Baghdad Central Prison, previously known as Abu Ghraib, continues to be rocked by prisoner abuse scandals. An amateur video showing inmates being beaten up has been leaked onto the Internet. These prisoners have been described as Sunnis. This has fed sentiments by Sunnis that they are being discriminated against in a country largely ruled by Shiites, which continues to be shaken by civil unrest.
A detainee reportedly filmed the images on his mobile phone on March 13. In the video, security forces are seen rounding up dozens of inmates in the prison’s courtyard and then striking them with batons.
When contacted by the television channel Al Jazeera, one of the detainees explained that the people in charge at the prison called for security forces to help them quell a protest movement started by the prisoners. In the interview, he hinted that the movement was started by Sunnis.
According to the Justice Ministry, a demonstration did take place a few days earlier, on March 11. The ministry released a statement saying that “detainees accused of terrorism” set fire to a room at the prison “in order to attract media attention on prisoner rights.” On March 21, following the video’s publication, Iraqi authorities opened an inquiry into the prisoners’ mistreatment.
Back in November, the Arab Organisation for Human Rights had denounced cases of sectarian violence against detainees at Baghdad Central Prison.
In the video, one of the prisoners can be heard saying: “These are Nouri al-Maliki’s militia”
Since December, several regions of the country have been hit by large Sunni demonstrations against the government of Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki. The protesters say they have been victims of discrimination ever since the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003 led to the majority Shiites taking most of the power. They are calling for Sunni prisoners detained under an anti-terrorism law to be released, and the law itself to be repealed, claiming Sunnis were being detained arbitrarily. In a bid to calm tensions, the Iraqi government recently ordered the release of more than 300 people accused of terrorism.
At the end of January, Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) called on the Sunni community to take up arms against President al-Maliki. On March 19, a day before the 10th anniversary of the invasion of Iraq, AQI carried out a series of attacks targeting the Shiite community, killing more than 50 people. The attacks were in response to the justice ministry’s declaration a day earlier that Iraq would continue to execute prisoners sentenced to death for terrorism.
“Iraqi authorities have imposed a complete blackout on everything relating to detention centres”
Mustapaha H. (not his real name) is an activist for a human rights organisation based in Baghdad.
Unfortunately, we have no way of independently investigating the incident at Abu Ghraib because Iraqi authorities have imposed a complete blackout on everything relating to detention centres, and have banned independent organisations from visiting. This affects everybody. Last December, a group of members of parliament wanted to visit a prison in Baghdad, but the justice ministry put them through so much bureaucratic red tape that they were forced to call off their visit.The prison population in Iraq is estimated at between 18,000 and 50,000 prisoners. The authorities refuse to say how many Sunnis are incarcerated but currently, almost every person arrested under the anti-terrorism law is Sunni.Dozens of Sunni Iraqi citizens are wrongly arrested every month on terrorism charges and are sometimes sentenced to death and hastily executed. Today, the country is ruled by a large Shiite coalition that doesn’t hesitate to use every means possible against Sunnis trying to challenge their power. To do this, the authorities often resort to Article 4 of Iraq’s anti-terrorism law, which can be interpreted very broadly. [Editor’s Note: It states that the death penalty shall be applied to “anyone who committed, as a main perpetrator or a participant,” a terrorist act, as well as “a person who incites, plans, finances, or assists terrorists in committing crimes.” Since its implementation in 2005, the anti-terrorism law has led to the execution of several hundred people, with at least 129 in 2012 alone.]“Almost every person arrested under the anti-terrorism law is Sunni”If you have any sort of problem with the authorities and, by chance, the person you’re dealing with is Shiite, they can use Article 4 to have you arrested. Another controversial issue is that this law encourages anonymous tip-offs. It allows the complainant to remain anonymous, even when the accused faces the death penalty. And finally, many prisoners spend years locked up behind bars for more than five years while prosecutors struggle to procure enough proof to secure a conviction.There are also a number of secret detention centres in the country. Hundreds of people are being held there without the same rights as those declared as prisoners [according to some sources, more than 400 such centres existed in 2009]. And when any of these centres is uncovered by the media, the authorities say it is being used for preventative detention.