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IRAQ: Iraqi detainees face uncertain future

September 22, 2008 |  7:54 am

Fgdetainees22 "I was there when they took them away. It was in the afternoon, and I was praying at the time," says Sumaychiya Abid Ahmad as she recalls the day 15 months ago when her sons, Waleed and Tawfiq, were arrested. The Iraqi soldiers who led them from the family's home in Abu Ghraib, southwest of Baghdad, said it would be a few minutes -- just enough time to get their help with an electrical problem, since both young men are electricians.

But as the Los Angeles Times reported Monday, the two are among several thousand Iraqis being held in Iraqi detention centers who say they have never seen a lawyer or been brought before a judge after months or even years of detention. It's a problem that U.S. and Iraqi officials acknowledge exists, but fixing it is proving difficult as stepped-up security efforts pour more and more detainees into the Iraqi system.

Lt. Col. William G. Rogers, one of the U.S. military officers working with Iraqis to upgrade the country's law-and-order system, compared the situation to a bucket with a hole in the bottom. A free legal aid clinic established with U.S. funds and opened in May is designed "to widen the hole" and get detainees through the system more quickly. "We can't control what comes into this bucket," Rogers said, "but the length of time someone is in that bucket, we can control."

It is one of the ironies of improved security in Iraq that the bucket has been filled to brimming since early 2007, when the U.S. troop influx and stepped-up training of Iraqi security forces led to more detentions. The legal aid clinic is a novelty in Iraq, and Rogers hopes others will open up across the country. For now, only the Rusafa detention facility in eastern Baghdad has a clinic, which is paid for by American funds and staffed by 25 Iraq lawyers. Each day, they see about 80 detainees, who are brought into a cage-like holding facility until their turn comes.

Most say they don't know what crime they are accused of having committed. Many accuse Iraq's mainly Shiite security forces of arresting them as part of a sectarian cleansing campaign. Most of the detainees are Sunnis. They include Waleed and Tawfiq, who were arrested in June 2007. Tracked down in Abu Ghraib, their mother and father described a scenario eerily similar to that outlined by many of the detainees interviewed during a two-day visit to the Rusafa facility.

According to their mother, Iraqi soldiers rapped at the door of the home and asked where the two were. "The officer told me not to worry, that they just needed them to fix an electrical problem and that's it," she said. "I have been crying for my sons ever since that day."

Later, she says she learned that a witness had accused the two of involvement in bombings and in driving people from their homes during the height of the country's sectarian warfare. The parents, and the sons, deny it.

She and Taha Assaf, the father, say the people who accused their sons did so out of vengeance, or because they themselves had been accused of wrongdoing and beaten to confess. Rather than confess, they pointed the finger at someone else, said Assaf. "People would point the finger at anyone just to stop the beatings," he said.

Several detainees in Rusafa described being beaten unless they confessed to crimes. "I confessed to killing two people who are still alive," one man told a lawyer at the legal aid clinic when she asked how he had come to be detained. "Why did you confess?" she asked him. "Because of the torture," he replied. "It went on for 12 hours."

"They put us through unimaginable torture," said another detainee, a doctor named Kareem Faraj who has been held 15 months. He pointed to a man next to him with his front teeth missing and said the man had been held in the same jail cell as him and had lost his teeth in the beatings. Faraj said he was accused of terrorism based on information from a "secret informant" whom nobody would identify.

"It's been a  year and two months and so far nothing. No news from this secret informant," he said disgustedly. "I'm lost."

In December, a U.N. report on the human rights situation in Iraq criticized the "heavy reliance made on statements by 'secret informants' against suspects" in Iraqi facilities. Often, the report said, such informants never appeared for court appearances, leaving detainees in limbo.

Rogers and others involved in the legal clinic say they hope to chip away at the problem, little by little, and speed up processing of detainees. Three times a week, some detainees are freed from this facility after their cases are declared closed, either because of insufficient evidence or because they have qualified for amnesty. The number of releases is "radically increasing," he said.

"The frustrations can be great," Rogers added, "but you just have to take a step back and say progress is being made."

But in the meantime, resentment is building among those who have been held for crimes they say they did not commit. Their anger becomes clear in conversations with them in detention -- and even as they collect their belongings and head for the red minivan taking them home after they have been declared free to go. If they had faith in the Iraq or the U.S. government five years ago, many now say they are soured on both.

"I'm not happy today, because I was not guilty to begin with," 45-year-old Dawood Yusif said one hot August evening as he waited to leave after more than a year in detention. "If I'd been guilty and was now getting out, I'd be happy. This is a bad day." Asked whom he blamed for his situation, Yusif yelled, "I blame the Americans for everything that has happened in Iraq. And I blame everyone working for them. I don't trust anyone -- not the Iraqi government, not the Americans."

U.S. and Iraqi officials say it is more complicated than that and that blame falls in many places. In some cases, the fault lies with the shoddy arrest files provided to attorneys. Some, including those filled out by  U.S. security forces as well as Iraqis, make no note of a person's alleged offense. The legal aid clinic's director, a straight-talking former cop and lawyer named Kareem Swadi Lami, showed The Times several files that lacked vital information. This requires the clinic lawyers to try to chase down the information themselves, a laborious effort in a country where police stations were burned, cops were killed, and files are paper, not on computers.

Lami looked at one case file. "It's empty except for the man's name and his mother's name," he said in a frustrated voice. "His date of detention is April 4, 2007, but there is no detail on what he is accused of doing."

Assaf, the father of Waleed and Tawfiq, shares his frustration as he ponders his sons' future. "They said they just wanted them to fix some electrical problem," he said. "It's been more than a year now. Are they building a power station or something?"

See more of the interview with his sons here.

--Tina Susman in Baghdad

Photo: A detainee waits to see a lawyer at a free legal aid clinic set up with U.S. funds and staffed by Iraqi lawyers at a detention facility in eastern Baghdad. Credit: Tina Susman