It was a warm spring evening in a
A neighbour confirms that a shot had been fired, but it was part of a row between the Ghanis and another family. “In
The American soldiers searched the Ghanis’ house, but found nothing. For three hours Sufian was kept on the ground with the two adults. Then the Americans put hoods over their heads, tied their hands with tight plastic bracelets, and drove them away. “Why are you taking my son?” a desperate Abdullah Ghani pleaded. “Don’t worry. As he’s a child, we’ll send him back in a couple of days,” a Sergeant Stark assured him.
The three were driven off to
Sufian spent eight days in a tent with around 20 adults. They were given yellow packets of ready-to-eat meals, the standard
A woman prisoner spotted Sufian and realised he was much younger than the other inmates. On her release she went to see the Ghanis, who had been searching frantically for their son. It was now June 17, almost three weeks after his arrest on May 28.
They brought the boy food and clean clothes, and four days later obtained an order from Mohammed Latif al- Duleimi, a US-approved investigating judge, for Sufian’s immediate release. Sufian’s father took it to the
Ghani turned for help to the new US-founded police academy. He met a Captain Crusoe, who took up the case and rang a
Ghani went back to Crusoe, who made more phone calls, to no avail. Finally Crusoe went to the detention centre with Ghani, and brought Sufian out himself. “Take your son,” he said.
After 24 days the boy’s ordeal was over, but he regularly has nightmares. However, his case is not the worst in the four months since the Americans occupied
The answer is: easily. Sufian’s detention highlights the problems faced by hundreds of Iraqis: arrests followed by incompetent interrogation, or none at all; the lack of an efficient trial-or-release system; shocking prison conditions; constant buck-passing; and sloppy paperwork by the coalition authorities. The result is that in almost every case families take weeks or months to find out where their loved ones are being detained.
Ahmed Suhail, a final-year high-school student, was with his father, a well-known
After three weeks, for no apparent reason, Dr Suhail was taken to Abu Ghraib, Saddam’s notorious
Umm Qasr is close to the Kuwaiti border, about 400 miles from
After 33 days there, and 66 of detention in all, Ahmed was brought back to
One reason for Iraqi suspects’ lengthy stays in the tented camps at Baghdad airport and Abu Ghraib is the coalition authority’s decision to award itself 90 days before a detainee needs to be brought before a magistrate or judge. Amnesty International, which has produced a detailed memorandum of concern about the coalition’s handling of law and order, points out a bizarre double standard: suspects held by the Iraqi police have to have their case reviewed by a magistrate within 24 hours.
Amnesty also reported that the coalition’s rules require that suspects should be allowed to consult a lawyer within 72 hours of “induction” into a detention camp. In practice, there is no deadline for induction and “detainees appear to be invariably denied access to lawyers, sometimes for weeks,” it said.
Another reason for the chaos is the coalition’s failure to keep an accurate central list of detainees, with names in Arabic, to which searching families can refer.
In her home in al-Mansour, a suburb of
Alerted one night by a neighbour, Sa’ad went out with a Kalashnikov. He ran into an American patrol and was thrown to the ground and arrested. The neighbour tried in vain to tell the soldiers he was not a thief. “At first we went to Abu Ghraib,” says Medhatas, her 19- year-old daughter, Huda, sitting nervously beside her. “The Americans told us to go to the airport. At the airport they told us to go to the International Committee of the Red Cross. We went to the ICRC but got no help.”
They then turned to the 101st Airborne’s civil military operations centre, located in a disused supermarket. Here they found two unusually sympathetic officers, Major Hector Flores and his sergeant, Paul Holding. Their work was in sharp contrast to the behaviour of most US troops, who patrol in vehicles in conditions of increasing tension as attacks on convoys show no let-up.
Flores and Holding present a different face: “I’m the happiest man in the
Trawling through lists of thousands of badly transliterated Arabic names,
A system which requires an individual act of kindness by an American officer to locate a detainee, or in Sufian’s case to insist on implementing a release order made by an Iraqi judge, is clearly inadequate.
The coalition authorities are aware of the problems. In addition to Amnesty, the coalition has also come under pressure from the UN and the ICRC. Sergio Vieira de Mello, the secretary-general’s special representative in Iraq, recently reported that he had told the US administrator, Paul Bremer, and his British counterpart, John Sawers, about his anxiety over “searches, arrests, the treatment of detainees, duration of preventive detention, access by family members and lawyers, and the establishment of a central prison database”. He said he found them “receptive”, and they had explained what was being done to address the problems.
The ICRC is also alarmed by the lack of a proper database. “The lists provided by the coalition are not comprehensive and far from complete. The process needs to be improved. They are willing to improve it and are really trying to help”, says ICRC spokesperson Nada Doumani.
In their defence, coalition spokespeople point to the appalling legacy of the Saddam regime. “In his time people had to scrawl their names on cell walls to get remembered. There was no list of any kind,” says Charles Heatly, a spokesperson seconded from the Foreign Office.
Work was almost complete on repairing cell-blocks at Abu Ghraib so that medium-security prisoners could move from tents into proper buildings “comparable to
Mobile teams of magistrates were being trained to handle cases faster. He acknowledges that US military lawyers sometimes overruled Iraqi judges’ release orders. “That’s probably true. It shows the difficulties in getting systems to match”, he says.
The message is that things are getting better. But the occupation forces’ shocking handling of civilian prisoners will not be forgotten quickly by the victims. They are one more example of how badly those who planned the war on
Guardian Unlimited (c) Guardian Newspapers Limited 2003