April 27, 2010
BAGHDAD — The torture of Iraqi detainees at a new secret prison in Baghdad was far more systematic and brutal than initially reported, Human Rights Watch reported on Tuesday.
The existence of the prison, which housed mostly Sunni Arab prisoners, has created a political furor in Iraq, prompted government denials and fanned sectarian tensions.
"Abu Ghraib was a picnic" compared with the secret prison, said Sheik Abdullah Humedi Ajeel al-Yawar, one of the most influential Sunni Arab tribal leaders in the northern province of Nineveh, where the detainees were rounded up by Iraqi soldiers based on suspicions that they had links to the insurgency and brought to Baghdad with little due process. Abu Ghraib is the prison at which American guards tortured Iraqi prisoners, severely damaging Iraqis’ trust in the United States.
Human Rights Watch gained access on Monday to about 300 male detainees transferred from the once secret prison at the Old Muthanna military airfield to the Rusafa prison in Baghdad and documented its findings, which it described as "credible and consistent," in a draft report provided to The New York Times on Tuesday by the rights group.
The group said it interviewed 42 detainees who displayed fresh scars and wounds. Many said they were raped, sodomized with broomsticks and pistol barrels, or forced to engage in sexual acts with one another and their jailers.
All said they were tortured by being hung upside down and then whipped and kicked before being suffocated with a plastic bag. Those who passed out were revived, they said, with electric shocks to their genitals and other parts of their bodies.
"The horror we found suggests torture was the norm in Muthanna," said Joe Stork, deputy director of the Middle East program at Human Rights Watch. Mr. Stork called on the Iraqi government to conduct a thorough investigation and prosecute all officials "responsible for this systematic brutality."
The prison’s discovery comes at a delicate time for Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, who is vigorously working to keep power after his coalition narrowly lost the March 7 national elections.
The revelations could further polarize Iraqis, still coming to grips with the scars of the sectarian conflict between 2005 and 2007. All those held at the secret prison before it was shut down were brought to Baghdad from Sunni Arab areas in Nineveh where Mr. Maliki, a Shiite, is largely perceived as a sectarian leader with a personal vendetta against anyone associated with the former Sunni-led government of Saddam Hussein.
Sheik Abdullah Humedi, the tribal leader from Nineveh, warned that the torture revelations had once more inflamed sectarian passions and could plunge the country into a fresh cycle of violence.
"This breeds extremism," he said. "In our country a man who is raped will commit suicide, and how do you think he will do it?"
At least 505 cases of torture were documented in Iraqi prisons in 2009, according to a report released by the State Department in March.
In an interview broadcast on Monday night on the government-controlled Iraqiya television station, Mr. Maliki by turns denied, played down and distanced himself from the latest torture allegations. He described them as "lies" and "a smear campaign" hatched by foreign embassies and the media and then perpetuated by his political rivals.
"There are no secret prisons in Iraq at all," he said.
Mr. Maliki described the prison at Muthanna as a transit site under the control of the Ministry of Defense, which used it for a "specific period." He said that seven judges operated at the prison and that most of the approximately 430 detainees held there were transferred to the Rusafa prison. The rest were freed before the existence of the site was first reported last week.
Mr. Maliki maintained that a group of lawmakers from rival political factions visited the prison this year and instructed the prisoners to make false charges and to give themselves scars by "rubbing matches on some of their body parts."
Nonetheless, Mr. Maliki said that he ordered an investigation and that several officers at the prison were being interrogated.
"America is the symbol of democracy, but then you have the abuses at Abu Ghraib," Mr. Maliki said. "The American government took tough measures, and we are doing the same, so where is the problem and why this raucousness?"
Mr. Maliki’s comments appeared to contradict information provided by a minister in his own government, officials at the United States Embassy in Baghdad and the latest Human Rights Watch findings.
Wijdan Salim, minister of human rights, said in an interview last week that she insisted on visiting the secret prison after learning of its existence and that she found evidence of abuses that were "against human rights and the law." Furthermore, the prison was under the control of the Baghdad Operations Command, a security task force answering directly to Mr. Maliki.
While investigative judges were stationed at the secret prison, they appeared to be complicit in the torture, according to Human Rights Watch.
A judge "heard cases in a room down the hall from one of the torture chambers," the prisoners told Human Rights Watch.
One of the detainees, a former Iraqi Army general who uses a wheelchair and who holds British citizenship, said he was tortured by 10 people: 6 soldiers and 4 members of the investigative team.
"They applied electricity to my penis and sodomized me with a stick," he told Human Rights Watch. "I was forced to sign a confession that they would not let me read."
Another detainee, a 21-year-old who was arrested at his home in Mosul in December, said that during one torture session he was blindfolded, handcuffed, stripped naked and then raped by another prisoner as the wardens laughed at his screams of pain.
A third detainee, who was also arrested in December, said he was strung upside down and severely beaten to the point where some of his ribs were broken and he suffered concussions that caused him to "urinate blood for days." The same man said two wardens threatened him with rape unless he had sex with another prisoner.
"Security officials whipped detainees with heavy cables, pulled out finger and toenails, burned them with acid and cigarettes, and smashed their teeth," Human Rights Watch said.