Combat operations in Iraq are over, if you
believe President Barack Obama's rhetoric. But torture in Iraq's
prisons, first exposed during the Abu Ghraib scandal, is thriving,
increasingly distant from any scrutiny or accountability. After
arresting tens of thousands of Iraqis, often without charge, and holding
many for years without trial, the United States has handed over control
of Iraqi prisons, and 10,000 prisoners, to the Iraqi government. Meet
the new boss, same as the old boss.
After landing in London late Saturday
night, we traveled to the small suburb of Kilburn to speak with Rabiha
al-Qassab, an Iraqi refugee who was granted political asylum in Britain
after her brother was executed by Saddam Hussein. Her husband,
68-year-old Ramze Shihab Ahmed, was a general in the Iraqi army under
Saddam, fought in the Iran-Iraq War and was part of a failed plot to
overthrow the Iraqi dictator. The couple was living peacefully for years
in London, until September 2009.
It was then that Ramze Ahmed learned his
son, Omar, had been arrested in Mosul, Iraq. Ahmed returned to Iraq to
find him and was arrested himself.
For months, Rabiha didn't know what had
become of her husband. Then, on March 28, her cell phone rang. "I don't
know the voice," she told me.
"I said, 'Who are you?' He said he is very
sick ... he said, 'Me, Ramze, Ramze. Call embassy.' And they took the
mobile, and they stop talking."
Ramze Ahmed was being held in a secret prison at the old Muthanna
Airport in Baghdad. A recent report from Amnesty International, titled
"New Order, Same Abuses," describes Muthanna as "one of the harshest"
prisons in Iraq, the scene of extensive torture and under the control of
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
As Rabiha showed me family photos, a piece
of paper with English and Arabic words slipped out. Rabiha explained
that in order to describe in English what happened to her husband, she
had to consult a dictionary, since she had never used several of the
English words: "Rape." "Stick." "Torture." She wept as she described his
account of being sodomized with a stick, suffocated repeatedly with
plastic bags placed over his head, and shocked with electricity.
Not surprisingly, as detailed in the
Amnesty report, the Iraqi government said that Ramze Shihab Ahmed had
confessed to links to al-Qaida in Iraq. In a January 2010 press
conference organized by the Iraqi Ministry of Defense, videotapes were
played showing nine others confessing to crimes, including Ahmed's son,
Omar, who, showing signs of beatings, confessed to "the killing of
several Christians in Mosul and the detonation of a bomb in a village
Malcolm Smart, director of Amnesty
International's Middle East and North Africa program, told me in London,
"there's a culture of abuse [in Iraq] that has taken root. It was
certainly there during the days of Saddam Hussein, but what we wanted to
see from 2003 was a turning of the page, and that hasn't happened. So
we see secret prisons, people being tortured and ill-treated, being
forced to make confessions ... the perpetrators are not being held to
account. They're not being identified."
After that brief, interrupted phone call
that Rabiha received from her husband, she did call the British
government, and its embassy in Iraq tracked Ahmed down in al-Rusafa
prison in Baghdad. Normally with a cane, they found him in a wheelchair.
Rabiha has a photo of him taken by the British representative.
Amnesty reports that there are an estimated
30,000 prisoners in Iraq (200 remaining under U.S. control). The
condition and treatment of the Iraqi prisoners is considered by the U.S.
to be, Smart says, "an Iraqi issue." But with the U.S. continuing to
pour billions of dollars into its ongoing military presence there, and
to fund the Iraqi government, the treatment of prisoners is clearly a
U.S. issue as well. Amnesty has launched a grass-roots campaign to spur
further action to secure Ahmed's release.
Meanwhile, Rabiha al-Qassab, isolated and
alone in north London, spends time feeding the ducks in a local park,
which her husband used to do.
She told me: "I talk with the ducks. I say,
'You remember the man who gave you the food? He is in a prison. Ask God
to help him.' "
Denis Moynihan contributed research to this column.