Iraqi prisoners in 'inhumane' exile, families protest

Because of overcrowding and mismanagement, prisoners from southern Iraq are being detained in northern Iraq, far from their families. Human rights activists call the treatment ‘inhumane’.

Wafaa Hanthal has not seen her brother for six months now. He is a detainee at Chamchamal, a controversial federal prison also known as al-Qalaa or “the castle”.

“In order to see him, I have to travel 590 kilometres from Basra to Baghdad on a road that has many checkpoints. That is enough to make anyone lose their temper,” said Hanthal, who lives in Anbar province while Chamchamal prison is in the Sulaymaniyah province, in Iraq’s semi-autonomous Kurdish region; To all intents and purposes, that is almost at the other end of the country. Additionally it is only possible to make much of this journey by day. “Then I need to stay in a hotel in Baghdad for a night. After that I still need to travel another 250 kilometres to get to the prison,” Hanthal complained.

Hanthal is in her 40s and she earns around 600,000 Iraqi dinars a month (around US$500). Although she says the cost of the journey is less than it used to be, she would still have to spend around 70 percent of her monthly salary to see her brother, around 400,000 Iraqi dinars (or about US$350). This is almost impossible when one considers that she is also financially responsible for her brother’s family, his wife and his three children. If they came too, the trip would be even more prohibitively expensive.

Hanthal’s brother was sentenced to 25 years detention for his involvement in a murder. At first he was detained in the Abu Ghraib prison west of Baghdad, a facility that became infamous after human rights abuses by US soldiers there were exposed in the international media in 2004. The prison was handed over to Iraqi authorities, re-named the Baghdad Central prison and re-opened. However riots and a fire in 2009 resulted in the transfer of prisoners to other jails around the country. Hanthal’s brother was one of these.

Speaking to NIQASH anonymously by telephone, another Chamchamal prisoner said that, to decide where prisoners were transferred, “the Abu Ghraib administration just drew names out of a hat. That was how they decided where prisoners were sent.”

This Chamchamal prisoner is 61 years old, a former public servant who was sentenced to 15 years detention for killing another person during a fight. He has already spent eight years in prison during which he has experienced conditions in a number of Iraqi jails: in Basra, in Baghdad in both the Abu Ghraib and Rasafa prisons as well as Chamchamal, to which he was transferred in 2009.

He described the period in Chamchamal as "the harshest”. “I was not able to see my family,” he said. “Bearing their economic situation in mind, I asked them not to come and visit me. So I was not able to see my son’s children who were born after my imprisonment - or any other family members.”

According to sources inside the northern prison, the prisoners originally from southern province of Basra number around 250 with around one thousand more from other southern regions. While proximity to family is not a prisoner’s right – just as they must in the US and Europe, prisoners in the Middle East must go where there is room for them - long term studies in the West have shown that one of the most important factors when it comes to discouraging recidivism is contact with family members. As social policy researcher Gerard Lemos wrote in UK’s The Guardian newspaper in 2009, “the [British] Home Office's own research in 2003 showed that prisoners who received family visits were far more likely to have somewhere to live and to get a job when they left prison. Also, prisoners who did not receive family visits were more likely to reoffend than those who did.”

In the Arab world, the family unit and kinship bonds remain one of the most important cultural institutions, upon which many societal norms are based. This means distance between family members can be even more troubling. “Depriving children of regular visits to their imprisoned fathers will cause psychological problems for these children,” Iraqi lawyer and human rights activist, Tareq al-Abarseem, said. He also felt that not allowing wives to visit husbands could lead to the disintegration of the marriage. “This is inhumane,” he noted.

In 2009, the families of 2,700 prisoners sent a letter to authorities demanding an end to such treatment as well as to other human rights violations, such as torture. The letter demanded the release of those detained without warrants as well as the transfer of prisoners back to their home provinces.

To many in Iraq, the random allocation of prisoners to facilities furthest from their families is just another reason for protest against Iraqi penitentiary system, which has seen more than its fair share of controversy. Prisons in Iraq are notorious for miserable conditions, overcrowding, ill treatment and disease.

Last month prisoners at Rasafa jail in Baghdad started a fire in protest at conditions there, as well as sectarian bias by prison warders, and in February prisoners at Hilla jail went on hunger strike for similar reasons. At Chamchamal prison, the largest federal jail in the country, which holds an estimated 2,500 prisoners, doctors complained about a lack of medical supplies. Due to overcrowding and a lack of hygiene, Iraqi prisoners are at risk from diseases such as tuberculosis and leprosy. And prisoners and their families have also spoken out about detention and torture in “unofficial” or “secret” prisons, such as that which Amnesty International says exists inside Sharaf prison in Baghdad.

There are also fears that because of inhumane conditions and lack of family contact, that the prisons could become recruiting grounds for extremist organisations.

The directorate of rehabilitation of the Iraqi Ministry of Justice supervises 32 prisons throughout the country. Following the 2009 appeal by prisoners’ families, the ministry did try and introduce reform at Chamchamal. The head of the prison was dismissed for human rights violations. And among other internal reforms, family members were allowed to visit every day.

Nonetheless families of Chamchamal prisoners who originate from the south are still calling for the transfer of their relatives.

According to official information, there are about 25,000 detainees in total, in Iraqi jails. And Iraq’s deputy minister of justice, Bosho Ibrahim, said that federal prisons in the south, and nearer to prisoners’ families, simply cannot accommodate any more detainees.

"The capacity of the prison at Hilla is 5,000; Amara has a small jail and the Nasiriya prison which can accommodate 1,700 is already overcrowded and cannot take more than another 150 detainees,” Ibrahim explained.

The minister of justice, Hassan al-Shammari, had already requested a report on the possibility of transferring prisoners back to their home provinces, Ibrahim said. The minister had asked for an answer within 15 days. But no matter what the report concluded, it would be difficult to transfer prisoners in the short term, Ibrahim said.

The solution, according to officials in Basra province, does not involve building more prisons in the south. “We need to refurbish the central prison that was built by the Americans as well as rehabilitate other prisons that need toilets and other facilities,” Hussein Ali Hussein, head of the Office of Human Rights in Basra province, said.

Hussein told NIQASH that in theory, Basra’s central prison, which currently has 600 inmates, has the capacity to house up to 1,200 detainees. “The provincial council has allocated 75 million dinars (US$63,000) for the prison’s renovation,” Hussein said. The other problem, aside from unsatisfactory conditions inside Iraqi jails, is the number of prisoners in the southern provinces who have yet to go to court. "There are hundreds of detainees who have not yet been trialled,” Hussein said. “These delays only put more pressure on existing prisons.”

Hussein pointed out that if investigations into pending trials were concluded, and those prisoners found innocent were released, then “problems of overcrowding could be at least partially solved.”

Meanwhile Hanthal has come up with her own plan. To aid her brother, in jail at the other end of the country she is charging her mobile phone with calling points, then transferring them to his phone. He sells the calling points to other Chamchamal prisoners to make money. Now Hanthal is hopeful that she might see her brother again next month. She’s been saving a percentage of her salary just so that she can make another costly journey to Chamchamal prison. It is a trip that is both emotionally and physically arduous. But Hanthal considers it an absolute necessity for her family’s sake.