Abu Ghraib Is Not Old News

Here’s a number to remember: 14,000.

That’s the number of Iraqis currently behind bars in U.S. military prisons. These so-called “security detainees” are usually hooded and beaten when they’re brought into custody. Once incarcerated, they never receive anything approximating a fair and open trial. Prisoners are simply forced to submit to a closed military tribunal that decides whether or not to keep them behind bars.

Almost two years after shocking images first surfaced out of Abu Ghraib prison, an estimated 14,000 Iraqis are still in American custody – many of them in what used to be Saddam’s most notorious lockup.

No, this is not an old story. The images of naked, bloody, and sometimes dead prisoners printed on Salon.com this week may be of incidents from 2003, but there’s no reason to think they aren’t continuing. The International Red Cross, which the military allows to monitor the prisons, said this week they haven’t been to Abu Ghraib in more than a year because of the dismal security situation.

An old story? Not according to Iraq’s Human Rights Minister Zuhair al-Chalabi, who Thursday called on occupation forces to release everyone in foreign custody.

“We are very worried about the Iraqi detainees in Abu Ghraib. The multinational forces and the British forces should hand them over to the [Iraqi] government,” Chalabi told Reuters. “The Iraqi government should move immediately to have the prisons and the prisoners delivered to the ministry of justice.”

An old story? Then why has the number of Iraqi prisoners in U.S. custody gone up since the prison abuse scandal broke two years ago? In September 2005, Human Rights Watch issued a report in which U.S. soldiers described, firsthand, how they arrested and treated prisoners at Abu Ghraib. One sergeant told the rights’ group:

“Each company goes out on a mission and you kick the door down and catch them red-handed. We caught them with RPGs [rocket propelled grenades]. So we are going to give you special attention. We yank them off the truck and they hit the ground hard, maybe 5-6 feet down. We took everything and searched them. Then we toss him in the PUC [Person Under Control] tent with a sandbag on his head and he is zip-tied. And he is like that all day and it is 100 degrees in that tent. Once paperwork was done we started to stress them. The five-gallon water can was full of water. We would have people hold out their arms on each side parallel to the ground. After a minute your arms get tired and shake. Then we would take some water out and douse them to get them cold. And the tent is full of dust and they get dirty and caked with it. Then we make them do pushups and jumping jacks. At the end of a guard shift they look like zombies.”

The sergeant told Human Rights Watch that abuses continued after photos first surfaced in 2004: “We still did it,” he said, “but we were careful. It is still going on now the same way, I am sure. Maybe not as blatant, but it is how we do things.”

In April 2004, George Bush went on Arab satellite television and promised to close Abu Ghraib.

A year later, in June 2005, the Bush administration betrayed its true intentions by announcing it would start building not one but two new prison facilities at Abu Ghraib and another at Camp Bucca in southern Iraq.

At the time, Maj. Gen. William Brandenburg, who oversees U.S.-run prisons in Iraq, told UPI the Pentagon couldn’t leave Saddam’s old prison because “the numbers just weren’t going that way,” he said. “Business is booming.”