(MintPress)–Human Rights Watch (HRW) is calling on the United States to address evidence of torture in Iraqi secret prisons. A recently released HRW report alleges Iraqi security forces are carrying out torture in the 15-building military base Camp Honor, located within the Green Zone of Baghdad, previously occupied by U.S. forces.
The report includes testimonies of 35 former detainees, family members and lawyers who claim to have knowledge that such interrogation camps exist, and that torture is carried out as common practice. In March 2011, the Iraqi government claimed to have closed that portion of the prison, citing the use of torture.
Despite allegations, the Iraqi government is denying that citizens are being tortured and held beyond the boundaries of the judicial system.
In an interview with Mint Press, HRW Middle East Division Deputy Director Joe Stork said the Iraqi government and President Nouri al-Maliki could set an example by admitting to torture and addressing the issue through an independent judicial committee. While closure of the camp is an option, it does not guarantee that torture will be quashed entirely.
“This is what the Iraqis have to act on,” Stork said.
Although having close ties to Iraq, the Obama Administration has yet to acknowledge reports of abuse in military prisons turned over to Iraqi forces. While the U.S. may not be bound by international law to act on the matter, it does have the political authority to effectively and publicly address allegations in the report.
After reports of torture by the hands of Iraqi forces in 2010, the U.S. State Department acknowledged the U.S. has an obligation to report abuses when seen and to follow-up on reports. A statement made by U.S. State Department Spokesman P.J. Crowley at that time said the U.S. was not turning a blind eye to the situation.
Considering the U.S. handed over prisoners to Iraqi forces, Stork said it could be beneficial for the U.S. to study whether such prisoners were later subjected to torture at the hands of Iraqi forces. However, Stork acknowledged that U.S. use of torture in the past may stifle such messages to Iraq.
Based on witness testimonies, the report details an operation carried out by senior Iraqi security forces in which ‘sweeps’ are a common occurrence, resulting in the widespread arrests and detention of Iraqi citizens, who are allegedly most often not formally charged.
Two Justice Ministry officials told HRW on conditions of anonymity that those detained at Camp Honor secret prisons are not brought into the formal judicial system. Other government and security officials told HRW the prison is used as a facility of confession collections, often incited through torture. Detaining an Iraqi citizen without charge or trial is against the law in Iraq.
The most notable documented instance occurred in March of this year, just before the Arab Summit in Baghdad. The move was defended as a precautionary measure — a necessary action to prevent terrorism and embarrassing protests, according to six unidentified former detainees interviewed by HRW. The names of those included in the report are not revealed, to protect the identity of those still living in the country.
Many of those arrested say they were detained because of previous arrests by U.S. forces. An Interior Ministry official reported to HRW that security forces were directed to arrest those who had already been detailed, in an attempt to stifle protest and opposition during a time in which the world world was watching Baghdad. Former detainees backed up this claim, saying they were picked up in sweeps prior to the summit and told they would be released when it was over.
Cases vary by detainee, but some allege to have been detained for more than a month, without knowledge or charge of alleged crimes. Others interviewed in the report detail torture, including one man who said he was punched repeatedly and subjected to electrical shocks and another Iraqi citizen who claimed his father had been picked up in a military sweep, never to return.
“When I first arrived, I was blindfolded and had my hands tied behind by back, and I had to walk down a long line of men, each of whom punched me in the face and hit my head with wire cables as I passed them,” the man told HRW. “After that, I was in solitary confinement for some time, and then they brought me before the judicial investigators. I couldn’t believe that they beat so hard and gave me electric shocks for three continuous hours, without even asking me any questions.”
The same man said he was released only after his family paid $10,000 U.S. under the condition that he sign a confidentiality agreement, banning him from openly discussing his time at the prison.
Lawyers who take on legal battles within Iraq claim their hands are tied when it comes to dealing with the situation through a legal framework. Having stepped up to defend a former detainee swept up before the summit in March, the lawyer said he was accused of being a terrorist, in what he saw as an effort to intimidate.
The report also found that families seeking legal counsel for the release of loved ones found it difficult to find lawyers who would be willing to take on the cases, citing concerns of intimidation. One specific Iraqi citizen interviewed said he had attempted to hire four different lawyers, all who at first complied, but then declined when they learned his father was arrested in the sweep of “Baathist arrests.”
“It is amazing that all four had the same reaction and this made us lose hope,” the person told HRW. “We did not try to get another lawyer, and have no idea where my father is.”
Not the only one
According to the Human Rights Watch report, the International Committee of the Red Cross confirmed allegations of two separate secret prisons within the ‘Green Zone’ of Baghdad. The locations are allegedly attached to Camp Honor, but are considered separate facilities shut off from regular access.
In 2011, the Los Angeles Times published a story based on alleged leaked Red Cross letters to Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki expressing concern regarding four secret prisons within the nation that inflict torture on detainees. The chief prison named was Camp Honor, the focus of the HRW report.
The Ministry of Human Rights claimed the government had shut down the prison at that point, due to findings of torture. Since the prisons are operated under the defense budget, they fall under the jurisdiction of Maliki, who, as prime minister, is the active commander-in-chief.
Simply closing the prison is not the solution for ending the sweeping arrests and detentions, according to HRW — in order for change to occur, legality must be brought back into the judicial system. Doing so would require those detained to either be charged and tried or released, if sufficient evidence does not exist.
In addition, Stork said the independent judicial committee would be essential in evaluating and correcting the alleged systematic use of torture in Iraq. The committee would have the authority to identify known interrogators and those who were seen as the instructors of such actions. Those responsible for the implementation of torture should then, as Stork sees is, be subject to judicial prosecution.
Stork said the action the HRW is recommending would not be difficult for the government to do. The real question, however, is whether or not they will comply and tackle the issue. In the new era of Iraqi government, setting the stage at this point to address such issues has the potential to impact the future of democracy in the country.
“We’re not asking for a lot here,” Stork said.