United States Prepares to Leave Abu Ghraib Prison
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
As Iraq grapples with the increasing violence, the U.S. military is moving ahead with plans to move out of Iraq's notorious Abu Ghraib Prison. In the first of a two-part series on prison life in Iraq, NPR's Jamie Tarabay reports on Abu Ghraib and the new prison built by U.S. forces to replace it.
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JAMIE TARABAY reporting:
About 500 Iraqi male prisoners are standing behind a wire fence looking at the U.S. military guards on the other side. Some have brightly colored towels around their necks. Others are carrying copies of the Koran in plastic bags. They've been waiting to be officially released from Abu Ghraib all morning, but they're going to have to wait just a little bit longer. They have to face the media first.
Unidentified Man: I don't want to give up, and I'm (unintelligible).
TARABAY: This prisoner release was one of several open to the media over the past few weeks, held under the banner of Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki's national reconciliation program. Nearly 3,000 were freed, most of them Sunni Arab, in a bid to shore up support among Sunni political factions angry about U.S. military operations in their areas.
Hundreds of Sunnis are routinely rounded up in raids and brought to one of four U.S.-run detention facilities spread across the country.
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The released prisoners say peace be upon you, as they walk single file out the gate. Hamid Abdullah(ph) was detained five months ago during U.S.-led military operations in Samarra, north of Baghdad.
Mr. HAMID ABDULLAH (Abu Ghraib Detainee): (Foreign language spoken)
TARABAY: He says he has no idea what's become of his family, and he doesn't know what to expect when he finally gets home. He says he still doesn't know why he was arrested by U.S. troops.
Mr. ABDULLAH: (Through translator) Even if they were coming to our rescue, let them at least have a good reason to storm into someone's house, take over their street. In our thinking, this is the sort of thing that encourages terrorism. They came into my house without any reason. I was at home, sick.
TARABAY: One after another, they board the busses, their plastic sandals scuffing the steps. To guarantee their release, each man must promise not to join the insurgency and to be, as the U.S. military puts it, good citizens of Iraq.
Many of the prisoners released from Abu Ghraib said they were never told why they were being detained, never got to see a lawyer and were only informed on the day of their release that they were free to go.
Major General Jack Gardner, who commands the task force overseeing coalition detention facilities, disputes this.
Major General JACK GARDNER (U.S. Army) We try to give them the civic reasons why; we don't just tell them we're detaining them because they're insurgents. And we give them the opportunity to respond either themselves, or if they want a lawyer can provide a statement.
TARABAY: And, Gardner adds, a special board of Iraqi and coalition officials regularly looks over each case. Many Iraqis are detained on the basis of what Gardner acknowledges as circumstantial evidence. Their cases are reviewed and the board decides whether or not to keep them in detention.
They're not sentenced or convicted, but merely held because they're considered threats to security. Some of these people have been in detention for three years, but Gardner insists there's no violation of international law.
Maj. Gen. GARDNER: We're detaining people based on the authorization of the Security Council, but we want to make sure there is a defined due process so people don't perceive we're just holding people for no reason.
TARABAY: Some of the cases wind up before Iraq's central criminal court. It's housed in what was formerly Saddam Hussein's clock tower, which was used to showcase the different gifts he'd received from dignitaries, including the late U.S. President Ronald Reagan and Fidel Castro.
Now, prisoners in bright yellow jumpsuits shuffle in and out of courtroom hearings amid heavy security. It's an Iraqi-run facility. The head of the criminal court refuses to give his name and refuses to take questions. He makes a statement instead.
Unidentified Man (Director, Iraqi Criminal Court): (Through translator) In many cases, the court looks into our terrorism, corruption, genocide, kidnapping, organized crime of those sent to us from coalition forces.
TARABAY: The court is slow to investigate cases but quick to convict. It was set up in early 2004 and since then has ruled on nearly 1,300 cases. But there are thousands more still waiting to be heard.
Gardner acknowledges due process here moves far too slowly.
Maj. Gen. GARDNER: We're working to try to speed it up significantly. In March, we essentially doubled the number of military lawyers. And working with the Central Criminal Court of Iraq, increased the number of investigative judges.
TARABAY: The Central Criminal Court has been most efficient in processing cases submitted by coalition forces because of the help it receives from the U.S. military in particular. U.S. soldiers testify at the trials of those accused of terrorist activities, sometimes even after the soldiers have ended their tours. They tape testimony, which is played in court, but that means no cross-examination, and often the Iraqi on trial has no lawyer.
Major General Jack Gardner says that's common under Iraq's legal system.
Maj. Gen. GARDNER: A part of it is in this society here historically, I mean the lawyers have not been part of the system of defending people. We're trying to facilitate that.
TARABAY: Gardner says those convicted and sentenced go to Iraqi-run jails. It'll be up to the Iraqi government to decide what to do with Abu Ghraib once the U.S. military leaves. The buildings will remain, but the U.S.-supplied tents, air conditioners, even the barbed wire and fencing will be gone as American forces abandon the site of one of the biggest scandals to hit the U.S. military in decades.
Now they'll be sending detainees here, to a sprawling complex known as Camp Cropper.
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TARABAY: Standing on one of the catwalks overlooking the compound, Gardner says the new prison will house around 3,000. It's made up of dozens of mini-compounds made of pre-fab concrete buildings designed to hold about 60 prisoners each. All together, with the hospital and dining facility, the cost was around $33 million.
Maj. Gen. GARDNER: Each area, you know, has its own set of latrines and showers so they don't' have to go far for those.
TARABAY: With its 15-foot high chain-link fences and rolls of barbed wire, the prison looks much more permanent than the tent at Abu Ghraib, as though the U.S. military was here to stay. Jack Gardner says that's intentional.
Maj. Gen. GARDNER: Part of the purpose was to provide a high-class facility for coalition detention; but then at some point when the coalition detention ends, to be able to provide the Ministry of Justice a good facility for their long-term correction system.
TARABAY: Inside, the hollow cells smell of fresh paint. They'll be cameras installed in ceiling corners and foam mattresses placed on the floor for the inmates to sleep on.
Prisoners in Abu Ghraib used the iron rods from their bunk beds as weapons in riots and escape attempts. But even in this new sterile space there is still a threat.
Maj. Gen. GARDNER: So we watch. We try to separate by groups, so we don't put groups that oppose each other in the same compounds, in the same buildings.
TARABAY: Gardner says prisoners will get to watch television and will have access to radio and newspapers.
Maj. Gen. GARDNER: So the information they receive isn't from solely from an extremist who's inside the compound.
TARABAY: Even after the current round of prison releases is completed at Abu Ghraib and other sites, there will still be more than 11,000 Iraqis in U.S. military detention facilities.
Jaime Tarabay, NPR News, Baghdad.
MONTAGNE: Tomorrow, a rare look inside an Iraqi women's prison.