- The scandal at Abu Ghraib prison was first exposed not
by a digital photograph but by a letter. In December 2003, a woman prisoner
inside the jail west of Baghdad managed to smuggle out a note. Its contents
were so shocking that, at first, Amal Kadham Swadi and the other Iraqi
women lawyers who had been trying to gain access to the US jail found them
hard to believe.
- The note claimed that US guards had been raping women
detainees, who were, and are, in a small minority at Abu Ghraib. Several
of the women were now pregnant, it added. The women had been forced to
strip naked in front of men, it said. The note urged the Iraqi resistance
to bomb the jail to spare the women further shame.
- Late last year, Swadi, one of seven female lawyers now
representing women detainees in Abu Ghraib, began to piece together a picture
of systemic abuse and torture perpetrated by US guards against Iraqi women
held in detention without charge. This was not only true of Abu Ghraib,
she discovered, but was, as she put it, "happening all across Iraq".
- In November last year, Swadi visited a woman detainee
at a US military base at al-Kharkh, a former police compound in Baghdad.
"She was the only woman who would talk about her case. She was crying.
She told us she had been raped," Swadi says. "Several American
soldiers had raped her. She had tried to fight them off and they had hurt
her arm. She showed us the stitches. She told us, 'We have daughters and
husbands. For God's sake don't tell anyone about this.'"
- Astonishingly, the secret inquiry launched by the US
military in January, headed by Major General Antonio Taguba, has confirmed
that the letter smuggled out of Abu Ghraib by a woman known only as "Noor"
was entirely and devastatingly accurate. While most of the focus since
the scandal broke three weeks ago has been on the abuse of men, and on
their sexual humilation in front of US women soldiers, there is now incontrovertible
proof that women detainees - who form a small but unknown proportion of
the 40,000 people in US custody since last year's invasion - have also
been abused. Nobody appears to know how many. But among the 1,800 digital
photographs taken by US guards inside Abu Ghraib there are, according to
Taguba's report, images of a US military policeman "having sex"
with an Iraqi woman.
- Taguba discovered that guards have also videotaped and
photographed naked female detainees. The Bush administration has refused
to release other photographs of Iraqi women forced at gunpoint to bare
their breasts (although it has shown them to Congress) - ostensibly to
prevent attacks on US soldiers in Iraq, but in reality, one suspects, to
prevent further domestic embarrassment.
- Earlier this month it emerged that an Iraqi woman in
her 70s had been harnessed and ridden like a donkey at Abu Ghraib and another
coalition detention centre after being arrested last July. Labour MP Ann
Clwyd, who investigated the case and found it to be true, said, "She
was held for about six weeks without charge. During that time she was insulted
and told she was a donkey."
- In Iraq, the existence of photographs of women detainees
being abused has provoked revulsion and outrage, but little surprise. Some
of the women involved may since have disappeared, according to human rights
activists. Professor Huda Shaker al-Nuaimi, a political scientist at Baghdad
University who is researching the subject for Amnesty International, says
she thinks "Noor" is now dead. "We believe she was raped
and that she was pregnant by a US guard. After her release from Abu Ghraib,
I went to her house. The neighbours said her family had moved away. I believe
she has been killed."
- Honour killings are not unusual in Islamic society, where
rape is often equated with shame and where the stigma of being raped by
an American soldier would, according to one Islamic cleric, be "unbearable".
The prospects for rape victims in Iraq are grave; it is hardly surprising
that no women have so far come forward to talk about their experiences
in US-run jails where abuse was rife until early January.
- One of the most depressing aspects of the saga is that,
unaccountably, the US military continues to hold five women in solitary
confinement at Abu Ghraib, in cells 2.5m (8ft) long by 1.5m (5ft) wide.
Last week, the military escorted a small group of journalists around the
camp, where hundreds of relatives gather every day in a dusty car park
in the hope of news.
- The prison is protected by guard towers, an outer fence
topped with razor wire, and blast walls. Inside, more than 3,000 Iraqi
men are kept in vast open courtyards, in communal brown tents exposed to
dust and sun. (Last month, nearly 30 detainees were killed in two separate
mortar attacks on the prison; about a dozen survivors are still in the
hospital wing, shackled to their beds with leather belts.) As our bus pulled
up, the men ran towards the razor wire. They unfurled banners and T-shirts
that read: "Why are we here?" "When are you going to do
something about this scandal?" "We cannot talk freely."
- The women, however, are kept in another part of the prison,
cellblock 1A, together with 19 "high-value" male detainees. It
is inside this olive-painted block, which leads into a courtyard of shimmering
green saysaban trees and pink flowering shrubs, that the notorious photographs
of US troops humiliating Iraqi prisoners were taken, many of them on the
same day, November 8 2003. A wooden interrogation shed is a short stroll
away. As we arrived at the cellblock, the women shouted to us through the
bars. An Iraqi journalist tried to talk to them; a female US soldier interrupted
and pushed him away. The windows of the women's cells have been boarded
up; birds nest in the outside drainpipe. Captain Dave Quantock, now in
charge of prisoner detention at Abu Ghraib, confirmed that the women prisoners
are in solitary confinement for 23 hours a day. They have no entertainment;
they do have a Koran.
- Since the scandal first emerged there is general agreement
that conditions at Abu Ghraib have improved. A new, superior catering company
now provides the inmates' food, and all the guards involved in the original
allegations of abuse have left.
- Nevertheless, there remain extremely troubling questions
as to why these women came to be here. Like other Iraqi prisoners, all
five are classified as "security detainees" - a term invented
by the Bush administration to justify the indefinite detention of prisoners
without charge or legal access, as part of the war on terror. US military
officials will only say that they are suspected of "anti-coalition
- Two of the women are the wives of high-ranking and absconding
Ba'ath party members; two are accused of financing the resistance; and
one allegedly had a relationship with the former head of Iraq's secret
police, the Mukhabarat. The women, in their 40s and 50s, come from Kirkuk
and Baghdad; none has seen their families or children since their arrest
earlier this year.
- According to Swadi, who managed to visit Abu Ghraib in
late March, the allegations against the women are "absurd". "One
of them is supposed to be the mistress of the former director of the Mukhabarat.
In fact, she's a widow who used to own a small shop. She also worked as
a taxi driver, ferrying children to and from kindergarten. If she really
had a relationship with the director of the Mukhabarat, she would scarcely
be running a kiosk. These are baseless charges," she adds angrily.
"She is the only person who can provide for her children."
- The women appear to have been arrested in violation of
international law - not because of anything they have done, but merely
because of who they are married to, and their potential intelligence value.
US officials have previously acknowledged detaining Iraqi women in the
hope of convincing male relatives to provide information; when US soldiers
raid a house and fail to find a male suspect, they will frequently take
away his wife or daughter instead.
- The International Committee of the Red Cross, whose devastating
report on human rights abuses of Iraqi prisoners was delivered to the government
in February but failed to ring alarm bells, says the problem lies with
the system. "It is an absence of judicial guarantees," says Nada
Doumani, spokesperson for the ICRC. "The system is not fair, precise
or properly defined."
- During her visit to Abu Ghraib in March, one of the prisoners
told Swadi that she had been forced to undress in front of US soldiers.
"The Iraqi translator turned his head in embarrassment," she
said. The release of detainees, meanwhile, appears to be entirely arbitrary:
three weeks ago one woman prisoner who spoke fluent English and who had
been telling her guards that she would sue them was suddenly released.
"They got fed up with her," another lawyer, Amal Alrawi, says.
- Last Friday, about 300 male prisoners were freed from
Abu Ghraib, the first detainees to be released since the abuse scandal
first broke. A further 475 are due to be released tomorrow, although it
is not clear if any of the women will be among them. General Geoffery Miller,
who is responsible for overhauling US military jails in Iraq, has promised
to release 1,800 prisoners across Iraq "within 45 days". Some
2,000 are likely to remain behind bars, he says. Iraqi lawyers and officials
aredemanding that the US military hands the prisons over to Iraqi management
on June 30, when the coalition transfers limited powers to a UN-appointed
caretaker Iraqi government. Last week, Miller said "negotiations"
with Iraqi officials were ongoing.
- Relatives who gathered outside Abu Ghraib last Friday
said it was common knowledge that women had been abused inside the jail.
Hamid Abdul Hussein, 40, who was there hoping to see his brother Jabar
freed, said former detainees who had returned to their home town of Mamudiya
reported that several women had been raped. "We've know this for months,"
he said. "We also heard that some women committed suicide."
- While the abuse may have stopped, the US military appears
to have learned nothing from the experience. Swadi says that when she last
tried to visit the women at Abu Ghraib, "The US guards refused to
let us in. When we complained, they threatened to arrest us."
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