Torture and Impunity in Iraqi Prisons

Part of the deadly serious problem with the Obama administration’s position on (not) holding accountable CIA torturers, their lawyers, and the Bush administration officials who authorized and ordered all of these crimes is this: It sends a message to other governments that if Washington does it, we can too. Especially governments completely created by the U.S. government.

No governments on the planet are more controlled by the U.S. right now than the ones in Iraq and Afghanistan.

A new UN human rights report [.pdf] examining Iraq shows that torture of prisoners by Iraqi authorities is widespread and accountability is nonexistent. “The lack of accountability of the perpetrators of such human rights abuses reinforces the culture of impunity,” the UN bluntly states. The 30-page report by the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq, which examined conditions in Iraq from July to December 2008, was just released Wednesday.

At times, the report reads as though it could have been written about the U.S. torture program and the total lack of accountability at Guantanamo and other U.S.-run prisons. In Iraq, the UN cites “the use of torture as an interrogation method” and “prolonged periods of detention without charge or access to legal counsel and the use of torture or physical abuse against detainees to extract confessions.”

UN investigators said it was of “particular concern” that a senior Iraqi police official complained that the Iraqi government’s pending ratification of the Convention Against Torture would “not be helpful,” stating, “How are we going to get confessions? We have to force the criminals to confess, and how are we going to do that now?” It sounds like that Iraqi police official has been listening to Dick Cheney.

The UN says, “There are no documented cases to this day where an official of the Minister [sic] of Defense has been held accountable for human rights abuses.” That is exactly the situation within the U.S. Department of Defense (and Justice and CIA and White House for that matter). “This laxity in the prosecution is contrary to the international obligations undertaken by Iraq and to the provisions of the Convention Against Torture.”

Iraq hasn’t even ratified the convention, but the U.S. has – so what does that say about U.S. conduct?

Some of the worst abuses in Iraqi prisons are said to take place in the northern autonomous Kurdish region, which has long been an area of major U.S. influence (going back to the Saddam era). Among the findings of the UN: "claims of beatings during interrogation, torture by electric shocks, forced confessions, secret detention facilities, and a lack of medical attention. Abuse is often committed by masked men or while detainees are blindfolded. In general, detainees fear the interrogators and investigative personnel more than prison guards."

As of December 2008, there were 41,271 people being held in prisons throughout Iraq, 15,058 of them in the custody of the U.S.-controlled “Multi-National Forces.” The UN found that “many” of the prisoners “have been deprived of their liberty for months or even years in overcrowded cells” and expressed concerns “about violations of the minimum rules of due process as many did not have access to defense counsel, or were not formally charged with a crime or appeared before a judge.”

While the report primarily focused on Iraqi run prisons, it notes that in U.S.-run prisons “detainees have remained in custody for prolonged periods without judicial review of their cases.” And remember, the U.S. is in the process of turning over more prisoners to Iraqi custody.

It is well known that after Bush launched the so-called War on Terror, the U.S. torture system was exported from Guantanamo to Afghanistan and Iraq. So, too, apparently was the disdain for accountability and international law when the U.S. was setting up the new Iraqi government. Wasn’t Saddam’s torture and disdain for international law one of the justifications for the invasion (after the WMD myth was exposed)? This UN report should serve as a sobering reminder of why it is so important to hold those who created, ordered, justified, and implemented the U.S. torture program responsible for their crimes. Sadly, the U.S. at present has zero credibility in confronting these crimes by the Iraqi authorities.

Author: Jeremy Scahill

Independent journalist Jeremy Scahill is author of Blackwater: The Rise of the World's Most Powerful Mercenary Army. He is a frequent contributor to The Nation magazine and a correspondent for the national radio and TV program Democracy Now! He is currently a Puffin Foundation writing fellow at The Nation Institute.