Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Sunnis Complain of Random Arrests, Torture

Discovery of tortured detainees at secret Baghdad jail ratchets up tensions between Sunni Arab leaders and Shia-led government.
By Daud Salman
The recent revelations of torture at a secret Baghdad jail did not surprise many of the capital's Sunni Arab residents and leaders, who said civil rights violations have become a regular occurrence.

Sunni Arabs here said that months before reports of torture at the ministry of interior facility emerged, the ministry and the Iraqi National Guard were randomly arresting, torturing and killings members of their community.

They also accused security forces of allowing armed militias to roam freely in the city.

"Citizens do not know what fate awaits them at night," said Ma'in Hamid, a 21-year-old university student in Baghdad. "They don't know if they will be arrested, killed and their bodies mutilated. The random arrests have made life here an eternal nightmare."

The US military last week raided a makeshift jail in a former bomb shelter of an interior ministry building in the Jadiriyah neighbourhood. About 170 detainees, most of them Sunni Arabs, were held at the facility and several of them reported being tortured.

There were reports that they had suffered beatings and electric shocks, and there were photos of detainees with their skin ripped off and holes drilled into bodies.

The discovery has ratcheted up tensions between Sunni Arab leaders and the Shia-led government of Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Ja'afari.

Three major Sunni parties - the Iraqi Islamic Party, the National Accord Front and the National Dialogue Conference - called for the resignation of Interior Minister Bayan Jabr.

Jabr said the torture was not widespread but agreed to allow a US-led inspection of Iraq's 1,100 jails and prisons. He strongly rejected allegations that his ministry targeted Sunni Arabs, noting that not all detainees in the Jadiriyah facility were Sunni.

Tariq al-Hashmi, secretary-general of the Iraqi Islamic Party, said the party gave the prime minister and interior ministry 50 documents and detailed notes regarding random arrests and torture of Sunni Arabs. Hashimi also said the party has photographic evidence of human rights violations - including killings as a result of torture - but has not received a response from the government.

Iraqis of all sects and ethnicities have expressed concern about mounting violence and anarchy as the government talks about establishing law and order.

But Sunni Arabs are at particular risk of armed militias and government security forces in the capital, claimed Ahmed Abdul-Ghafur Samarayee, a member of the Association of the Muslim Scholars and the director of the Sunni Endowment, the government body in charge of the Sunni mosques across the country.

"Random arrests have recently increased by parties using government cars and uniforms," he said. "But before any bail is requested for the detainees, their relatives find their bodies in the morgue. This happened to many (people) who were arrested in Baghdad."

Mustafa Hussein, 48, said the interior ministry's special forces (mukhawir) arrested one of his wife's relatives in August 2005. Al-Hajj Khalil Abdul-Aziz was a Sunni businessman.

He said the family of Abdul-Aziz went to the ministry and received confirmation that he had been detained. But a few days later, he reported, a group demanded the family pay 100,000 dollars ransom.

The family paid the ransom, but the bid to save his life proved unsuccessful. The following day, they found him in the morgue, said Hussein.

"It was mutilated," he went on. "His eyes were pulled out and holes were drilled into his body. It is believed that an electric drill had been used. And there were knife cuts all over his body."

Faiq Amin Bakir, director of forensic medicine at the health ministry, said, "The bodies we receive from the ministry of interior are severely mutilated and damaged."

He maintained that torture and killing were on the rise in prisons. A source at the human rights ministry said it had found similar evidence of torture.

The allegations are not new. US-based Human Rights Watch issued a detailed report in January accusing security forces of random arrests and of torturing prisoners. The ministry of human rights has recorded torture cases and the killing of detainees in the Boka prison in the Um Qasir area in Basra province and in Abu Graib prison.

Security forces continue to conduct random arrests despite calls by Iraqi president Jalal Talabani and the prime minister to obtain court warrants, say community leaders.

Sunni Arabs have accused the interior ministry's special services and the Iraqi National Guard of collaborating with the Badr Brigade, the military wing of the Shia-led Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, to arrest Sunni Arabs. The interior ministry has denied the allegation.

But Sunni Arab suspicions that they are being targeted and the discovery of the detainees is eroding what little credibility the government had in the community. Abdul Hassan Shaaban, director of the organisation for human rights and democracy in Baghdad, called for human rights groups to take over the human rights ministry "because they are unable to defend detainees".

Al-Shaykh Abdul-Jalil al-Fahdawi, a professor of Islamic studies in the Islamic University in Baghdad, called on Sunni Arabs "to widely participate in the next election so that they will regain their stolen rights and have a real political influence in the country".

Daud Salman is an IWPR trainee journalist in Baghdad.