Iraqi Police Abuses Rooted in Saddam Era Nermine Othman, Iraq's acting minister of Human Rights, says a culture of abuse took root under Saddam Hussein and must first be changed before law enforcement meets international human-rights standards. She talks with Steve Inskeep about what it will take to end torture and killings in Iraq.

Iraqi Police Abuses Rooted in Saddam Era

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The U.S. government is trying to reform another institution: the police force in Iraq. Police were an instrument of repression under Saddam Hussein. The problem now is learning how to respond to overwhelming violence without adding to it. We've been tracking that effort here in Iraq this week.

One Iraqi who monitors police is Nermine Othman. She's a Kurdish leader who's finishing her time as acting minister of human rights. She says Iraq's new leaders understand how police should do their jobs, but not all the police do.

Ms. NERMINE OTHMAN (Kurdish Leader, Acting Minister of Human Rights): Still, we need many years to change the mentality of the police. You know that more than 35 years, we've been under dictatorships and they don't believe in human rights. Still, we are working to train them. And when they go out, direct from the training, they forget everything. Police in Iraq need many years to change their mentality.

INSKEEP: Is there a specific story you can tell me about something that you encouraged Iraq's police to do differently, and then when you heard that something happened that showed that clearly, that hadn't changed?

Ms. OTHMAN: Yeah, when we have (unintelligible) teams in Ministry of Human Rights. They are going checking all the detainee centers and they see they've been tortured, they've been asked in incorrect way. Their behavior--it's not good.

INSKEEP: What kinds of torture have you documented?

Ms. OTHMAN: Yeah, any kind of torture, we have document. Electricity--they're using--burn them...

INSKEEP: Wait a minute. They're using electric shocks and they're also burning people?

Ms. OTHMAN: Yeah, yeah. When we go and see them, so we see the mark of torturing.

INSKEEP: You're putting a hand on your leg?

Ms. OTHMAN: Yeah.

INSKEEP: That's one of the places that you might see a mark?

Ms. OTHMAN: Yeah, in the leg, in the back, and even in the face we saw some things.

INSKEEP: I know you have a staff that is assigned to go about and visit prisons. Have you ever decided to visit a prison yourself?

Ms. OTHMAN: Yeah, I visit Abu Ghraib. I visit Bucca and (unintelligible) and some other where. So, I visited them.

INSKEEP: What was that experience like?

Ms. OTHMAN: There's different people there. Maybe some of them, innocent, and some of them have link with terror group, and all of them being mixed, it's not good. We have no more than 50,000 detainees and when I asked some people, they have been in the prison more than two years, still they didn't be in front for the court.

INSKEEP: No criminal charges after two years?

Ms. OTHMAN: Yes, but it's now much better than before. We're looking about food, about healthcare, about capacity for their place--how many people they will be in there, much better than before. But still, there's torturing. It need work.

INSKEEP: Some people may ask if this question of treating detainees is really that important, given all the other terrible, terrible problems that Iraq faces right now and the tremendous violence in the country. Do you think it really matters?

Ms. OTHMAN: I think that when we are speaking about a new Iraq, we must speak about our behavior for every details--how police treating the people, how police treating the detainees. And when they capture some people of terror group, if we are treating them as they treat the people, it means that there is no difference between us and the terror people, and between us and the government of Saddam. When we are speaking a new Iraq--building a new Iraq, believing on human rights and democracy and then we must change our behavior. We must change our culture. If we not change it, then we have no difference.

INSKEEP: Minister Othman, thank you very much.

Ms. OTHMAN: Thank you, welcome.

INSKEEP: As her interview went on, Nermine Othman served tea in tiny glasses. That's the custom here in Iraq. It was not until the end of our conversation that she mentioned that her deputy minister's bodyguard had been murdered the day before.

(Soundbite of music)

INSKEEP: From Baghdad, it's MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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