Utahn involved in probe that uncovered abuses by detention guards
July 13, 2008
American investigators probing allegations of torture at an Iraqi-run juvenile prison in Baghdad found clear evidence earlier this year that Sunni children had been murdered by their Shiite captors, according to a lead officer on the investigative team.
"The security detail came in literally as they were cleaning the blood from the floor - they had just killed two Sunni kids," said Lt. Col. Craig J. Simper, a Judge Advocate General Corps officer from the Utah-based 419th Fighter Wing, who helped arrange the inspection. "The explanation was that these guys were trying to escape, but our investigation concluded that they were actually scheduled for release."
As part of an ongoing effort to transfer control of traditional government functions, the U.S. military is seeking to put more prisons and prisoners under regional leadership. But Iraq security experts say that, in some cases, the result of decentralization has been inadequate funding, training and oversight over detention operations in several Iraqi ministries, including the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs, which has responsibility for Iraq's juvenile detention facilities.
And that can create an environment ripe for abuse.
That's what Simper, a Brigham City resident, says the U.S. Department of Justice's Law and Order Task Force found during its unannounced inspection of the Tobchi Juvenile Detention
Facility shortly after Easter. The next month, the U.S. halted the transfer of 130 juvenile detainees to the facility.
Under the social affairs ministry, juvenile detention centers are supposed to offer academic and vocational training, but Simper described "a prison in the very worst sense . . . it was worse than the adult prisons."
"We found lots of evidence of torture, of physical and sexual abuse, just deplorable conditions," he said. "The rats were the size of Chihuahuas and the juveniles were being housed 50 to a cell."
Simper said the boys being held in the prison were as young as 6 years old. The two boys who were killed were in their midteens, he said.
But speaking on background, a senior official of the task force still in Bagdad gave a different account. The official said that there were "unsubstantiated allegations that two Sunni juveniles were executed on the street outside the facility after they were released" and that the task force "found no records of the incident and no documentary evidence."
Further, the official said other allegations of torture and abuse were from Iraqi Army or Police units prior to the placement of the juveniles in the facility.
"Over the past six months, there have been significant improvements to the conditions," at the facility, the official said.
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U. N. inspectors have reported on problems with overcrowding and hygiene at the west Baghdad detention center in the past, but officials who run the facility have always been given notice of upcoming inspections. And although rumors of abuse and torture abound, there have been few, if any, confirmed cases.
Although officially a government facility, the Tobchi center was almost wholly run by members of the Mahdi Army, a militia under the command of influential Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, Simper said.
Simper, whose tour of duty ended in May, said the American investigation has been turned over to Iraqi officials, but it is unclear what actions have been taken in response.
The task force's conclusions are not the first findings of gross human rights abuses within Iraq's central government. U.S. forces staged several high-profile raids on adult detention centers run by Iraq's Ministry of the Interior in 2005 and 2006, uncovering several "torture dungeons" where, in some cases, prisoners - most often Sunni men accused of insurgent activity - had been mutilated with chains, knives and power drills. There have been fewer public disclosures of such "liberations" of abused detainees in the wake of the Sunni-Shiite civil war, which reached a violent apex in 2007.
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But Kevin Lanigan, a former Army officer who served as an adviser to the Ministry of the Interior in 2006 and 2007 and now directs the U.S. Law and Security Program at the New York City nonprofit Human Rights First, said he cannot say whether that is the result of improvements in the way those working for the ministry - which by law isn't allowed to detain anyone for more than 72 hours - treat their prisoners.
"Nobody has good oversight or supervision," Lanigan said, noting that in many cases local militias have taken control of government operations. "There's just not a lot that's transparent about it."
Lanigan said Iraq's criminal detainees are supposed to be held in facilities run by Iraq's Ministry of Justice, though in practice the responsibility for prisoners is spread out over several other ministries, including the Shiite-dominated Interior Ministry, which does not get funding, training or oversight for that task.
Already, Lanigan said, the prisoners being held by the Iraqi government are straining resources. Transferring tens of thousands of additional detainees, currently under U.S. control, would create "lots of problems," he said.
"There are already, at the very least, serious problems of confinement and neglect," Lanigan said. "If you overwhelm a guard force . . . a very predictable outcome is going to be mistreatment of detainees."
As of the end of 2007, Tobchi was operating at twice its normal capacity of 200 detainees, according to the U.N. Assistance Mission for Iraq.