We consider all of them innocent -- innocent until proven guilty," said Abdul Qadir, legal advisor to Iraqi Vice President Tariq Hashimi. "They have constitutional rights that should uphold their treatment."
But in a country mired in corruption, the protection of constitutional rights is elusive. Some women report that their lawyers have been shot and killed en route to the prison. Others say judges have been bribed.
A Times review of nearly three hours of video -- shot inside the prison and provided by Hashimi, who is leading a call for protecting prisoners' rights and establishing a credible justice system -- suggests the problems are deep-rooted and systemic.
The ministries of Justice, Information and Human Rights denied repeated requests by a reporter to visit the prison.
"It will cause contradiction and controversy," said Busho Ibrahim, deputy minister of Justice, who oversees prisons. "People will start questioning the human rights and whether they're guilty or not. . . . I can guarantee you there are no human rights violations. We had four or five accusations, but after investigating they turned out not to be true."
But tales of injustice and inhumane treatment are plentiful in letters from female inmates, and evidence gathered by members of parliament and human rights activists indicates that the problems begin from the moment a woman is detained.
"This is not acceptable in any war in any time," inmate Suad Aziz Abbas, a former elementary school principal with 30 years of government service, says in one of the videos.
She and her daughter, a college student and newlywed, were charged with murder, convicted and sentenced to life in prison. Their arrests came as Abbas was searching for her only son, an oil engineer, who went missing in 2004. She had sought help from the Human Rights Ministry and elsewhere, she said, to no avail.
'Sit down and shut up'
When intelligence officers from the Ministry of Information called to say they had her son, she immediately went to see him -- only to be arrested. It is unclear whom Abbas and her daughter were convicted of killing; prison officials did not respond to questions about their case.
"They told me to sit down and shut up and don't ask any questions," Abbas said as tears rolled down her face. "They looted my house. They stole everything. They sentenced me to life in prison without any eyewitness, without any evidence. I don't know the killer or the victim."
Her son had been dead for a year, a fact she learned only after receiving a report from the morgue. He had been tortured and his body burned.
In a confidential memo to Midhat Mahmoud, head of the Iraqi Supreme Judicial Council, Hashimi's chief of staff asked that Abbas' case and several others be reviewed. Mahmoud did not respond to The Times' questions about the Abbas case, or other allegations from women who said they were raped, beaten or otherwise abused.
One woman told Hashimi she confessed to murder because she was tortured by investigators.
"They threatened to rape me," she said. "They stripped me naked and they tortured me with electricity and other devices. I admitted it after all this torture."
The women's allegations are rarely investigated, said Farah Saraj, Hashimi's head of women's issues, who is heading reform efforts at the prison.
Wijdan Salim, minister of human rights, said the women often come forward after too much time has passed. In other cases, their injuries are not documented properly -- a problem she is trying to remedy by hiring a female doctor to work at the prison.
"We are pushing the judicial council; we are pushing the Ministry of Information," Salim said. "We are trying to have crime documents to work in a better way. Everything will be better step by step."
More often than not, the women have little recourse, said Hania Mufti of the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq. "There are numerous complaints and little action," she said. "There still remains very little political will to hold people criminally liable on torture."
In the rare cases in which action is taken, Mufti said, the punishment is administrative, not criminal, such as a suspension or termination of police officials or prison guards.
Ibrahim denied any problems, saying he could "count on my fingers" the claims of torture and abuse: "If the prisoner has any complaints, she has rights and we will send it to an investigator." The only problem Ibrahim acknowledged was the major delays within the judicial system, an issue he said he does not control.
Under the Iraqi Constitution, detainees must see a judge within 24 hours of their arrest. During that hearing, a judge determines whether to move forward with the charges and the investigation process begins. But it is routinely months or longer before a woman faces a judge to learn her charges, and there are no consequences for missing the 24-hour window.
After last year's buildup of U.S. troops in Iraq and the bolstering of security in Baghdad, the delays have gotten even worse, Ibrahim said, adding that he has urged the judicial council to speed the process and hire more judges. Since the buildup began in February 2007, the number of inmates has grown from 9,000 to 16,000, he said.
Officials with the Supreme Judiciary Council said they had created 54 judiciary boards to look into the delays.
'There is no limit'
Qadir, Hashimi's legal advisor, said the delays were not limited to the initial court appearance. Investigations take months, as does the process of releasing detainees who have been cleared.
"At all of these levels, there is no limit," Qadir said.
One detainee said she had been imprisoned for four years without her case going to court, said Amal Qadhi, a member of parliament.
"Her case was theft," Qadhi said. "She was about 25 years old and she committed five suicide attempts because she had been waiting there for far too long."