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Prison tour highlights some positive changes

[Iraq] Abu Graib prison. IRIN
Prisoners released from Abu Ghraib prison boarding buses to take them home
Almost 80 prisoners were set free last week from the infamous Abu Ghraib prison near the Iraqi capital, Baghdad. They were a handful of the thousands who have been released in recent months following the publication of pictures documenting apparent human rights abuses by US troops that are still under investigation. In a look inside the prison, an IRIN reporter observed conditions and talked to prisoners being released. Prison control is now split into two parts at Abu Ghraib, following the recent handover of sovereignty. Iraqi guards are in charge of common criminals and Coalition forces are guarding "security detainees" (those deemed to be a threat to Coalition forces). Several prisoners being released during the prison tour claimed they were treated better after the abuse pictures were released in April this year. One picture allegedly taken by a US military police officer showed a prisoner on a leash held by a female soldier. Other pictures showed a hooded prisoner apparently hooked up to electrical wires, naked prisoners forced to pile into a pyramid and a naked man cowering in front of dogs held by men in uniform. Many of the pictures were taken last autumn but not released until April. At the time, US President George Bush apologised for the photos and called for the prison to be demolished. However, there has been no sign since that the building will be pulled down. "Our treatment was always bad until the last few months," said Khalid Hefan, 27, who said he was detained in July 2003 but declined to say why. He had now been released and was on his way home. "We knew the conditions would get better after the pictures were shown on TV." Prison life in Iraq's blistering summer heat now includes air-conditioning, pillows, ice to cool drinking water, and books, Capt Vincent Amerena, a spokesman for the 16th Military Police Brigade, told IRIN in Baghdad. In addition, troops receive training reminding them that prisoners should be treated with dignity and respect. The soldiers now at Abu Ghraib were brought in after the abuse happened, Amerena pointed out. "The idea is that when a person is released, we want them to be a productive member of Iraqi society," Amerena said. "These accusations happened before our arrival and there are ongoing investigations." Troops from the 202nd Military Intelligence Brigade are also based at Abu Ghraib, Amerena said. Reporters were not taken to see an interrogation facility used by the 202nd. A US military report about alleged abuses talked about "softening up" prisoners before they were taken for interrogation. One released prisoner boarding a bus to go home took a quick break to talk about the conditions. "Now, they have been giving us extra cigarettes and water when we ask for it," Raad Salman, 24, told IRIN. "The food is better, and we had a shower once every three days." Departing detainees receive US $25 and a bus ride back to the place where they were taken by US troops. About 2,200 "security detainees" accused of committing crimes against Coalition forces are living in the dusty tents surrounded by razor wire near the Abu Ghraib prison building. They're accused of setting up car bombs, firing rocket-propelled grenades and mounting other attacks against Coalition troops, Amerena said. Iraqi prison guards watch another estimated 2,000 criminal prisoners. "Our standards are higher than the Geneva Conventions. We try to make them as comfortable as possible while they are here, no matter what they are accused of," Amerena said. In June, Human Rights Watch (HRW) published a 36-page report, "The Road to Abu Ghraib". It claimed that the US administration of George Bush "adopted a deliberate policy of permitting illegal interrogation techniques - and then spent two years covering up or ignoring reports of torture and other abuse by US troops, first in Afghanistan and then in Iraq." On Friday HRW called for an independent 9/11-style commission to be established to shed more light on US treatment of detainees in Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay. "Two and a half months after the first pictures from Abu Ghraib, only a few low-ranking soldiers have been called to account," said Kenneth Roth, executive director of HRW in a statement. "There is growing evidence of a high-level policy of abuse. The world is still watching and waiting to see how the United States deals with these crimes." The US has said that it is continuing to carry out investigations into the Iraqi prisoner abuse scandal. Iraq's new human rights minister, Baktiar Amin, said in a recent press conference in Baghdad that his ministry had been working with US troops to get more rights for the prisoners. Lt-Col Craig Essick, the man in charge of running the detention facility for the 16th Military Police Brigade said his soldiers were "bending over backwards" to meet many of the demands of the new human rights minister. As they stood in line in the "out-processing" centre, the detainees talked and joked with each other and with the US military police. Many of them have been held for more than six months - now they're going home. The men who were "security detainees," a classification not covered under the Geneva Conventions, were now free to leave without charge. Human rights groups ask why these prisoners were kept for so long and then released without charge. Following the prisoner abuse scandal US forces started to release prisoners, saying they were not believed to be a threat. The US military now says there is a new atmosphere at Abu Ghraib now. "For the most part, morale is good. Everyone knows we're doing things right," Essick told IRIN. "Since we have been here, there have been no allegations of abuse. But on a short tour of another part of the one-square-kilometre Abu Ghraib prison area, it is clear that there also is tension between prisoners and their guards. One prisoner yells, "Why are you working with the enemy?" to Iraqi translators walking with reporters. A prisoner calls out to find out when he's going to be released, saying he has heard that the new prime minister is giving an amnesty to insurgents. Another prisoner complains that his leg is hurting him and that he wants medical attention. The prisoner calling for medical attention is told that he'll be seen soon. The other prisoners are ignored by the guards.

This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information:

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