(Beirut) – Iraq’s government has been carrying out mass arrests and unlawfully detaining people in the notorious Camp Honor prison facility in Baghdad’s Green Zone, based on numerous interviews with victims, witnesses, family members, and government officials. The government had claimed a year ago that it had closed the prison, where Human Rights Watch had documented rampant torture.
Since October 2011 Iraqi authorities have conducted several waves of detentions, one of which arresting officers and officials termed “precautionary.” Numerous witnesses told Human Rights Watch that security forces have typically surrounded neighborhoods in Baghdad and other provinces and gone door-to-door with long lists of names of people they wanted to detain. The government has held hundreds of detainees for months, refusing to disclose the number of those detained, their identities, any charges against them, and where they are being held.
“Iraqi security forces are grabbing people outside of the law, without trial or known charges, and hiding them away in incommunicado sites,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “The Iraqi government should immediately reveal the names and locations of all detainees, promptly free those not charged with crimes, and bring those facing charges before an independent judicial authority.”
The government should appoint an independent judicial commission to investigate continuing allegations of torture and other ill-treatment, disappearances, and arbitrary detention in Camp Honor and elsewhere, Human Rights Watch said.
Multiple witnesses told Human Rights Watch that some detainees arrested since December 2011 have been held in the Camp Honor prison in Baghdad’s International Zone, known as the Green Zone. In March 2011 the government announced it had closed Camp Honor prison, after legislators visited the site in response to evidence Human Rights Watch provided of repeated torture at the facility.
The two most sweeping arrest dragnets occurred in October and November 2011, detaining people alleged to be Baath Party and Saddam Hussein loyalists, and in March 2012, ahead of the Arab summit in Baghdad at the end of that month.
In April two Justice Ministry officials separately told Human Rights Watch that since the roundups began in October, security forces often have not transferred prisoners into the full custody of the justice system, as required by Iraq law. Instead, the officials said, security forces have transported dozens of prisoners at a time in and out of various prison facilities, sometimes without adequate paperwork or explanation, under the authority of the military office of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki.
Fourteen lawyers, detainees, and government officials interviewed by Human Rights Watch said that recent detainees have been held at Camp Honor prison. Some of the officials said that detainees have also been held at two secret detention facilities, also inside Baghdad’s Green Zone. These allegations are consistent with concerns raised in a confidential letter from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) obtained by Human Rights Watch in July 2011 after the letter’s existence was made public by the Los Angeles Times.
Officials, lawyers, and former detainees also told Human Rights Watch that judicial investigators from the Supreme Judicial Council continue to conduct interrogations at the Camp Honor prison. Between December and May, Human Rights Watch interviewed over 35 former detainees, family members, lawyers, legislators, and Iraqi government and security officials from the Defense, Interior, and Justice Ministries. Without exception, they expressed great concern for their own safety and requested that Human Rights Watch withhold all names, dates, and places of interviews to protect their identities.
“It’s a matter of grave concern that Iraqis in so many walks of life, officials included, are afraid for their own well-being and fear great harm if they discuss allegations of serious human rights abuses,” Stork said.
“Precautionary” Detentions ahead of March 2012 Arab Summit
The most recent mass arrests occurred in March as the government dramatically tightened security throughout Baghdad in preparation for the Arab League summit there on March 29. Family members and witnesses told Human Rights Watch that arresting officers characterized the roundups as a “precautionary” measure to prevent terrorist attacks during the summit. Six detainees released in April told Human Rights Watch that while they were in detention, interrogators told them that they were being held to curb criminal activity during the summit and any “embarrassing” public protests.
Legislators from Prime Minister al-Maliki’s State of Law party have denied in the news media that any preemptive arrests took place, claiming that all arrests were of suspected criminals and in response to judicial warrants. All detainees and witnesses interviewed, over 20 in all, said they had not been shown arrest warrants.
In Baghdad neighborhoods where multiple arrests were made, including Adhamiya, Furat, Jihad, Abu Ghraib, and Rathwaniya, residents told Human Rights Watch it appeared that a large proportion of those detained had previously spent time in prisons run by the US military, including Abu Ghraib, Camp Bucca, and Camp Cropper. Some family members and legislators concluded that people were being arrested not because of suspected current criminal activity, but simply because they had been detained before.
In May an Interior Ministry official told Human Rights Watch that “security forces, in the interest of keeping security incidents to a minimum during the summit, while the world was watching, sometimes decided it was easier to just round up people who had been imprisoned years before, regardless of what crime they may have committed.” In April a Justice Ministry official told Human Rights Watch that of the hundreds arrested, “some have been released, about 100 will be officially charged within the justice system, and the rest are somewhere else. We do not know where.”
During an April 9 parliament session, Hassan al-Sinead, head of the parliament’s Security and Defense Committee and a member of Prime Minister al-Maliki’s State of Law Party, held up what he said were official security reports of Baghdad Operation Command and said, in response to allegations of pre-emptive arrests by other legislators, that there were only 532 arrests in all of Baghdad during the month of March, and that none were pre-emptive.
Two other members of the parliamentary committee subsequently told Human Rights Watch that this figure greatly underreported arrests that month. At the April 9 session an investigative committee was formed, made up of members of the Security and Defense and Human Rights committees. Members of the investigative committee told Human Rights Watch that plans to visit detainees never happened. To date, no investigation results have been released.
In October and November 2011, security forces arrested hundreds of people in Baghdad and outlying provinces, almost all during nighttime raids on residential neighborhoods. State television reported that Prime Minister al-Maliki ordered these arrests. Government statements, including by the prime minister, claimed that those arrested were Saddam Hussein loyalists plotting against the government. Family members told Human Rights Watch that security forces came to their doors with lists and read off names. Some of those listed were former Baath party members and others were not, including people who had died years ago. Three officials separately told Human Rights Watch that the total number arrested in the campaign approached 1,500.
A man whose 57-year-old father was arrested along with 11 neighbors on October 30 told Human Rights Watch in December, “A week after my father was arrested, some of the same police officers who arrested him came back and found family members to give them belongings [of neighborhood men who had been arrested], like clothes or money or IDs, but they still said they had no information about where they were being held, or what they were being charged with.”
The man’s son showed Human Rights Watch a document the police had given to him that listed the date his father was arrested but left blank the space reserved for the name of the detention facility.
Upon learning that some prisoners were being held in Baghdad’s Rusafa prisons, run by the Justice Ministry, Human Rights Watch asked Justice Minister Hassan al-Shimmari on January 4 for access to the prisoners. The request was refused.
Though not all arrests have been on the same scale as those in October, November, and March, regular arrest campaigns have taken place, often in largely Sunni neighborhoods in Baghdad as well as in several outlying provinces, said witnesses, family members and media reports. Strict government secrecy regarding the number of arrests and exact charges makes it difficult to assess the scope.
While some prisoners were released within hours or days and say they were not mistreated, others told Human Rights Watch they were tortured, including with repeated electric shocks. Most said interrogators forced them to sign pledges not to criticize the government publicly or to sign confessions. They said interrogators threatened that unless they signed these documents they would suffer physical violence, female family members would be raped, or they would never be released. Some families told Human Rights Watch that they were told to pay thousands of dollars in bribes to secure their loved ones’ release. In two cases known to Human Rights Watch, detainees were released after the families made such payments.
Camp Honor Prison
Camp Honor is a military base of more than 15 buildings within Baghdad’s fortified International Zone, which Iraqis and others continue to refer to as the Green Zone. The Iraqi Army’s 56th Brigade, also known as the Baghdad Brigade, which falls under direct command of the Office of the Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces, controls the Camp Honor complex and is responsible for the security of the Green Zone.
On March 29, 2011, Justice Minister al-Shimmari told Human Rights Watch that the government had closed the camp’s main detention facility, Camp Honor prison (often simply referred to as “Camp Honor”). Al-Shimmari said that authorities had moved all its detainees, whom he alleged were terrorists and Islamist militants, to three other facilities under the control of his ministry.
Contrary to this assurance, Human Rights Watch has received information from government and security officials indicating that some detainees from the “Baathist” and “Summit” roundups were held in Camp Honor prison and that it is still being used at least as a temporary holding site, or as a place to extract confessions before moving detainees into the official correctional system. This use of military prisons outside the control of the Justice Ministry is consistent with known procedures at other publicly acknowledged facilities outside of the ministry’s control, such as Muthanna Airport Prison and a facility in western Baghdad run by the army’s Muthanna Brigade, both of which have also housed hundreds of detainees from the recent arrests, according to government officials and former detainees.
A security official from the Defense Ministry told Human Rights Watch in April that judicial investigators attached to the Supreme Judicial Council go to the Camp Honor prison on a regular basis, where they participate in investigations and interrogations, alongside military investigators from the 56th Brigade. A lawyer who works for the government but did not want his department identified corroborated this allegation in an April interview with Human Rights Watch.
Three former detainees who spoke with Human Rights Watch between December and April gave credible accounts of what they said were their interactions with judicial investigators in Camp Honor prison. These allegations are consistent with judicial procedures known to have taken place there in the past. One detainee told Human Rights Watch in April that he had been held for over a month in Camp Honor prison, from late October to early December.
In a March interview, another man told Human Rights Watch he had been detained in Baghdad in early November and taken to a prison inside the Green Zone, which guards and other detainees told him was Camp Honor prison. His description and a sketch he made of the layout of the cells and interrogation trailers were consistent with the known layout of the facility.
Another detainee said in early December that he could confirm that he was in Camp Honor prison in May 2011 by the proximity of clearly recognizable surrounding buildings. When he was taken from the main holding facility to adjacent trailers for violent interrogations on three separate occasions, he said, he was not blindfolded. “The Defense Ministry and the old Council of Ministers [Hall] are right there,” he said. “I’m a former military man, and I used to work very close to there, so I knew right where I was.”
In July Human Rights Watch obtained a copy of a May 22,2011 letter written by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), which said the ICRC had “collected reliable allegations” of two separate secret detention facilities attached to Camp Honor military base, plus another facility next to the headquarters of the Counter-Terrorism Service, also in the Green Zone, “that are used to this day to hold and conceal detainees when committees visit the primary prison.”
In the letter, the ICRC also documented the methods of torture used inside Camp Honor prison and affiliated facilities, consistent with torture methods Human Rights Watch had previously reported.The ICRC addressed the letter to Prime Minister al-Maliki and copied Farouq al-Araji, head of al-Maliki’s military office, General Mahmoud al-Khazraji, commander of the 56th Brigade, other defense officials, Justice Minister al-Shimmari, and Judge Midhat al-Mahmoud, head of the Supreme Judicial Council.
After the Los Angeles Times made public the letter’s existence on July 14, the ICRC released a statement declining to confirm or deny its authenticity, as per long-standing policy to confine its communications to officials of the government concerned. In July and August, two Iraqi government officials and one former official familiar with the letter assured Human Rights Watch of the letter’s legitimacy.
Two defense lawyers separately told Human Rights Watch in May 2012 that clients of theirs had been held in Camp Honor prison as recently as August 2011. Another lawyer told Human Rights Watch that while working at the Supreme Judicial Council over the past year he encountered frequent references in comments by judges and others, as well as in court paperwork, to prisoners being held in Camp Honor prison and in “two other prisons in the Green Zone also run by the 56th Brigade.” Four officials from the Defense and Justice ministries, plus two former officials, also told Human Rights Watch of the existence of these secret prisons, one also part of the Camp Honor complex, unofficially called “Five Stars,” and another outside the base, but still within the Green Zone.
Treatment of Detainees
Statements to Human Rights Watch by those captured in the roundups and detained in various prisons, including those run by the Justice Ministry, varied in describing the treatment they received. Some said they were not physically mistreated. Three people detained in the “Summit” dragnet told Human Rights Watch that security officers assured them that they just had to wait until the Arab Summit was over and they would be released – that holding them “was just a precautionary measure.” Others described multiple beatings and threats and some described abuse that amounts to torture.
In May, a 59-year-old man told Human Rights Watch that he was arrested in late October in a southern province of Iraq and transported with more than 60 other prisoners to a detention facility in Baghdad, which he identified but asked Human Rights Watch to keep confidential. “When I first arrived, I was blindfolded and had my hands tied behind my back, and I had to walk down a long line of men, each of whom punched me in the face and hit my head with wire cables as I passed them,” he said. “After that, I was in solitary confinement for some time, and then they brought me before the judicial investigators. I couldn’t believe that they beat so hard and gave me electric shocks for three continuous hours, without even asking me any questions.”
He also said that during other interrogations his captors stripped him naked, hit him with wire cables, boxed his ears, poured cold water over him, and shocked him with electrodes attached to his back.
He was released in March, five months later, after his family paid over US $10,000 in bribes and an influential politician intervened on his behalf. Before leaving custody, he was forced to sign what he said was a confession, though he is not sure of its contents, as well as a pledge to never speak “against the government” and never to talk to the media about his arrest. “They told me that if I break any of these rules, they will bring in my sons and destroy them, and rape my wife,” he said. “As I left, they told me, ‘We will arrest you again, and make sure you’re executed.’”
Family members of detainees who spoke with Human Rights Watch said they had no idea where their loved ones were being held, despite multiple inquiries to the Ministry of Human Rights and the headquarters of the security forces that arrested them. In cases in which the government disclosed where prisoners were being held, security forces hindered or completely blocked detainees’ access to legal and family visits.
“On paper, a defendant can be defended by a lawyer, but in real life, it is next to impossible,” said a defense lawyer who is attempting to represent two men arrested in the “Summit” sweep in March. He told Human Rights Watch that when he is actually informed of the location of a detainee and allowed in, he is kept waiting for hours, and then told to go home because it is the end of the day. “Any lawyer attempting to see his client will be subjected to threats by the security forces holding the detainees,” the lawyer told Human Rights Watch. “Several times in the past few months, they said, ‘So, you want to represent a Baathist and a terrorist? I wonder what is making you do this, why you are on his side.’ This is clearly an attempt to intimidate attorneys from standing up for their victims.”
Families who tried to hire lawyers to defend relatives arrested in the “Baathist” sweep gave strikingly similar accounts. In December, one man told Human Rights Watch that his family went to four separate criminal defense lawyers who were at first cooperative. But when they learned that his father was taken in the “Baathist” arrests, he said, “each immediately told us that they could not interfere in this case because the arrests were by order of the prime minister’s office.” He cited one lawyer as saying: “This case is already decided. It’s a lost case, and I can’t be part of it, because they were arrested by the order of the prime minister.’”
“It is amazing that all four had the same reaction and this made us lose hope,” the family member said. “We did not try to get another lawyer, and have no idea where my father is.”