Life in Custody
The cases of US-detained Iraqis are reviewed by a committee of US military
and Iraqi government officials. The panel recommends criminal charges against
some, release for others. As of Sept. 9, the Central Criminal Court of Iraq had
put 1,445 on trial, convicting 1,252. In the last week of August, for example,
38 were sentenced on charges ranging from illegal weapons possession to murder,
for the shooting of a US Marine.
Almost 18,700 have been released since June 2004, the US command says, not
including many more who were held and then freed by local military units and
never shipped to major prisons.
Some who were released, no longer considered a threat, later joined or
rejoined the insurgency.
The review process is too slow, say UN officials. Until they are released,
often families don't know where their men are - the prisoners are usually
men - or even whether they're in American hands.
Ex-detainee Mouayad Yasin Hassan, 31, seized in April 2004 as a suspected
Sunni Muslim insurgent, said he wasn't allowed to obtain a lawyer or contact his
family during 13 months at Abu Ghraib and Bucca, where he was interrogated
incessantly. When he asked why he was in prison, he said, the answer was, "We
keep you for security reasons."
Another released prisoner, Waleed Abdul Karim, 26, recounted how his guards
would wield their absolute authority.
"Tell us about the ones who attack Americans in your neighborhood," he quoted
an interrogator as saying, "or I will keep you in prison for another 50 years."
As with others, Karim's confinement may simply have strengthened support for
the anti-US resistance. "I will hate Americans for the rest of my life," he
As bleak and hidden as the Iraq lockups are, the Afghan situation is even
less known. Accounts of abuse and deaths emerged in 2002-2004, but if Abu
Ghraib-like photos from Bagram exist, none have leaked out. The US military is
believed holding about 500 detainees - most Afghans, but also apparently
Arabs, Pakistanis and Central Asians.
The United States plans to cede control of its Afghan detainees by early next
year, five years after invading Afghanistan to eliminate al-Qaida's base and
bring down the Taliban government. Meanwhile, the prisoners of Bagram exist in a
legal vacuum like that elsewhere in the US detention network.
"There's been a silence about Bagram, and much less political discussion
about it," said Richard Bennett, chief UN human rights officer in Afghanistan.
Freed detainees tell how in cages of 16 inmates they are forbidden to speak
to each other. They wear the same orange jumpsuits and shaven heads as the
terrorist suspects at Guantanamo, but lack even the scant legal rights granted
inmates at that Cuba base. In some cases, they have been held without charge for
three to four years, rights workers say.
Guantanamo received its first prisoners from Afghanistan - chained,
wearing blacked-out goggles - in January 2002. A total of 770 detainees
were sent there. Its population today of Afghans, Arabs and others, stands at
Described as the most dangerous of America's "war on terror" prisoners, only
10 of the Guantanamo inmates have been charged with crimes. Charges are expected
against 14 other al-Qaida suspects flown in to Guantanamo from secret prisons on
Plans for their trials are on hold, however, because of a Supreme Court
ruling in June against the Bush administration's plan for military tribunals.
The court held the tribunals were not authorized by the US Congress and
violated the Geneva Conventions by abrogating prisoners' rights. In a sometimes
contentious debate, the White House and Congress are trying to agree on a new,
acceptable trial plan.
Since the court decision, and after four years of confusing claims that
terrorist suspects were so-called "unlawful combatants" unprotected by
international law, the Bush administration has taken steps recognizing that the
Geneva Conventions' legal and human rights do extend to imprisoned al-Qaida
militants. At the same time, however, the new White House proposal on tribunals
retains such controversial features as denying defendants access to some
evidence against them.
In his Sept. 6 speech, Bush acknowledged for the first time the existence of
the CIA's secret prisons, believed established at military bases or safehouses
in such places as Egypt, Indonesia and eastern Europe. That network, uncovered
by journalists, had been condemned by UN authorities and investigated by the
Council of Europe.
The clandestine jails are now empty, Bush announced, but will remain a future
option for CIA detentions and interrogation.
Louise Arbour, UN human rights chief, is urging Bush to abolish the CIA
prisons altogether, as ripe for "abusive conduct." The CIA's techniques for
extracting information from prisoners still remain secret, she noted.
Meanwhile, the US government's willingness to resort to "extraordinary
rendition," transferring suspects to other nations where they might be tortured,
Prosecutions and Memories
The exposure of sadistic abuse, torture and death at Abu Ghraib two years ago
touched off a flood of courts-martial of mostly lower-ranking US soldiers.
Overall, about 800 investigations of alleged detainee mistreatment in Iraq and
Afghanistan have led to action against more than 250 service personnel,
including 89 convicted at courts-martial, US diplomats told the United Nations
Critics protest that penalties have been too soft and too little has been
done, particularly in tracing inhumane interrogation methods from the far-flung
islands of the overseas prison system back to policies set by high-ranking
In only 14 of 34 cases has anyone been punished for the confirmed or
suspected killings of detainees, the New York-based Human Rights First reports.
The stiffest sentence in a torture-related death has been five months in jail.
The group reported last February that in almost half of 98 detainee deaths, the
cause was either never announced or reported as undetermined.
Looking back, the United States overreacted in its treatment of detainees
after Sept. 11, said Anne-Marie Slaughter, a noted American scholar of
It was understandable, the Princeton University dean said, but now "we have
to restore a balance between security and rights that is consistent with who we
are and consistent with our security needs."
Otherwise, she said, "history will look back and say that we took a dangerous
and deeply wrong turn."
Back here in Baghdad, at the Alawi bus station, a gritty, noisy hub far from
the meeting rooms of Washington and Geneva, women gather with fading hopes
whenever a new prisoner release is announced.
As she watched one recent day for a bus from distant Camp Bucca, one mother
wept and told her story.
"The Americans arrested my son, my brother and his friend," said Zahraa
Alyat, 42. "The Americans arrested them October 16, 2005. They left together and
I don't know anything about them."
The bus pulled up. A few dozen men stepped off, some blindfolded, some bound,
none with any luggage, none with familiar faces.
As the distraught women straggled away once more, one ex-prisoner,
18-year-old Bilal Kadhim Muhssin, spotted US troops nearby.
"Americans," he muttered in fear. "Oh, my God, don't say that name," and he
bolted for a city bus, and freedom.