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Abu Ghraib: origins and future of a scandal

About the author
John Packer served from 1991-96 as a United Nations human rights officer investigating human rights violations in Iraq. In 2003-2004, he was visiting assistant professor of international law at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, and a fellow at the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard University. He is on the board of the Minority Rights Group (International) and is associate editor of the Human Rights Law Journal.

Violence, torture and other abuse of human rights at Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad precedes the United States occupation of Iraq by decades. Before the worldwide dissemination of the gruesome images of American torture earlier this year the prison was a potent symbol of the pedestrian evil of the Ba’athist regime that had ruled Iraq for thirty–five years.

The United States–led coalition could have capitalised on this – allowing the prison to stand for the evils from which they had liberated Iraq. They could have preserved it as a monument to Saddam’s crimes, or razed it to the ground as a symbol of a fresh start. Instead they chose to use the notorious jail themselves – as a place not just of detention but of torture, humiliation and state–sanctioned abuse. They cannot now even demolish it to try to erase the stain it has become on their global standing; it now enjoys the protection of the American courts because it is a federal crime scene.

How could the US administration have got it so wrong? Perhaps because it failed to remember, far less understand, where Abu Ghraib – to put it in Americanese – was coming from.

Abu Ghraib was not the worst of Iraqi prisons, but it is by far the largest: spreading across 280 acres, and enclosing numerous buildings that at times held more than 10,000 prisoners (some estimates double that figure). Since it was constructed under British supervision in the 1960s, tens of thousands of Iraqis have been through its gates; many perished inside. Some prisoners remained for endless years without access to judicial process, and dependent on family visits to bring food and other sustenance.

Through the Ba’athist decades, Abu Ghraib acquired almost mythical status as an evil symbol of the Iraqi police–state. Stories of routine interrogations, mistreatment, arbitrary punishments, gruesome tortures, and thousands of executions (judicially sanctioned or otherwise) mark the walls and ground of that awful place. It also haunts the memories of anyone, like myself, unfortunate enough to have seen it from the inside.

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Inside Abu Ghraib

I came to know Abu Ghraib after the first (1991) Gulf war when I was part of the first–ever United Nations human rights team to investigate allegations of violations committed by Iraq’s government. I vividly recall entering the prison on a chilly day in the second week of January 1992. The day before, we had met Tariq Aziz, then deputy prime minister and member of the Revolution Command Council. He expressed doubts about the independence and integrity of our mission, and grudgingly told us that his government had permitted our entry to Iraq on what they considered a 2% chance that we might tell the “truth” about the country’s situation.

The complex diplomatic negotiations involved in agreeing our visit to Abu Ghraib meant that we had effectively given a month’s notice, so we rather expected to find a sanitized, “Potemkin village” operation. Indeed, in other comparably notorious places – such as Insein prison in Rangoon – I found still–wet paint on the buildings and neatly–planted flowerbeds adorning the cell–blocks and corridors.

There was none of that at Abu Ghraib, no attempt to hide the true character and purpose of the place; a fact emphasised by the astonishing sight of almost a hundred inmates awaiting execution that week alone, and of dozens of corpses in the mortuary. All normal, we were told: there were plenty of capital offenses in Iraq, including for minor property crimes, and hangings were conducted regularly on Tuesdays and Thursdays (with the generous exception of Saddam’s birthday when there was a temporary reprieve).

The massive “sections” of what resembled a small, grim, city, contained room after room each holding hundreds of prisoners. The prison blocks were separated into “light”, “heavy” and “foreign” categories, depending upon the crimes and citizenship of the prisoners. We visited the “foreign” block to check on some individual cases, and to see what we might learn about hundreds of Kuwaitis who had remained missing after the Iraqi occupation of that country from August 1990 to January 2001.

We entered the prison in full awareness that any prisoner with whom we might have contact would surely be interrogated – and possibly worse – afterwards. It was another shock, then, when a group of prisoners approached us, unrestrained by the guards, and in perfect English pleaded with us to help remove the sanctions that were so badly affecting their compatriots outside the prison. The fear in their eyes and their miserable condition belied the apparent generosity of this plea. We noted the concern and continued walking.

We visited prisoners awaiting execution, held in one wing and confined to cells of two prisoners, then inspected the gallows: two nooses side–by–side and a third ready for particularly busy days. We then reviewed the prison records in order to corroborate testimonies we had previously received, and make paper and mental notes about various aspects of the prison.

The inadequate records confirmed that prisoners were held without apparent judicial process, and others had not been released even though their sentences had expired. Many entries were incomplete, and registries were piled haphazardly, indicating only the most occasional use. There was no attempt to hide the arbitrariness of the detentions or the total vulnerability of the prisoners.

Along the way, two inmates – who were being restrained – abruptly confronted us with complaints about their treatment (in Arabic, translated to us by our interpreters). We immediately brought them aside and sought the protection of the vast, gymnasium–like eating–hall to receive their testimonies.

We made it clear to the guards, our ministry escorts, the prison warden – and thereafter officials in Baghdad – that we knew all there was to know about these individuals and we would follow up their cases. It was the only way we could even attempt to provide some kind of protection for those brave men after our departure from the prison and country. Their courage amazes me still.

Before leaving Abu Ghraib prison, I ran to the mortuary roof and snapped a number of photographs to record its size and layout. No one stopped me; the security personnel may have been too surprised to respond. We reported our findings to the world soon thereafter.

A further error

None of this history or accumulated experience seemed to flicker across the consciousness of leading agents in the Bush administration when they decided to use Abu Ghraib as a centre of detention and interrogation after the war of March–April 2003. But it does prompt serious questions: why was Abu Ghraib, of all places, ever used by the United States–led coalition? Why was it not transformed into a monument for remembrance like Robben Island in South Africa or the sites of some Nazi concentration camps? Or, alternatively, why was it not razed to the ground in a public act to exorcise a part of Iraq’s torturous recent history?

The story of Abu Ghraib was documented and publicly known well before the coalition’s intervention in Iraq in 2003. Like other infamous sites of totalitarian and authoritarian regimes, from Moscow’s Lubyanka to Tehran’s Evin prison, what is made of such places after liberation has tremendous symbolic importance for the future. This makes the United States’s error of judgment – political and military, but also moral – in using Abu Ghraib as a site of imprisonment and torture even more colossal.

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