Global Policy Forum

Thousands of New Prisoners Overwhelm Iraqi System


By Solomon Moore

New York Times
February 14, 2008

The increase in American troops in Iraq over the past year has been accompanied by waves of new Iraqi detainees, inundating the country's already overburdened prisons and courts, American officials said Wednesday. American advisers say Iraq's nascent justice system does not have enough prison beds, investigative judges or lawyers to absorb the thousands of suspects that have been detained since last summer by the augmented American and Iraqi security forces. More than half of the 26,000 prisoners are still awaiting trial, and some have languished for years, American officials said.

The Iraqi legislature approved an amnesty on Wednesday that could free thousands of prisoners. But American officials warned that the Justice Ministry would still require tens of thousands of new prison beds to consolidate detainees being held throughout the country by various agencies, including the police and the army. The ministry will also have to receive many of the 24,000 additional prisoners held in separate American military prisons, like Camp Bucca in southern Iraq and Abu Ghraib, north of Baghdad.

United States Justice Department advisers briefed reporters on Wednesday during a surprise visit by Attorney General Michael B. Mukasey. He met with Gen. David H. Petraeus, Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker and top Iraqi legal officials, including Chief Justice Medhat al-Mahmoud. The visit was Mr. Mukasey's first to Iraq since becoming attorney general in November. "Our efforts, combined with those of the Departments of State and Defense, have already resulted in significant progress," said Mr. Mukasey, praising the 200 Justice Department employees working on "rule of law" issues in Iraq.

But several of those employees told reporters that improvements were being hindered by government inaction, corruption and sectarianism. Gregory M. Shogren, an adviser for the Baghdad Provincial Reconstruction Team, a joint State and Justice Department program, said many Iraqi courthouses lacked computers, telephones and law books. His team advises its Iraqi counterparts on legal curriculums and due process, but it is also equipping courtrooms with heaters.

"The government of Iraq is poorly supporting their own organizations, their own institutions, and that has resulted in us putting in a lot of money," Mr. Shogren said. He added that he believed that Washington should wean Iraq from financial assistance: "It's frustrating," he said, "because the Iraqi government has the money."

Mr. Shogren said advisers were trying to improve relations between police officers and justice officials. He said police officers routinely disobeyed court orders to release prisoners from station jails or to provide security for investigative judges. Iraq's investigative judges are fashioned after the French legal model, in which the functions of detective, prosecutor and judge overlap.

"Sometimes judicial investigators complain that police will not escort them, will not provide security, will not cooperate with them," Mr. Shogren said. "And the Iraqi police, on the other hand, say that judicial investigators are just too afraid or lazy to go out and work the scene." The inability of law enforcement officials to investigate crimes in a timely manner is among the main reasons that Iraq's prisons hold so many people without trial, Mr. Shogren said.

Mike Pannek, the program manager of the Iraq Corrections Program, a Justice Department program, said Justice Ministry prisons were filled beyond their capacity. One of the government's largest prisons is a temporary installation at the Rusafa legal complex in Baghdad. Mr. Pannek said that nearly all of the 6,647 detainees at Rusafa had been captured since the American force was increased early last year, and that 6,079 of them had not been found guilty of any crime.

Thousands more prisoners are held by other agencies, despite findings in 2006 that such disparate detainee systems hindered oversight and led to human rights abuses. In 2006, American troops determined that several Interior Ministry jails were being used by Shiite militias to torture and execute Sunni prisoners. Interior Ministry officials promised to transfer all their prisoners to Justice Ministry facilities. But Mr. Pannek said that both the Interior and Defense Ministries held significant numbers of detainees, and that the numbers had grown. Mr. Pannek estimated that Iraq needed space for 50,000 prisoners, and said there were plans to provide about 20,000 more prison beds over the next year.

"There's this glut of pretrial prisoners," he said. "The majority of those will be convicted and go to prisons. We also have a number of Coalition Forces detainees in U.S. custody. Some number of those will have to go into the Iraqi Corrections Service." In light of the increased number of detainees under Iraqi control, Mr. Pannek said, American advisers are working to train and integrate corrections officers. While most prisoners are Sunni Arabs, most guards are Shiites.

Guards affiliated with Shiite militias regularly freed their comrades in arms and they abused Sunni prisoners, he said. "We've had reports of them taking prisoners out of their cells in the dark of the night and smacking them around," Mr. Pannek said.

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