Lost Amid the Rising Tide of Detainees in Iraq

By SABRINA TAVERNISE

New York Times

November 25, 2005

BAGHDAD, Iraq, Nov. 21 - Early this month, Iraq Abbas received a phone call from a man she did not know.

"Your husband is still alive," Ms. Abbas recalled the man saying, as she sat in a Shiite mosque in central Baghdad. "Don't give up. Meet anyone who can help."

The stranger told her he had shared a cell with her husband in an underground bunker. It was the first that Ms. Abbas had heard of her husband, Ibrahim Fayadh Abdul Hamid al-Timimi, since police commandos came into their home and arrested him on May 26, just hours after a bombing in their neighborhood.

One week after she got the phone call, American forces raided a bunker that fit the description the man gave, uncovering 169 inmates, many of them starving and abused, and tools of torture hidden in the ceiling. Iraqi officials say that all of the men in the bunker had links to the insurgency.

As the Iraqi government begins to take over from the American military, it has stepped up its hunt for insurgents, acting on tips from hot lines and rounding up suspects in neighborhoods near bombings. But the influx of new prisoners - the population of the four American-run prisons here has doubled over the past year, and Iraqi jails are packed - has overwhelmed the Iraqi authorities, rights groups say. And while the scandal in Abu Ghraib prison ushered in new reforms in American-run jails, the mushrooming Iraqi detention facilities operate virtually unchecked.

There is so little oversight, rights groups say, it is impossible to tell how many detention centers exist. After the bunker was found last week, an Interior Ministry official declined to give the number or locations of detention centers in Baghdad. It typically takes three months to be brought before a judge, Human Rights Watch says. In the meantime, detainees are left to circulate in an archipelago of unofficial detention centers, in many cases without an arrest record or oversight by agencies other than the Interior Ministry.

"I get calls all the time from families whose relative disappeared after being arrested," said a representative of a rights group in Iraq who agreed to speak on the condition of anonymity, citing safety concerns. "Sometimes I meet them at the morgue because they think they may have been killed."

"There is no transparency," the representative said. "In many cases there is no recourse to the law. A climate of impunity prevails everywhere." The representative, who has done extensive research on Iraqi prisons, said there were hundreds of such cases a month.

In some ways, Ms. Abbas's story evokes comparisons with the Saddam Hussein era, when people disappeared at night and their relatives searched for them for years. Her husband was still wearing his nightclothes when, just after midnight, police commandos entered their house and snatched him and his two brothers, taking them with bags on their heads, she said. The commandos returned later for another brother.

The next five months, Ms. Abbas, pregnant and with only an eighth-grade education, said she searched tirelessly for traces of him. It took her two months to figure out that the men who took him were not ordinary city police officers, but commandos. She visited police stations, mosques and a claims office inside the Interior Ministry, and then later the commando headquarters.

Strangers seemed always to know more of Ms. Abbas's husband than she did. This summer a man called her, again without identifying himself, saying he could secure her husband's release for $700. She gave him some clothing, food and money. She never heard from him again.

"He cheated us," she said.

Sitting cross-legged on the floor, Ms. Abbas, in a black robe, pulled small scraps of paper out of her black purse, showing a trail, tattered and creased, of fruitless effort. One of the scraps, was a temporary access pass to an area in the Interior Ministry where a claims department was located. She filed a claim but never heard back. An official in the ministry's intelligence unit, who identified himself as Brigadier Safaa, said on Sunday that the claims office was always open to visitors.

"I feel hopeless," Ms. Abbas said. "Where am I supposed to go?"

Ms. Abbas said she had been told she could pass information to a prisoner for $200. The ministry has denied such allegations, although many former detainees confirm them.

The man who said he had been in prison with Mr. Timimi said - asking that he not be identified by name for fear of arrest for talking of his experience - that Mr. Timimi had been badly beaten on his lower back and could no longer walk. He said that when they moved from a detention center to the bunker, they carried him on a stretcher.

An American official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak with the news media, confirmed that Mr. Timimi had been in the bunker the Americans raided. However, a spokesman for the American military command here said he had not been found there.

An Interior Ministry official confirmed that Mr. Timimi and his brothers had been in the bunker but said they had been transferred to Abu Ghraib, but an American spokesman for the prison said none of the Iraqis in the bunker had been transferred there. Neither Mr. Timimi's condition nor his whereabouts could be independently established.

Iraqi officials say that, even if abused, the prisoners were not necessarily innocent, adding that all the men in the bunker had links to the insurgency. Mr. Timimi had confessed to setting up a homemade bomb, said his fellow inmate, the man from Falluja, but he did so under torture.

In the fog of war, it may never be clear what happened to Mr. Timimi. That has not stopped Ms. Abbas from searching. On Sunday morning, she went to the bunker seeking answers but a guard shooed her away. She made dozens of calls to officials without result. One told her to come by a week later, but she has little hope.

"I turned my face to God," she said. "I told him, 'You are my last chance.' "

Ali Adeeb, Sahar Nageeb and Hosham Hussein contributed reporting for this article.