Rights Group Reports Abuses In Secret Iraq Prisons

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A Human Rights Watch report says detainees at a secret prison in Iraq were subjected to routine and systematic torture. The Baghdad prison was under the control of the Shiite-led Iraqi government; the detainees are Sunni. And the revelations are already inflaming sectarian tensions. Melissa Block talks to Samer Muscati, a researcher with Human Rights Watch, who interviewed several of the detainees.


Detainees at a secret prison in Iraq were subjected to routine and systematic torture - that according to a report out today from Human Rights Watch. The Baghdad prison was under the control of the Shiite-led Iraqi government. The detainees are Sunni. And the revelations are already inflaming sectarian tensions.

Samer Muscati is a researcher with Human Rights Watch, which interviewed dozens of the detainees. He joins us from Baghdad. And can you describe, please, the extent and nature of the abuse that you were told about?

Mr. SAMER MUSCATI (Researcher, Human Rights Watch): What we saw was horrific. We went and saw the facility on Monday and interviewed about 42 detainees who had been transferred from Muthanna. And each of them us told us of specific cases of torture. Many of practices that were taken against them were the same, in the sense that people were flipped upside down, suffocated with a dirty bag and beaten and hit with belts and other implements until they passed out. And they were brought to using electrical shocks and other specific types of torture, as well, including pulling out fingernails and breaking fingers.

And we also examined the physical evidence and the welts and scars on their bodies, which appeared fresh. And it was surprising to see how consistent the scars were across, you know, the 300 detainees who were there. Almost - each one of them had severe bruising or scarring on the shin area where they were suspended from when they endured these types of beatings. But it was shocking to see what we saw there.

BLOCK: You also apparently heard numerous accounts of rape and sodomy in this prison.

Mr. MUSCATI: Yes. And it was obviously very difficult for detainees to talk about, especially in this culture. For a man to be raped or to be molested, it's extremely humiliating. And it was very difficult for people to talk about what had happened to them. But I feel that they needed to explain what had happened to them because they are seeking justice and accountability for what happened.

But it seems that the younger men - and actually there were minors there, as well - were subjected to rape while the older men were sodomized using various implements and molested in other ways.

BLOCK: Who specifically was in charge of this secret prison at the old Muthanna airport in Baghdad? Who was carrying out these atrocities that you heard about?

Mr. MUSCATI: From what we understand, the prime minister's military office was in charge of this facility. And it's, I mean, it seems that what happened reaches the highest levels of government. So the responsibility doesn't just lie with the torturers, it lies with all those up the chain of command. And hopefully there will be an inquiry to examine what happened at this facility and who exactly is responsible for what happened.

BLOCK: Well, let's talk about the response from the government, specifically from Prime Minister Maliki. He has said there are no secret prisons in Iraq at all. He calls this lies, a smear campaign by foreign media and his political rivals. The New York Times says he went so far as to cite the abuses at Abu Ghraib and said the American government took measures. We are doing the same. So where is the problem and why this raucousness?

Mr. MUSCATI: I think it's an unfortunate response. I think what the government has to do now is to come clean, to really have an independent inquiry to look at and investigate the abuses that happened at this detention facility and then prosecute those who were responsible. Unless they take such measures, the problem is not going to go away. It's rich to sort of make these accusations against the foreign media and totally ignore what the issue is. I think it's a red herring, and it's kind of you know, it's a diversion from what's happening there.

But I think they really need to interview these detainees if they don't believe Human Rights Watch, as well as the Ministry of Human Rights and others who have observed this behavior.

BLOCK: And where are these detainees now? Has the torture stopped?

Mr. MUSCATI: The torture has stopped. We did see them at a facility in Baghdad, and the detainees that were there said that the treatment they're receiving now is like a five star hotel compared to the previous detention. Even though they're in cramped conditions, at least the torture appears to have stopped.

We don't know where all the other detainees are. The minors were not there, although there were a few hundred detainees that we met, we're not sure what has happened to the fate of 100, whether they were there or they were somewhere else.

One surprising thing that we learned was that the actual facility they're in now documents the abuse and the torture, scars and wounds of 50 detainees when they arrived there because they were afraid that they themselves would be accused of torture because of the severity of the marks on the body.

So there is evidence within the system showing these marks and these wounds, and I hope that people in the government will get access to them and form their own conclusions, which I mean, will definitely conclude what we've concluded.

BLOCK: Samer Muscati is a researcher with Human Rights Watch. He joined us from Baghdad. Mr. Muscati, thanks very much.

Mr. MUSCATI: Thank you so much for having me.

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