Iraqis languish in crowded jails

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Times Staff Writer

Just five minutes.

That’s what Iraqi soldiers said they needed when they took Ahmed-Hussein Juma in for questioning in February 2007.

“And now here we are, 1 1/2 years later,” Juma said with a hopeless laugh last month as he stood in a holding cage, metal handcuffs on his wrists and a prison number stitched crookedly on his green jumpsuit.

Dozens of other men sat on benches at Baghdad’s Rusafa detention center, all waiting to visit a new U.S.-funded legal aid clinic that American officials hope will help clear the backlog of detainees lost in Iraq’s severely overloaded prison system.


In its bid to get the men fair trials or release, the clinic faces immense obstacles, not the least of which is a case file system that consists of paperwork tied together with bits of string. But even more worrying are the sectarian overtones: Most of the detainees are Sunni Arabs accused of terrorism-related offenses, and many claim to be targets of the Shiite Muslim-dominated security forces who they say used trumped-up charges to achieve sectarian “cleansing.”

As the Bush administration touts security gains, the issue of the detainees raises questions about the Iraqi government’s commitment to human rights, and undermines Sunni trust in the Shiite-led government -- a disenchantment that could even send some Iraqis into the arms of the waning insurgency.

“Unsurprisingly, someone who’s been deprived of their liberties for months and years without even a hint of due process . . . of course they’re going to be angry,” said Joseph Logan of Human Rights Watch, who recently spent time in the country researching the Iraqi justice system. “As the Americans found in 2003, the enemies you create are going to be there down the road. I think there is definitely political impact down the road from this.”

A concern for the Iraqi lawyers working at the clinic is whether the Shiite-led government will foot the bill when U.S. funding runs dry.


Odd concept for Iraqis

Kareem Swadi Lami, a former police officer and longtime attorney who heads the clinic and oversees its 25 Iraqi lawyers, acknowledges that most Iraqis would find it “very odd” that anyone was offering free legal assistance to Sunnis accused of terrorism. “If the Americans stop providing the money, I don’t think the Iraqi government will sponsor us,” he said.

Lami estimates that about half of the approximately 6,500 men in the Rusafa complex have been held at least three years. They are among about 26,000 detainees in Iraqi-run prisons; in addition, nearly 20,000 prisoners are held in U.S.-run facilities in Iraq.


As a former policeman, he acknowledges he is skeptical of many of the claims of innocence. But as an attorney, Lami says he finds it unconscionable that anyone should end up like Juma or the other detainees who say they have been held months or years without being brought before a judge or formally charged. Iraqi law mandates that detainees be brought before a judge within 24 hours of their arrest.

“I consider them neglected,” said Lami, who has headed the clinic since it opened May 12 with a $900,000 grant to the Iraqi Bar Assn. The U.S. military’s Law and Order Task Force provides advisors and logistical support. “Even if someone is a criminal, if I don’t have any evidence against him I can’t keep him.”

Yet Lami and U.S. officials acknowledge that this is exactly what is happening, despite an amnesty law passed in February by the Iraqi parliament. The law was supposed to unclog the system by freeing detainees who had been languishing on minor charges, but factors such as mistrust, bureaucratic laziness and a lack of computers in Iraq’s justice system are slowing things down.

Since the law passed, 5,062 cases have been submitted for consideration and 1,420 Rusafa inmates have been freed, but new detainees arrive each day.

William V. Gallo, director of the Law and Order Task Force, said the system had “improved tremendously” in recent months. Security improvements nationwide have made it easier for judges and lawyers to do their jobs, and more judges have been hired, he said.

But speaking of the amnesty law, Gallo said, “It hasn’t worked as well as we thought it would.”


Part of the problem is the mistrust of Justice Ministry officials, who suspect that some release orders are forged and don’t honor them until they can be convinced of their authenticity. In most cases, when a judge signs a release order, there is a “mad scramble” by ministry officials to ascertain that the detainee isn’t wanted elsewhere on other charges, such as murder, not covered by the amnesty, Gallo said. Phone calls must be made or messages sent via courier to dozens of police precincts.

In a country where detainee files are nothing more than pages held together with straight pins and string, there is no computer database to check for an inmate’s records. It can take months to get responses, during which time the detainee ordered freed sits in prison.

There are success stories. A clinic lawyer, Sadiq Mafalji, had a client who had confessed to murder. “After we did some research, we found that the person was alive,” said Mafalji, describing what lawyers say is a common situation in the prisons, whereby detainees are coerced or tortured until they confess to crimes.

“He was detained for three years and eight months. His order for release came today,” Mafalji said. “If we hadn’t done anything, he’d be in prison 20 years.”

Because of the problems outlined by Gallo, though, there was no guarantee the man would go free anytime soon.

Lawyer Kareem Tamimi said some detainees had spent years or months in prison for littering or other minor offenses because their files had been lost.


Even if the paperwork’s location is known, it can be impossible to obtain.

Abdul Muhsin Asadi, another attorney, told of a man who has been in prison more than a year on a misdemeanor charge but is unable to prove it to a judge because his file is in insurgent-riddled Diyala province. “Who’s going to go to Diyala to get his papers?” Asadi asked.

Adding to the obstacles, in the last five years, police stations have been bombed, files have been destroyed, and arresting officers have been killed.

Even when case files are traced, they don’t always reach the lawyers at the clinic. Gallo said there were cases of couriers being hijacked and files being destroyed or tampered with to ensure someone remained behind bars.


‘Arbitrary detentions’

“People can be influenced, and there are people at various levels who are corrupted,” he said. “There are clerks who are getting paid to do stuff.”

Iraqi government officials acknowledge problems but say things are improving as more judges are hired and prisons opened.

Juma said he was jailed on a trumped-up murder charge and that the man he was accused of killing is alive. He said his visit to the legal aid clinic would be the first time he had seen a lawyer since his arrest.


“They do arbitrary detentions,” he said of the Muthanna Brigade of the Iraqi army, which operates in the Abu Ghraib suburb of Baghdad where he was picked up. The unit has been accused of abusing prisoners, and some of the men interviewed in Rusafa said they were tortured in detention, either by the brigade or other units. “They just said they were going to ask me some questions for five minutes.”

Nearby sat a man with his left leg amputated above the knee. He identified himself as Raad Kareem Faraj and said he was a psychiatrist from Baghdad’s Bayaa neighborhood who had been held since June 2007.

“It’s a sectarian campaign. Nothing more, nothing less,” Faraj said, noting that virtually all the detainees were Sunnis.

Gallo said that though sectarian-based sweeps such as those described by many Rusafa detainees were common two, three and four years ago, he believed they had declined dramatically in the last year. He also said there were plans to open five more legal aid clinics across the country and that efforts were underway to renew the grant to the Rusafa clinic for another year when the money runs out in February 2009.

Eventually, U.S. officials and Iraqi lawyers say, they hope Iraq’s government will recognize the value of such programs and be willing to take charge of them.

“We’ve paving the way,” Asadi said. “Things have been frozen for years. If it weren’t for this entity, they’d still be frozen.”



Times staff writer Said Rifai contributed to this report.



He gets around

Marine Lance Cpl. Migdad H. Mustafa went from Sudan to Yemen to South Dakota to Iraq.