International Probe into Torture in Iraqi Prison Urgently Needed, Says UN

The United Nations has called for an urgent international investigation into the conditions of detainees in Iraq, after the discovery last weekend of a Baghdad prison where detainees were tortured.

The kind of investigation called for by Louise Arbour, the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, matches the demands of Sunni Muslim leaders in Iraq, who have also demanded a probe by an international commission.

Most of the 173 people found in the prison, which was located in a bunker under a building belonging to the Ministry of the Interior in the Jadriyah neighborhood in the capital, are members of the Sunni Muslim community, which is a minority in Iraq.

Arbour said the Iraqi government, controlled by the majority Shi’ite community, has announced that it will investigate detention conditions in the country, but the high commissioner emphasized that the investigating body should be multinational in character.

"In light of the apparently systemic nature and magnitude of that problem, and the importance of public confidence in any inquiry, I urge authorities to consider calling for an international inquiry," she said.

"There is much international concern and interest in the situation in Iraq," Arbour insisted.

The spokesperson for the office of the high commissioner, José Luis Díaz, said that a probe conducted by an international investigating team would help to ensure it was objective and impartial.

The investigating commission could be of mixed composition, including Iraqis and foreigners, "But it is important that an inquiry not only be impartial but be seen by the Iraqi people as impartial," Díaz underlined.

After the scandal unleashed by the discovery of the prison in Jadriyah, the Iraqi government agreed to investigate all places of detention, estimated at more than 1,100 throughout the country. However, Baghdad has not released details of who is to carry out the inquiry.

The United States has announced that officials from the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the Department of Justice, the U.S. embassy in Baghdad and its military forces in Iraq would assist the investigation.

It was US troops who stormed the Jadriyah bunker last Sunday and discovered the detainees, many of whom were very young, and showed signs of malnutrition and torture.

The Iraqi interior minister, Bayan Jabr, maintains however that reports of torture at Jadriyah are "exaggerated." There was evidence of torture for a maximum of only seven detainees, Jabr stated.

The most notorious case of torture in Iraq since the March 2003 start of the US invasion came to light last year, involving abuses perpetrated by uniformed US personnel against Iraqi detainees in the Abu Ghraib prison.

Photographs from Abu Ghraib taken by the soldiers taking part in the torture themselves, which made their way around the world, showed Iraqi prisoners naked and with wounds and marks while they were humiliated by smiling US soldiers.

The latest reports of torture, this time blamed on Iraqi government forces, show the problems that exist throughout the detention system in the country, the UN high commissioner said.

Spanish lawyer Fernando Mariño Menéndez, president of the Committee against Torture, a body of independent experts that oversees the application of the Convention against Torture, shared Arbour’s concern.

”Any of these prisons, secret ones especially, where torture is practiced are an extremely grave violation of the law, not only of the Convention, of course, but of international humanitarian law in general,” Mariño told IPS.

The expert mentioned that the high commissioner had not consulted the Committee against Torture on this case. ”In any case, unfortunately Iraq is not a signatory of our Convention, it is not a party to the treaty,” he said.

That means that from a formal point of view, ”we cannot deal directly with Iraq,” said Mariño, adding ”unless third party states shared in the responsibility, although it looks like this was a prison specifically controlled by the Iraqi government.”

What the Committee, which is currently meeting in Geneva, could do is express its concern in a statement, which would be unlikely to have much of an effect except perhaps in the media, he added.

But since it is a UN body, the Committee could relay its concern to the high commissioner, asking her to use her influence and gather the political support necessary for the global body to pronounce itself on the issue, he said.