On January 1, 2009 the new Status of Forces Agreement came into affect. Part of the deal involves turning over prisoners held by the Americans to Iraqi authorities. The U.S. has around 15,000 detainees that will begin being handed over to Baghdad’s control in February. Many human rights groups are concerned about how they will be treated in Iraqi jails.
International organizations and Iraqi officials have all reported that human rights violations are common in Iraqi detention facilities. Amnesty International’s Middle East director told the Financial Times that charges of torture and abuse by Iraqi police and guards often occurred. In mid-December 2008 the Minister of Women Affairs Nawal al-Samarrai said women prisoners were routinely beaten and faced bad conditions. The United Nations December 2008 human rights report on Iraq found that mistreatment was common in Iraqi prisons. Many are tortured, stuffed into prisons beyond capacity, receive no legal aid, and wait for months to years before ever seeing a judge. In Kurdistan, it found that the Kurdish authorities moved prisoners to secret detention facilities before U.N. officials came to inspect their jails. The most recent and publicized case involving abuse is that of journalist Muntadar al-Zaidi who threw his shoes at President Bush. According to his brother guards beat al-Zaidi with metal pipes. Most importantly, these beatings have become an accepted part of Iraq’s justice system. Human Rights Watch found that courts and judges know that police and guards beat prisoners to gain confessions, yet accept the evidence anyway.
Iraq’s court system also lacks due process because of sectarianism and political influence. A group of U.S. funded Iraqi lawyers for example, working at the Rusafa Prison in Baghdad told the Los Angeles Times that the Ministry of Justice regularly bends the rules to keep prisoners behind bars. The attorneys said that because most of the prisoners were Sunni, the Justice Ministry did not trust them. That led officials to not follow release orders or they drummed up extra charges to keep detainees in jail. Minister Samarrai added that political parties and militias hold sway over the courts and judges. The result of both is that prisoners often remain in prison indefinitely.
It is into this milieu that thousands of Iraqi prisoners are about to be placed into. Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and the International Red Cross are all calling for the United States to ensure the safety of the detainees they are transferred to the Iraqis. The U.S. is at least attempting to solve the overcrowding issue by funding the construction of six new prisons. Until then the Ministry of Justice is renovating the Abu Ghraib prison to hold the prisoners it gets from the United States.
Like many of Iraq’s institutions, the country’s justice system was rebuilt almost from scratch by the United States after the invasion. The number of judges has gone from zero in May 2003 to 1,180 in June 2008. The U.S. has spent millions on building a secure facility for them in Baghdad. The results have been disappointing however as just about every commentator has found that the courts simply don’t work. Even the Pentagon in its last quarterly report to Congress on Iraq in September 2008 found that American aid has done little to help Iraq’s problematic legal situation. Having Iraqis hold Iraqis is an important step towards sovereignty. The problem is that the country is still living with its legacy of abuse and mistreatment.
Department of Defense, “Measuring Stability and Security in Iraq,” September 2008
Dhiyab, Abdulrahman, “Iraqi prisons’ conditions appalling, says minister,” Azzaman, 12/18/08
Fifield, Anna, “Fears for Iraqi prisoners after handover,” Financial Times, 12/30/08
Human Rights Watch, “The Quality of Justice, Failings of Iraq’s Central Criminal Court,” December 2008
Jawad, Laith, “Iraq readies Abu Ghraib for U.S.-held detainees,” Azzaman, 12/27/08
Leinwand, Donna, “Wheels of justice slowly returning to Iraqi court,” USA Today, 2/26/08
O’Hanlon, Michael and Campbell, Jason, “Iraq Index,” Brookings Institution, 11/20/08
Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction, “Quarterly Report to the United States Congress,” 10/30/08
Susman, Tina, “Iraqi detainees languish in clogged justice system,” Los Angeles Times, 9/22/08
UN Assistance Mission for Iraq, “Human Rights Report 1 January – 30 June 2008,” December 2008