Inmates Tell of Sexual Abuse and Beatings in Iraq's Overcrowded Juvenile Prison System

Karkh juvenile prison in 2004. The prison currently holds 315 children, while its capacity is 250. (Photograph: Marwan Naamani/AFP)

Inmates Tell of Sexual Abuse and Beatings in Iraq's Overcrowded Juvenile Prison System

Children as young as nine held in sweltering cells

Hundreds of children, some as young as nine, are being held in
appalling conditions in Baghdad's prisons, sleeping in sweltering
temperatures in overcrowded cells without working fans, no daily access
to showers, and subject to frequent sexual abuse by guards, current and
former prisoners say.

At Karkh juvenile prison, Omar Ali, a
16-year-old who has spent more than three years there, showed the
multiple skin sores he and many other fellow inmates have contracted
through lying on thin, sweat-soaked mattresses night after night.

electricity comes from a generator and it's only switched on during the
two-hour weekly session when visitors come in, and for two or three
hours in the evening. We are convinced the guards sell the generator
fuel on the black market," he said

Daytime temperatures in Baghdad last week averaged 44C (112F). They
barely drop below 38C at night. Water supplies in Karkh are spasmodic,
and Omar said he was able to shower only once every three days. Boys
sleep in four dormitories, averaging 75 inmates in a cell about 5
metres by 10 metres, on double bunks or the concrete floor.

often take boys to a separate room in the prison and rape them, Omar
alleged. They also break prison rules by lending their mobile phones to
boys to ring home, on condition that each time their families top the
phone up by $10 or $20. The teaching staff resigned en masse in
November because of low pay, according to an international official. As
a result, the children lounge around aimlessly with no daytime
activities, other than an exercise yard.

Though the boys in the
prison have been convicted, international standards for fair trials are
never met. "Trials last on average for 25 minutes, no witnesses are
called, confessions are used as the only evidence, and court-appointed
defence lawyers get the case file on the day of the trial, leaving no
chance to consult the defendant in private," an international adviser
in Baghdad said on condition of anonymity.

Omar Ali was 13 when
interior ministry special forces raided his house in a predominantly
Sunni suburb in October 2004. He and his 14-year-old brother were
arrested. A week later the special forces came back and took their
father. All three are still in custody.

The ministry is under
Shia control and its forces have repeatedly been accused of targeting
innocent Sunnis. Sahar Muhammad, the boys' mother, told the Guardian
that when she was able to visit her sons they told her they were beaten
repeatedly in the first days of custody and ordered to sign a blank
sheet of paper on which charges would be written later.

Jamal was 17 when US forces raided his home in the mixed Sunni and Shia
district of Doura in June last year. His mother, Suad Ahmed Rashid, who
was with him during the interview, told the Guardian: "During the US
raid an American officer told my daughter: 'Tell your brother to
confess he is with al-Qaida so we can send him to Camp Bucca [a US
prison near Basra] or else we'll hand him to the Iraqis and they will
torture him'."

Raad and a friend were taken to a US base and were
transferred next morning to the seventh brigade of the Iraqi army's
second regiment. Raad said he and his friend were hung from the ceiling
on ropes, beaten with electric cables, and taken for interrogation one
by one. "They said everyone who comes here has to confess," Raad said.

was then sent to another Iraqi army base. "I stayed there about six
months. I didn't confess anything I didn't do. They write false
statements and ask you to press your thumb on it. I refused but they
forced my thumb on to the paper," he said. At the juvenile court Raad
encountered a sympathetic judge.

"The judge did not accept my
confession. He said I was innocent but for administrative reasons I
would have to go to Tobchi until I was released." He spent a few months
in Tobchi and was released in March.

Last year officials from the
United Nations Assistance Mission to Iraq (Unami) visited Baghdad's
Tobchi prison, where children awaiting trial are held. They reported
that detainees provided "particularly worrisome allegations of
ill-treatment or other abuse of juvenile males, several of whom told
Unami they had been beaten and sexually abused while held in the
custody of the ministries of the interior and defence prior to transfer
to a juvenile facility. Upon examining them Unami observed injuries
consistent with beatings."

The UN found severe overcrowding at
Tobchi, with around 400 inmates in a prison with an official capacity
of 206. "In some cells juveniles were taking turns to sleep on the
floor without mattresses," the UN reported. The ministry of labour and
social affairs (Molsa), which manages the prison, said shortages of
funds prevented improvements.

Kadhim Raouf Ali, deputy director
general of Molsa's juvenile department, told the Guardian that inmate
numbers in Tobchi had been sharply reduced this year thanks to
speeded-up releases under the new amnesty law. There were only 226
inmates now. But he admitted Karkh was still overcrowded. It was
holding 315 children while capacity was 250.

BAGHDAD - Child detainees in
US custody in Iraq fare better than those in Iraqi hands, said Shatha
Alobosi, an Iraqi woman MP. Former inmates interviewed by the Guardian
confirmed that there is less overcrowding and brutality.

as Iraqi pressure mounts for a return of sovereignty, the US has been
moving to release all under-18s. In December last year it held 950
children. The current total is 180.

"We anticipate having less
than 100 juveniles in detention by the end of Ramadan [later this
month], and hopefully release all juveniles to their families before
the end of this year," First Lieutenant Randi Norton, a US military
spokesman, said.

The Iraqi Islamic party, the main Sunni party in
parliament, takes a special interest in detainees, adult as well as
juvenile, since the majority are Sunnis. It gives aid to poor families
who have no breadwinner, and has urged the authorities to improve
conditions and release prisoners.

"We still have a long way to
go. The problem is how to make a major and drastic reform of the
judicial system, and change the mentality of officers in the army and
police," its leader, the Iraqi vice president Tariq al-Hashemi, told
the Guardian.

* An Iraqi contributed reporting for this article. Names of inmates and family members have been changed.

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