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Iraq Torture Investigators Reveal Scores of New Cases

by Lisa Ashkenaz Croke

A legal team looking for evidence of involvement by US corporations in the torture, abuse, rape in US-run prisons in Iraq continue to uncover indications that the mistreatment is profound and systemic.

Dec. 31, 2004 – An American legal team interviewing men and women formerly held in US-run prisons throughout Iraq says new cases of abuse and torture have continued to stream in since an initial fact-finding mission to the country in August.

Michigan-based attorney Shereef Akeel told The NewStandard that he has not had time to count up each separate allegation of abuse since returning from a December trip to Amman, Jordan, where he met with released detainees, but said there were "absolutely" now at least 100 cases. He said he expected to compile as many as 300 after sorting out survivors' statements and coordinating them with witnesses' accounts.

The team had already recorded testimony from over 50 former detainees, detailing severe abuse, rape, torture, humiliation, and religious degradation allegedly committed throughout the network of US-run detention centers and prisons in Iraq. In August, Akeel and his investigative partner, Mohammed Alomari, also revealed what appears to be the systematic targeting of religious inmates, as well as the rape of a 15-year-old boy by his captors as late as July 2004.

After two more rounds of interviews with former detainees, one in October and another earlier this month, the team has at least doubled the number of abuse cases their office is officially handling. The growing chaos in Iraq kept Akeel’s team out of the country, so Iraqis were bussed into Jordan and put up in a hotel, giving them a brief respite from the war even as they were asked to show their prison-issued documentation, including release papers, and to tell their horrific stories.

The newer cases also appear to substantiate earlier evidence gathered implicating a widespread policy of insult and assault committed against Iraqis charged of no crimes, as well as the systematic targeting of prisoners with particularly strong religious convictions.

"We’re only speaking with people who have been released. They were released without charges. They were held without charges," stressed Akeel. "One day you get a form -- your time is up and you’re served with a blanket release."

The newer cases also appear to substantiate earlier evidence gathered implicating a widespread policy of insult and assault committed against Iraqis charged of no crimes, as well as the systematic targeting of prisoners with particularly strong religious convictions.

Clerics and other community leaders apparently comprise a significant number of the team’s documented cases. Akeel said he was surprised by how many Iraqi professionals and clergy were among the detainees interviewed in building the case.

"The stature of these people -- lawyers, doctors, pharmacists -- all they're trying to do is help Iraq," said Akeel, who is particularly concerned with the number and nature of abuse claims brought by imams and tribal leaders. "When you're torturing imams, making naked women serve them food... what do you think they're going to tell their followers about Americans?" Akeel said.

Akeel cited one instance in which a man engaging in a religious fast during the day said he was denied food throughout the night, only to have it served minutes before he was required to resume his fast. Akeel said this treatment went on "for days."

One of the team’s most unexpected initial discoveries in reviewing the release papers was that former detainees were alleging illegal activities in as many as two dozen different US-run prisons in Iraq, challenging the US government’s official position that the scandal at Abu Ghraib prison was limited to a single facility. Akeel says they have now documented cases from "over 25 prisons."

"The more people we meet, the more detention centers we find out about," said Alomari, Akeel's partner.

The vast majority of claimants in the case are men. Aside from one lost client who killed herself upon discovering she was pregnant, Akeel said only about ten women have come forward, though suspicion of sexual and other abuses committed against Iraqi women by American captors is widespread.

"It's very, very difficult for them," said Akeel, explaining that while a man may be ostracized following sexual abuse, a woman could very well face death at the hands of her family or at the very least, be shunned and never allowed to marry.

Akeel charges that interrogators "took advantage of the culture," knowing the women would be unlikely to talk. He described one case where captors reportedly raped a female detainee from behind in a cell directly across from a male prisoner. Investigators learned of the crime from the witness, who stated that the woman stared at him during the ordeal "with dead eyes," said Akeel, describing the man as "livid" and in tears as he gave his account of the incident.

Private Contractors Escape the Spotlight

Currently before a San Diego judge, Akeel and fellow lawyers who represent a growing pool of Iraqi plaintiffs have motioned to bring a class action suit that could involve hundreds of disclosed cases of prison assault in Iraq. Coordinated by the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), the suit accuses the publicly traded corporations CACI International and Titan of using brutal techniques to bring forth an increasing number of confessions in order to demonstrate their effectiveness in the controversial new practice of using private interrogators and interpreters.

Four years ago, Assistant Army Secretary Patrick Henry addressed the inherent danger of making military intelligence gathering a for-profit enterprise. In a December 26, 2000 memorandum, Henry requested that Army military intelligence be exempt from anticipated privatization efforts favored by the incoming Bush Administration. Henry explained that the transfer of intelligence-gathering functions to the private sector was a "risk to [US] national security."

When accusations against CACI and Titan first appeared in a US military review of abuses committed at Abu Ghraib, US Representative Jan Schakowsky (D-Illinois) immediately called on the president to suspend all contracts with private firms involved in Iraqi prisons.

CACI and Titan have both denied having had anything to do with instances of torture and abuse, and they have labeled the lawsuit against them spurious. Akeel and other lawyers on the case admit they have yet to uncover a smoking gun connecting the private contractors to torture, in addition to military or government personnel, though they believe that when they connect witnesses’ testimony to information uncovered during a discovery phase, links will become clearer.

Schakowsky has been an opponent of private military contractors since 2001, when employees of a mercenary company contracted by the CIA were found to have been involved in the shooting down of a plane in Peru carrying American missionaries that April. Her proposed legislation to end the use of private military personnel in the Andean region failed, but Schakowsky has refocused her effort.

Calling the Iraq abuses "sadistic" and citing "serious questions about the accountability of US hired military contractors," Schakowsky stated in a May letter to President Bush that the use of private contractors costs "the American people untold amounts, in terms of dollars, US lives and is damaging our reputation with the international community."

Schakowsky's chief of staff, Nadeam Elshami, told TNS that the representative has called for thorough investigations and plans to address the issue in more detail after the 109th Congress convenes in January.

Both Henry and Schakowsky have been largely ignored. Despite the accusations against the security firms, the US government has since awarded additional contracts to both companies worth hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars.

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The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.

Lisa Ashkenaz Croke is a contributing journalist.

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