Kafka In Baghdad: Iraqi Detainees Lost In Prison Maze

David Enders Feb 4, 2004

ABU GRAIB PRISON, BAGHDAD – This massive prison on the southwest edge of Baghdad dwarfs the small dwellings in the surrounding farming community and was once Saddam Hussein’s most feared detention center. It has new occupants and has been renamed “Baghdad Correctional Facility” but things are very much the same as before – family members of those detained inside wait anxiously in front of the prison gate, standing in line for hours for news of their loved ones. The road from the visitors’ parking lot is a humiliating and muddy slog of a few hundred meters, but lawyers and family make the trek to be met by U.S. military police at the gate who tell them only 20 visits are allowed five days a week. Two days out of the week are for lawyers only.

“They told me to come back in four months,” said one man as he walked away from the prison. “My son has already been in there for four months and he has been charged with nothing! It was easier to get a visit under Saddam!”

Rory McKewan, an independent Scottish documentary maker, has come to the prison trying to locate his friend Yunis. Yunis is a cameraman who was arrested during a raid on his house in the Al-Adamiyah neighborhood in north Baghdad.

A chunky MP ignores the Iraqis who approach the gate with us and speaks to Rory and me, a pair of Westerners.

“How do we request a visit with a prisoner?” Rory asks.

“Do you have the prisoner’s number?”


The MP looks surprised. It is impossible to get a visit without knowing the prisoner’s number, and many families are unable to find out the numbers – either they are not provided by arresting soldiers or they are not available on lists given to Iraqi offices or misspellings of names during capture and cataloguing prevent a family from even approximating where their relative might be.

Yunis’ family received his number when another man in the prison who is from Yunis’ neighborhood was released. Before being released, he wrote down the numbers and locations of many men he knew. This is how many families find out the numbers of their detained relatives, written on scraps of cloth torn from the prison yard tents.

“You can stand in line with everyone else and wait to fill out a form,” the MP says.

More than 100 people are already in line, and it is only 10 a.m.

Yunis, along with his brothers, Abbass, and Khalid, are three of the approximately 5,000 detainees the Coalition Provisional Authority admits to holding, though many suspect the real number is twice that. Virtually all are being held indefinitely and without charges – they are “suspected terrorists.”

Many of the families have traveled to multiple prisons across the country, searching for news. The trip from the detainment facility in Tikrit in the north to Camp Bucca in Umm Qasr in the south takes 11 hours by car, and prisoners are moved often. Transliterated names, often spelled incorrectly, can also make it hard to track someone down. In trying to track down Yunis and his brothers, McKewan made visits to various Coalition and military offices but eventually located Khalid’s number at the Al-Adamiyah mayor’s office. The numbers for Yunis and Abbass were not on the list.

“The Americans have no system – he might be in Abu Ghraib, he might be in Umm Qasr,” says Saeed Al-Hammashe, the head of the Baghdad Lawyers Association and the deputy president of the Higher National Committee on Human Rights, a local group.

Al-Hammashe says he has taken on 20 cases of men detained by the Americans and that he has been unsuccessful in freeing any of them or even receiving disclosure papers regarding the reasons they were arrested.

“It’s a runaround – only one person I know has succeeded in getting anyone out, using personal friendships,” Al-Hammashe says.

There are two systems operating in the country – some of those arrested are sent to jails run by Iraqi police, while others are taken to U.S.-run installations. Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, who commands U.S. troops in Iraq, says the Coalition is working to put more of its detainees into the legal system, but thus far it has been a trickle.

“At the Iraqi police station it is very easy – we have a system. There is a judge, there are police, there is a lawyer,” Al-Hammashe says. “But what [the Americans] are doing is illegal – they’re using military law against civilian people.”

U.S. press reports put the number of detainees at 11,000.

Al-Hammashe estimates the number of detained to be around 20,000. The mayor’s office in the Al-Adamiyah says the number is likely as high as 50,000.

“We suspect there are two lists,” says Matt Chandler of Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT), a U.S.-based non-governmental organization.

CPT is also raising questions about the treatment of prisoners after interviewing prisoners who report being tortured – having toenails pulled out or being beaten, starved, or left in intense summer heat without shade. The full report, along with thorough descriptions of prison conditions and raids, is available on the CPT website (

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), the only organization with access to the detainment camps and a mandate for monitoring the conditions, has drastically reduced its presence following the car bombing at their Baghdad headquarters last September. The effectiveness of the ICRC was in question to begin with. In June, an ICRC employee in Baghdad said there were camps within the country to which even the ICRC did not have access.

All fear the worst when their relatives are detained. One man said he went to Abu Ghraib and was told his son had died in custody, but no one notified the family. Reportedly, the translator who told the man his son was dead was then reprimanded by a nearby U.S. commander, who told the translator he should have told the man his son had been “released.”

Families are growing used to the separation as the detainments stretch for months with little information. Eid Al-Fitr, the feasting holiday that marks the end of Ramadan, is normally a festive event, but for many, it was subdued, especially in Al-Adamiyah, where Yunis is from. The neighborhood is a center of resistance and has been subjected to frequent raids.

The family suspects Yunis was arrested because he had been making frequent trips to film in Faluja, about 50 kilometers west of Baghdad and another site of frequent resistance against American troops. Khraymer says one of the neighbors probably told troops Yunis had been going to Faluja. Though the U.S. military refuses to confirm or deny these reports, many Iraqis say informants are paid by the military, which often acts on tips without finding out whether they are legitimate or in some cases, people simply trying to settle grudges. In June in Dhuloiya, a village about 40 25 miles north of Baghdad, nearly 400 men were arrested in one operation.

David Enders writes for Global Exchange and the Occupation Watch Center in Baghdad.

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