Combat operations in Iraq are over, if you believe President Barack Obama’s rhetoric. But torture in Iraq’s prisons, first exposed during the Abu Ghraib scandal, is thriving, increasingly distant from any scrutiny or accountability. After arresting tens of thousands of Iraqis, often without charge, and holding many for years without trial, the United States has handed over control of Iraqi prisons, and 10,000 prisoners, to the Iraqi government. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.
After landing in London late Saturday night, we traveled to the small suburb of Kilburn to speak with Rabiha al-Qassab, an Iraqi refugee who was granted political asylum in Britain after her brother was executed by Saddam Hussein. Her husband, 68-year-old Ramze Shihab Ahmed, was a general in the Iraqi army under Saddam, fought in the Iran-Iraq War and was part of a failed plot to overthrow the Iraqi dictator. The couple was living peacefully for years in London, until September 2009.
It was then that Ramze Ahmed learned his son, Omar, had been arrested in Mosul, Iraq. Ahmed returned to Iraq to find him and was arrested himself.
For months, Rabiha didn’t know what had become of her husband. Then, on March 28, her cell phone rang. “I don’t know the voice,” she told me.
“I said, ‘Who are you?’ He said he is very sick … he said, ‘Me, Ramze, Ramze. Call embassy.’ And they took the mobile, and they stop talking.”
Ramze Ahmed was being held in a secret prison at the old Muthanna Airport in Baghdad. A recent report from Amnesty International, titled “New Order, Same Abuses,” describes Muthanna as “one of the harshest” prisons in Iraq, the scene of extensive torture and under the control of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
As Rabiha showed me family photos, a piece of paper with English and Arabic words slipped out. Rabiha explained that in order to describe in English what happened to her husband, she had to consult a dictionary, since she had never used several of the English words: “Rape.” “Stick.” “Torture.” She wept as she described his account of being sodomized with a stick, suffocated repeatedly with plastic bags placed over his head, and shocked with electricity.
Not surprisingly, as detailed in the Amnesty report, the Iraqi government said that Ramze Shihab Ahmed had confessed to links to al-Qaida in Iraq. In a January 2010 press conference organized by the Iraqi Ministry of Defense, videotapes were played showing nine others confessing to crimes, including Ahmed’s son, Omar, who, showing signs of beatings, confessed to “the killing of several Christians in Mosul and the detonation of a bomb in a village near Mosul.”
Malcolm Smart, director of Amnesty International’s Middle East and North Africa program, told me in London, “there’s a culture of abuse [in Iraq] that has taken root. It was certainly there during the days of Saddam Hussein, but what we wanted to see from 2003 was a turning of the page, and that hasn’t happened. So we see secret prisons, people being tortured and ill-treated, being forced to make confessions … the perpetrators are not being held to account. They’re not being identified.”
After that brief, interrupted phone call that Rabiha received from her husband, she did call the British government, and its embassy in Iraq tracked Ahmed down in al-Rusafa prison in Baghdad. Normally with a cane, they found him in a wheelchair. Rabiha has a photo of him taken by the British representative.
Amnesty reports that there are an estimated 30,000 prisoners in Iraq (200 remaining under U.S. control). The condition and treatment of the Iraqi prisoners is considered by the U.S. to be, Smart says, “an Iraqi issue.” But with the U.S. continuing to pour billions of dollars into its ongoing military presence there, and to fund the Iraqi government, the treatment of prisoners is clearly a U.S. issue as well. Amnesty has launched a grass-roots campaign to spur further action to secure Ahmed’s release.
Meanwhile, Rabiha al-Qassab, isolated and alone in north London, spends time feeding the ducks in a local park, which her husband used to do.
She told me: “I talk with the ducks. I say, ‘You remember the man who gave you the food? He is in a prison. Ask God to help him.’ “
Denis Moynihan contributed research to this column.
© 2010 Amy Goodman