By William Fisher
Egypt’s pro-democracy uprising has pushed almost all other news – with the possible exception of the Superbowl -- off front pages and TV screens.
But while that dramatic collision plays out, news is being made elsewhere as well. And some of it is critical.
For example, a few days ago Human Rights Watch revealed that elite security forces controlled by Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki are operating a secret detention site in Baghdad, and torturing detainees with impunity at another Baghdad facility.
Here’s what HRW reported:
Beginning on November 23, 2010, and continuing over the next three to four days, Iraqi authorities transferred more than 280 detainees to a secret site within Camp Justice, a sprawling military base in northwest Baghdad, interviews and classified government documents obtained by Human Rights Watch reveal. The Army's 56th Brigade, also known as the Baghdad Brigade, and the Counter-Terrorism Service, both under the authority of the prime minister's office, control this secret site.
The hurried transfers took place just days before an international inspection team was to examine conditions at the detainees' previous location at Camp Honor in the Green Zone. Human Rights Watch has also obtained a list of more than 300 detainees held at Camp Honor just before the transfer to Camp Justice. Almost all were accused of terrorism.
"Revelations of secret jails in the heart of Baghdad completely undermine the Iraqi government's promises to respect the rule of law," said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. "The government needs to close these places or move them under control of the justice system, improve conditions for detainees, and make sure that anyone responsible for torture is punished."
The Iraqi government should immediately close the facilities or regularize their position and make them open for inspections and visits, Human Rights Watch said.
Detainee torture and abuse is nothing new in Iraq. Cables recently released by Wikileaks reveal that the deaths of Iraqi civilians caused by both Iraqis and the American military are more numerous than the numbers released during the Bush administration.
The New York Times reported: “While the abuse of Iraqi prisoners by Americans, particularly at the Abu Ghraib prison, shocked the American public and much of the world, the documents paint an even more lurid picture of abuse by America’s Iraqi allies — a brutality from which the Americans at times averted their eyes.”
Human Rights Watch reported that approximately 80 of the 280 detainees are being held by the 56th Brigade at the secret site at Camp Justice and have had no access to lawyers or family members. Prison inspectors are not permitted to conduct visits to the section of the facility controlled by the 56th brigade, prompting fresh concerns that the brigade may be torturing detainees.
According to government sources, the Counter-Terrorism Service is holding the 200 remaining transferred detainees, although the 56th Brigade maintains primary responsibility for security at the site in Baghdad's Kadhmiya neighborhood.
In one of the 18 documents obtained by Human Rights Watch, a letter from the prosecutor's office of the Higher Judicial Council asks the Office of the Prime Minister to instruct officials at the Camp Justice site to stop preventing prison inspectors and relatives from visiting detainees. The letter, dated December 6, 2010, says such a refusal "meets neither legal nor humanitarian standards, unless [the refusal is] specifically ordered by a judge at a specialized court."
A second letter, dated January 13, 2011, from the justice minister to the Office of the Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces, through which the prime minister controls Iraqi security forces, stated that a 56th Brigade officer prevented prison inspectors from the Human Rights Ministry from visiting the site.
The secret detention site is located within a legitimate Justice Ministry detention facility at Camp Justice, known as Justice 2 (Sijn al-Adaleh 2), which holds just over 1,000 other detainees. Camp Justice is the site of the former "Fifth Department" (al-Sha'ba al-Khamsa) intelligence office notorious during the rule of Saddam Hussein for torture and disappearances. The former dictator was executed there in 2006.
Camp Honor, from which the detainees were transferred, became the subject of media scrutiny on January 23, after the Los Angeles Times uncovered abuse there and described the conditions as "miserable." The article said detainees were held in cramped windowless cells that reeked of human excrement.
Recent interviews by Human Rights Watch of more than a dozen former detainees from Camp Honor had documented how detainees are held incommunicado and in inhumane conditions, often for months at a time. Detainees described in detail the wide ranging abuses they endured during interrogation sessions at the facility, usually to extract false confessions. They said interrogators beat them, hung them upside down for hours at a time, administered electric shocks to various body parts, including the genitals, and asphyxiated them repeatedly with plastic bags put over their heads until they passed out.
In interviews with Human Rights Watch in December, former detainees described the abuse at Camp Honor:
•One detainee said on December 26 that: "The cell was so crowded that we had to take turns standing and lying down, and would try to let someone lie down if they were an old man, or especially if they had just been brought back from interrogation. Then we usually could not stand."
•Another said on December 18 that: "I was blindfolded and put on the floor, face-down with my hands tied tightly behind my back. The interrogator stepped on my arms, and put more and more weight down on them until I was screaming."
•A third detainee, who had been held in Camp Honor the summer of 2010, said in a December 27 interview: "My hands were tied over my head and my feet were put in water, then they shocked me in my head and my neck and my chest. The interrogators beat me repeatedly and told me that they would go to my house and rape my sister if I did not sign a confession, so I did. I did not even know what I was confessing to."
In response to the Los Angeles Times article, which said Camp Honor is run by the 56th Brigade and the Counter-Terrorism Service, Iraq's deputy justice minister, Busho Ibrahim, told Agence France-Presse on January 24 that his ministry alone controlled the site.
"It is my responsibility, and I deny all these accusations - they are all lies," he said. "Families can visit their sons or husbands, lawyers can visit them regularly. It's like any other prison run by the Justice Ministry."
He reiterated, "It is not true that it follows Maliki's orders - it is run by the Justice Ministry."
However, HRW claims that documents they have obtained refute government claims that Camp Honor is controlled by the Justice Ministry. In one classified document dated August 2, 2010, the former justice minister, Dara Nour al-Din, requested that his staff obtain approval from the Office of the Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces to transfer detainees from Camp Honor, demonstrating the ministry's subordinate role at the facility.
In the note to his staff, the justice minister asks them to write a letter to the Office of the Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces "requesting permission for custody of the prisoners to be turned over" to the ministry so they can be transferred elsewhere. The document indicates that the issue arose after Deputy Justice Minister Ibrahim acknowledged that his ministry could not transfer detainees due to external interference, particularly from military interrogators.
Another document, from October 2010, signed by Ibrahim himself, says the ministry "has no objection to allowing lawyers and families to visit detainees" at Camp Honor but that, "it is only the tough security measures implemented by the Defense Ministry/56th Brigade section [of the prison] and the Counter-Terrorism administration section, and also the location of the prison in the Green Zone, that has prevented this."
In response to the Los Angeles Times article, Ibrahim also said that the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) had visited the Camp Honor prison. But when contacted by Human Rights Watch, the ICRC spokesperson, Graziella Leite Piccolo, said that ICRC had not been able to visit Camp Honor because the government had not met the organization's criteria for such site visits, including access to the entire facility and its detainees.
"It is important to note that, even if we had been able to visit, a visit alone is not a certificate of validation, but part of a process," she said. Government sources told Human Rights Watch that authorities have prevented the Human Rights Ministry from conducting any prison inspections at Camp Honor for more than a year.
Several government sources said that although the 56th Brigade, and its sibling, the 54th Brigade, technically fall under Defense Ministry administration, the brigades' chain of command bypass the ministry. They do not report to the defense minister or army chief of staff, but instead to Maliki through the Office of the Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces. Through this office, the prime minister also controls the Counter-Terrorism Service, which falls under no ministry and is not governed by any legislation. The Counter-Terrorism Service works closely with US Special Forces.
Military officers and officials from both the Defense and Interior ministries told Human Rights Watch that the 56th Brigade and the Counter-Terrorism Service routinely conduct operations, including mass arrests and detentions, without notifying the security ministries. A high-level Interior Ministry officer told Human Rights Watch on December 18 that these units "create confusion and a dangerous atmosphere where special units who have a separate authority storm in and take people." The official said that regular security forces were afraid of these elite forces.
Another official, from the Defense Ministry, told Human Rights Watch on January 23 that contrary to the usual practice, in which security forces process detainees through the main prison system, the 56th and 54th Brigades often refuse to give up their prisoners.
"Their families and lawyers cannot visit them," he said, "and sometimes cannot even find out if they are dead or alive."
Defense Ministry officials interviewed by Human Rights Watch said there is close cooperation between the 56th and 54th Brigades, commonly referred to by military and police as "Maliki's forces." Prisoners arrested and initially held in the prison run by one brigade are often transferred to the prison run by the other.
An Interior Ministry official told Human Rights Watch on January 13 that "people come to police stations or prisons looking for their family members who have been arrested. If we find out they were taken by Maliki's forces, we don't get any information about them or have jurisdiction to do anything."
Last year, the Human Rights Ministry uncovered a secret prison run by the 54th Brigade, with the assistance of the 56th Brigade, in the old Muthanna airport in Western Baghdad. In April, Human Rights Watch interviewed 42 detainees who had been tortured at this facility over a period of months. The secret prison held about 430 detainees who had no access to their families or lawyers.
The prisoners said security forces personnel kicked, whipped, and beat them, asphyxiated them, gave them electric shocks, burned them with cigarettes, and pulled out their fingernails and teeth. They said that interrogators sodomized some detainees with sticks and pistol barrels. Some young men said they had been forced to perform oral sex on interrogators and guards, and that interrogators forced detainees to molest one another sexually.
A US Embassy cable viewed by the Los Angeles Times stated that 56th Brigade interrogators had been sent to Muthanna from Camp Honor. A separate cable said the brigade "reports directly to the prime minister's office."
At the time, Maliki described the prison at Muthanna as a transit site under the control of the Defense Ministry.
However, a high-ranking Defense Ministry official distanced his ministry from the allegations of torture at Muthanna. In a classified letter to the Human Rights Ministry dated May 3, 2010, and seen by Human Rights Watch, Saleh Sarhan, general secretary to the defense minister, wrote: "Our ministry has no relationship with those military investigation committees nor to the Sur Ninewa [Muthanna] Detention Center, because both are attached to the Office of the Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces."
If this information were about any other country in the Middle East, we would say, “Well, that’s the way it is in that part of the world. The Arabs just torture people they have in their custody.”
But this is not just any Middle East power. This is Iraq – a country the U.S. invaded to end a brutal tyranny and allow Democracy to flower.
If the information published by Human Rights Watch is correct, the task will take a lot more Miracle-Gro.