Iraqi Prisoners Describe Alleged Abuse

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Details are emerging about the alleged torture of suspected insurgents in a secret Baghdad jail. All of those detained were Sunni, and the prison was run by the Shiite-led Interior Ministry. Renee Montagne talks to Washington Post reporter Ellen Knickmeyer.


In Iraq, the debate over public opinion now includes dramatic charges of prisoner abuse. More than 170 prisoners were found in a bunker at the interior ministry compound in Baghdad. Many of the prisoners are believed to be Sunni Arabs, the same group that the government has been trying to bring into the political process. Washington Post reporter, Ellen Knickmeyer, is in Baghdad.

And, Ellen, when you interviewed some of these prisoners, how did they say they'd been treated?

Ms. ELLEN KNICKMEYER (The Washington Post): Right. We talked to a 20-year-old law student, a Sunni, who said he was picked up off the street with his brother for reasons he was never told. He was taken to this interior ministry facility and he was held in a--went there for 37 days. He said that he was beaten, that he was subjected to electric shock and that he was left with very little food or water and he says he was then--for half the time, he was in a room with about 80 other Sunni men who were receiving the same treatment. And he was asked to confess at random to car bombings that he knew nothing about. And he says at the end of 37 days, he and his brother were released for reasons they were never told and he says that he thought that he wasn't going to get out of there alive.

MONTAGNE: And starved as well?

Ms. KNICKMEYER: It was a basement room that had been used as a bomb shelter under Saddam in this interior ministry building. They received nothing but bread and what he says were bottle caps of water.

MONTAGNE: Now this story has become especially explosive because it's been cast as abuse of Sunnis by their Shiite Muslim guards. Were all the victims Sunnis as far as you could tell?

Ms. KNICKMEYER: As far as we know, all the victims were Sunni. All of the people who were detained were Sunni. And this kind of goes to the heart of the power struggle between Sunni and Shias right now. Sunnis are afraid that if these--the Shia religious party comes to power that they'll be--that they'll receive this kind of treatment regularly. And the Shia are afraid of the Sunni continuing their insurgency. So both sides are trying--using the harshest methods against each other.

MONTAGNE: Iraq's prime minister has called for an inquiry. But how have political leaders generally responded?

Ms. KNICKMEYER: The Shia political leaders so far are staying pretty quiet. Prime Minister Ibrahim Jafari promised an investigation, and there's no sign that he had known of this prison or any kind of abuses publicly. But the Sunnis say that--Sunni leaders say they've repeatedly told Jafari and other Shia political leaders about these prisons and about these tortures. And the government's promising an investigation and the US military says it's going to help.

MONTAGNE: Ellen Knickmeyer of The Washington Post is reporting from Baghdad. Thanks very much.

Ms. KNICKMEYER: Thank you.

MONTAGNE: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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