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Inside Baghdad's Rusafa prison

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Overcrowding and degrading living conditions in Iraq's jails

By Andrew North
BBC News, Baghdad

It took some time to make sense of the scene in front of us.

A jailer at Baghdad's Rusafa prison had just swung open the heavy metal-barred door.

Inside a small dimly lit room, the first sight was the iron-framed double bunks, packed together and hung with plastic bags, clothes and towels.

Then, staring back at us from the bunks, faces and faces, bearded, unshaven, balding, greying.


I feel like I'm dead in here

Iraqi prisoner

And then into a larger room and in almost every conceivable space there was a human being.

Four or five men perched on a bunk, some even tucked on the floor underneath.

It was astonishing to see so many people packed into one space. It's the first time the foreign media have had such access to an Iraqi jail since the US invasion in 2003.

They were nervous at first, at seeing their jailers at the door behind us and no doubt at seeing foreign journalists suddenly appear in their midst. Everything is fine here, was the first thing they said.

But then a man in a long white robe or dish-dash jumped down from a bunk.

"Don't listen to that," he said. "The conditions are terrible here. There are people sleeping next to the toilets. Some stand so that others can sleep."

Prisoners say some have to stand to make room for others to sleep

Another man, sitting on a top bunk said: "I feel like I'm dead in here."

He said a court had ordered his release, then he had been re-arrested.

Because there is no proper exercise area, the inmates are rarely allowed out.

A few feet from one of the bunks, a fraying curtain covered the three toilets and one shower, which serve more than 100 people.

There were also blankets on the floor outside the toilets, where people sleep.

"We have to take it in turns to wash, once every three days," one prisoner explained.

Allegations of abuse

It was a cool November day when we visited, but the air was warm and thick inside. It's hard to imagine what it must be like during Baghdad's 50 degree Celsius summer heat.

We'd been brought here by Iraqi Interior Ministry officials, after we had asked to check on allegations of abuse and beatings in Iraqi prisons.

To our surprise, the ministry's second in command said we could see for ourselves. And once we were inside, we were able to talk to the inmates freely without our conversations being monitored.

The increasing number of prisoners is putting a lot of pressure on the system
General Abdul Kareem al-Khalaf
Operations commander for the Interior Ministry

Some prisoners said they had been beaten and abused, although most at the time of arrest. What stood out, and what concerned them most was the conditions in which they are now being kept.

Some of these men are suspected insurgents detained by Iraqi police and army units, others accused of crimes like robbery.

But they often have to wait months just to be charged - let alone tried - because Iraq's creaking judicial system cannot cope with the caseload.

With thousands arrested in security operations over the past few years, the system has become progressively more overloaded.

After an explosion or violent incident, Iraqi police and soldiers often round up anyone who happens to be nearby, so many innocent bystanders get trapped in this legal limbo, incarcerated in places like Rusafa.

'Changing culture'

The situation here is not unique. Mobile phone footage filmed by Iraqi MPs who have visited other jails, seen by the BBC, shows similar conditions.

Rusafa prison
Prisoners can wait months in legal limbo due to a creaking judicial system

"We do have a problem with overcrowding," admits General Abdul Kareem al-Khalaf, the operations commander for the Interior Ministry. "And the increasing number of prisoners is putting a lot of pressure on the system."

He says there are still "some isolated cases" of violations such as torture or beatings in prisons, but insists the culture is changing.

It's the "exceptional situation" in the country that is to blame for the way the inmates are forced to live in the prison, said Rusafa's deputy governor, who didn't want to be named when we interviewed him. But he said the conditions were not "inhumane".

If you had seen the jails in Saddam Hussein's time, "then you would have seen really inhumane conditions".

There is less torture and other abuse now, from reports we have gathered. But Iraqis we have spoken to who have been imprisoned in Saddam's time and since say conditions haven't changed much.

And they could get even worse. As the United States and Britain gradually make their exit from Iraq, they are due to transfer thousands of prisoners into the custody of the Iraqi prison system.



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