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Detainee board approves prisoner releases

[Iraq] Detainees at Abu Ghraib prison sit on the floor waiting to be "out-processed" before taking a bus home. IRIN
Prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison waiting to be released.
As violence continues in many parts of Iraq, a recently formed detainee release board has the delicate job of deciding who should be freed from jail. More than 360 detainees have been released recently, according to Ministry of Human Rights statistics, after their cases were reviewed by the detainee release board. The releases are just the latest of more than 5,000 people who have been sent home from controversial prisons in recent months, following the handover of sovereignty to Iraq officials, US Lt-Col Barry Johnson, a spokesman for detention issues in Iraq, told IRIN in Baghdad. About 5,300 Iraqis and foreigners are currently held at prisons around the country, including the notorious Abu Ghraib jail west of Baghdad where pictures released to the media this spring showed US troops abusing Iraqi prisoners. The prisons previously held more than 8,000 prisoners, but numbers fluctuate because people are still being arrested by Coalition troops regularly, Johnson said. It is a difficult situation as some prisoners now are repeat offenders who were previously released. "It's too soon to tell how many we're going to get back," Johnson said. "We have a fairly sophisticated system to recognise them though, a biometric scan of their irises, since not everybody uses their real name when arrested." Of the repeat offenders, human rights officials hope they will realise their mistakes and agree to become productive members of society, Saad Sultan Hussein, a spokesman for the Ministry of Human Rights on prisons and detainees, told IRIN. "I only saw two detainees who were released and made trouble again with Coalition forces by putting a bomb on the road," Hussein said. "We hope all detainees are thinking they can come back into society and be good people." Cases are not strong against an estimated 1,000 people now expected to be released, said Hussein, who is also a lawyer. If someone is arrested for weapons possession, a lawyer can argue that virtually every family in Iraq has at least one weapon, for example, which is legal under interim law made after the US-led war in Iraq in April 2003. After Abu Ghraib, Washington was accused of ignoring international law. Creating the release board was an effective way to meet Geneva Conventions on War regulations, according to military officials. Under the conventions, signed by most countries in the world, including the US, prisoners of war must have their cases reviewed at least every six months. Many detainees are still classified by the US as "security detainees," a label not recognised by the Geneva Conventions. "This has been very effective. We're very pleased with the results," Johnson said of the release board. "We realised by the end of December that the system put in place - Article 78 reviews under the Geneva Convention - wasn't robust enough." At that time, it took six months or longer to do an initial review of a prisoner's case, much longer than the 30-40 day period laid out by Geneva Convention rules, he explained. Those on the board usually agree if a person should be released unconditionally, should be released after a guarantor/community leader agrees to vouch for them, or should be held for trial. About 700 detainees will have their cases heard by the Iraq central court, Hussein said. "A lot of these people were arrested for weapons possession, bomb-making or being associated with bombs in one way or another," Johnson said. "About half of them we end up releasing with a guarantor." Human rights officials pressed multinational forces to create the board after having initial success in opening a human rights office in Abu Ghraib prison, Hussein said. The board started working on 21 August. It may take until December to go through the more than 3,700 prisoners' cases who are to be considered for release, Hussein said. The nine-member board meets several times a week to discuss cases - with six seats for representatives from the human rights, justice and interior ministries; and three seats for Coalition forces. Members' names are closely guarded to protect them from terrorists, Hussein said. Detainees are not allowed to talk to journalists as they are being released. Following on their initial success with the release board and prison office, human rights officials are now trying to track down missing people who may have been "ghosts" detained without their names being announced to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) as required by the Geneva Conventions, Hussein said. Investigators in the United States have suggested there may be hundreds of detainees whose names are not known outside interrogation cells. "We have full accountability for everybody here," Johnson pointed out. "But in the August to October time frame, it was a mess. We don't even have accurate records from that time," he added.

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: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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