Page last updated at 15:25 GMT, Wednesday, 28 April 2010 16:25 UK

Iraq 'secret prison' inmates allege horrific torture

By Gabriel Gatehouse
BBC News, Baghdad

A torture victim, wrapped in a scarf to cover his face
This man was in the jail and says he was tortured by his captors

Prisoners held for months without charge in a secret jail in Baghdad were subjected to horrific torture over a period of months - including electric shocks and rape, claims suggest.

A British citizen, who is still in detention, is among the men making the allegations.

The BBC has spoken to former prisoners who back up the picture of systematic abuse at the detention centre detailed in a new report by the US-based pressure group, Human Rights Watch.

The secret detention facility at Muthana airbase is now closed.

The corridors and cells in the converted military barracks stand empty.

But it is believed that, until earlier this month, more than 400 prisoners - including a man with dual British-Iraqi citizenship - suffered months of the most excruciating torture.

"It started when they put plastic bags over our heads to suffocate us," one man told the BBC.

"Then they tortured us with electric shocks after pouring water over our bodies."

He had been held at Muthana since September last year, but was released after existence of the detention centre came to light last month.

British detainee

The man does not want to reveal his identity for fear of retribution, but he is one of a number of people spoken to by the BBC whose stories of terrifying abuse are almost identical to accounts given to Human Rights Watch by former inmates of Muthana now in detention elsewhere.

Saad Yousif al-Mouttalebi
I can assure you that this is not institutionalised
Saad Yousif al-Mouttalebi
Prospective Iraqi MP

"Some of us were sodomised, with sticks or sometimes steel pipes and they applied electric shocks to our genitals. They told us if we did not confess they would bring our mothers and sisters and rape them in front of us."

More than 300 of these detainees have now been moved to a different prison in Baghdad, where they say the torture has stopped and their treatment is relatively benign.

Among those is a 68-year-old British-Iraqi national who says he travelled to Iraq late last year in search of his son.

He told Human Rights Watch he was arrested in December 2009, and held at Muthana, where he claims to have suffered torture.

He is in a wheelchair and told the human rights group he was diabetic and in need of medical attention.

Endemic abuse?

The British embassy in Baghdad said it was aware of a British-Iraqi national being held in Baghdad, and that he had received visits from embassy staff who were providing him with consular assistance.

It seems that this was a standard practice that was used by the interrogators to get information
Samer Muscati
Human Rights Watch

The Iraqi government has strongly denied any suggestion that it operates secret detention facilities, or that abuse in the country's prisons is endemic.

"I can assure you that this is not institutionalised," says Saad Yousif al-Mouttalebi, a prospective member of parliament for the Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's State of Law coalition.

"There are individual acts of cruelty to inmates. Some have been reported. This is a matter that we do not tolerate at any level whatsoever."

But Human Rights Watch says the abuse suffered at Muthana was "routine and systematic".

"It seems that this was a standard practice that was used by the interrogators to get information," says Samer Muscati, a researcher for Human Rights Watch.

'Same stories'

Earlier this week he spoke to more than 40 former inmates of the Muthana detention centre.

An Iraqi prison (file photo)
Human rights groups say treatment in other prisons is 'hardly great'

"We have interviewed other prisoners in different facilities, people who were held by the British and by the Americans. Although treatment of people in detention facilities in Iraq isn't great, this really did stand out for us.

"The fact that everyone we looked at had these marks in the same places, and had the same stories - it seems to be part of a pattern."

Mr Muscati says that the prisoners were effectively dealt with outside the law.

"It was a secret prison because people in the government didn't know it existed, family members had no idea where their loved ones were, and these detainees didn't have access to any legal recourse, and judicial process."

Nearly all the prisoners were arrested late last year in and around the city of Mosul in northern Iraq, a predominantly Sunni Muslim region where al-Qaeda and other insurgent activity has been strong.

Human Rights Watch says that during their interrogations, the detainees were accused of aiding and abetting terrorism, and forced to sign confessions - but none was officially charged.

Under Saddam Hussein, Iraq's prisons were notorious for their brutal torture chambers.

Today, it seems, the abuse may be continuing, seven years after his fall from power.

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