No New Abu Ghraibs

Congressional Democrats are demanding more oversight over U.S. prisons in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Guantanamo Bay. In a letter released Thursday, Democratic House leader Nancy Pelosi joined 170 other members of Congress, introduced legislation to establish an independent commission to investigate abuses of detainees caught during the “global war on terror.”

In the minds of the Congress members, the commission would be modeled after the 9/11 Commission with 10 bipartisan members appointed by the president and the House and Senate leaders.

This seems a little timid to me.

A year after photos surfaced showing graphic cases of abuse at Abu Ghraib prison, the Pentagon says it still holds 3,500 Iraqis in Saddam Hussein’s most notorious lockup (about 11,000 in a total of about 20 prisons throughout the country). Many of the prisoners have never been allowed to see their families. Most don’t know why they’re behind bars. None has seen a day in court. Indeed, so many prisoners are being held that many are not even warehoused in cells, but in tents on the grounds of Abu Ghraib.

So why does this prison stay open?

Even George W. Bush has called for its closure. In an address to the U.S. Army War College in Pennsylvania last May, Bush argued that “a new Iraq will also need a humane, well-supervised prison system. Under the dictator, prisons like Abu Ghraib were symbols of death and torture. That same prison became a symbol of disgraceful conduct by a few American troops who dishonored our country and disregarded our values.”

Bush, though, is unwilling to deal with the fundamental issues of wrongful imprisonment. Instead of wrestling with the fact that (according to the International Red Cross and Red Crescent) as much as 90 percent of Iraqis arrested by the American military are taken by mistake. And so the United States has hired California-based Parsons Corporation to build shining new prisons to warehouse Iraqis.

Yesterday, I got an update on the case of an Iraqi shepherd living outside the Shi’ite holy city of Karbala. During the initial U.S. invasion, nine of his sons were arrested and taken to an American prison. Two years later, the shepherd still has no idea where his children are being held or even if they are alive. Iraqi and American human rights activists have pressed local U.S. military commanders for information but have gotten nowhere.

Disappearances, indefinite detention, torture, no lawyers, and no end in sight. Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois got in trouble for comparing American interrogation tactics to those employed by Hitler’s Nazi regime. To many Iraqis, the Bush administration certainly looks like the old regime of Saddam Hussein.