An elite security force affiliated with Prime Minister Nouri Maliki's office is holding detainees in miserable conditions for months at a time without access to lawyers or families despite Maliki's pledge last year to rein in the unit, Iraqi officials and diplomatic sources say.
Some detainees at the center, in a sprawling Defense Ministry compound in Baghdad's Green Zone, have been held for up to two years, according to the sources, who said that restricted access has prevented them from investigating allegations of beatings and other violence. Iraqi officials said efforts to aggressively monitor the facility appeared to have ended.
"It is inaccessible, and no one can go there," said one senior diplomatic source. "Lawyers cannot get there. Families cannot go there."
The facility, formally known as Camp Honor, is run by the Baghdad Brigade and the Iraqi Counter-Terrorism bureau. It stands at the heart of debate over the nature of Iraq's next government: Specifically, in a country still scarred by the legacy of Saddam Hussein's rule, how much power should any one office or individual be allowed to accumulate?
The Baghdad Brigade in particular has become a lightning rod for critics of Maliki's efforts to centralize power. Soon after it was established in 2008, the unit began holding detainees, including political figures, at the closed-off Green Zone jail.
The brigade came under more scrutiny last year when the Human Rights Ministry discovered a secret prison at another base in Baghdad that held 431 Sunni Arab detainees from Mosul, who said they had been tortured by their interrogators. The interrogators had been sent from the Baghdad Brigade's Green Zone jail, according to a U.S. Embassy cable viewed by the Los Angeles Times. A separate cable said the brigade "reports directly to the prime minister's office."
In April, when a Los Angeles Times report brought the existence of the secret prison to light, Maliki said he had been unaware of it. He ordered it closed and vowed to punish any perpetrators. He also agreed to hand the Green Zone jail over to the Justice Ministry, so that it would be open to visits from families and detainee's lawyers.
Maliki acknowledged then that there could have been some abuse at Camp Honor, but said that his office and the Human Rights Ministry were cracking down.
However, at least one informed Iraqi official and a senior diplomatic source say they have received new reports about the jail, including allegations of beatings and sexual violence.
"Conditions are quite poor. There have been allegations of abuse," said the senior diplomatic source, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject.
Though on paper the Justice Ministry is in charge of the facility, "in fact, you'll find they are not," the source said. "Those who are responsible from the security forces are very much in control."
A former U.S. official and onetime Iraqi lawmakers who toured the jail in the past describe it as a prefabricated hangar of 36 cells that reeked of human waste. The windowless cells designed to hold one person were regularly jammed with at least six, they said. According to two men who were held there last spring, detainees were allowed outdoors every other day for 30 minutes, and most suffered from skin rashes.
The ex-U.S. official said he had seen many prisoners with bruises and black eyes. If there was no space, or the guards wanted to hide them, some detainees were kept in a second building, the former official said. The senior diplomatic source and two Iraqi officials said they believe such practices were continuing.
A man held at the facility in April and May said he recognized one detainee as an official from Diyala, one of Iraq's most politically sensitive provinces. The arrest of Najim Harbi, a member of the Diyala provincial council, had sparked accusations that the security forces had become politicized. Harbi was elected to parliament last year, but has been unable to take his seat.
Iraqi counter-terrorism troops work closely with U.S. Special Forces, but diplomatic sources and Iraqi officials say the Baghdad Brigade answers only to the prime minister's office. In a cable last year, the U.S. Embassy said the Baghdad Brigade was "involved in detaining prominent political figures as well as other Iraqis who have little apparent connection to terrorism or insurgent activities."
A letter in October from the Human Rights Ministry to the prime minister's office demanded that it shut down the Green Zone jail, saying that was necessary "to reform human and legal conditions in the name of the sovereignty of law and respect for human rights."
It said judges and interrogators at the facility should be returned to their original government agencies.
It complained that no one could visit the detainees, and the efforts at reform last spring had failed. The letter cited allegations of torture from 2009 and said that nine detainees were regarded as having disappeared because no records existed for them. It said it was impossible for anyone being held there to receive legal counsel or a fair trial.
At least one of the interrogators suspected of torturing detainees at the secret prison last spring continues to work at the Green Zone facility, according to one Iraqi official. No one faces legal action over abuses at the secret prison.
Iraqi officials who have watched the situation unfold say they are dismayed by the failure of the prime minister's military office to overhaul the elite units.
One possibility is that Maliki is not even aware that reforms have not been implemented at the jail. "He issues plenty of orders, but he may not be aware of the details, practices and actions," one Iraqi official said.
Officials from the Defense Ministry and Maliki's coalition say the Baghdad Brigade has never been involved in abusive behavior. They deny that it falls under the command of the prime minister's office or that the group holds prisoners for long periods.
"The detainees are being sent to the Ministry of Interior, even those detained by the army, the anti-terrorism apparatus and the Baghdad operation command," said Deputy Interior Minister Adnan Assadi, who is with Maliki's Islamic Dawa Party. But Assadi also defended Maliki's right to give orders to security forces, including the Baghdad Brigade.
"The authority [and] that power is still remaining," he said.
Maliki's supporters say the prime minister needs to maintain control of a country where political groups have not hesitated to turn to violence, and that his use of the Baghdad Brigade is far more benign than anything his rivals might do if they were in power.
"Any one of us in his position would do the same thing — or even more," said Izzat Shahbandar, a Maliki confidant. "You're dealing with partners who are experienced in conspiracies, plots, rebellions and coups. And I can assure you, they're not hiding it. How else can you deal with them?"
Maliki's allies say that as security improves, police will take over more responsibilities.
The breadth of Maliki's powers was one of the major stumbling blocks in the nine-month stalemate in forming a government after elections in March. When political leaders finally reached a deal, they agreed to put limits on the security powers wielded by the prime minister's office. A new Council of Higher Policies will be headed by Maliki's rival Iyad Allawi.
But the balance of power still is unclear. Legislation to establish Allawi's oversight body has not been approved, and security ministers have yet to be appointed.
"I think Maliki wants to keep control of the armed forces and security," said one Iraqi lawmaker. "He suspects everybody — and this is a problem."
Iraqi officials say they already are seeing indications that the effort to aggressively monitor human rights is over. With a new human rights minister who is a close Maliki ally, the tough inspections that uncovered the secret prison last spring and probed torture allegations inside the Green Zone jail have been curtailed, according to two Iraqi officials who spoke on condition of anonymity.
The U.S. Embassy and Human Rights Watch expressed concerns privately last year about the possibility of a campaign to intimidate inspectors. U.S. influence is dwindling as the Americans withdraw the last of their military force this year. It is doubtful tough inspections will be tolerated unless the new parliament acts to establish a long-planned human rights commission to serve in a new watchdog role.
"The Human Rights Ministry will not be active," predicted an Iraqi security official. "They will do what the prime minister's office tells them."
Another Iraqi official added: "The inspectors are scared there is no one to protect them now.... Everything has changed there."