Al-Ahram Weekly Online   22 - 28 June 2006
Issue No. 800
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

The height of humiliation

Threatened, abused, raped and tortured: such is the fate of untold numbers of Iraqi women amid the barbarous practices of the occupation. Haifa Zangana* examines the plight of Iraq's female security detainees

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The women of Iraq paid a terrible price for their country's occupation by foreign troops

Within months of the occupation of Iraq, complaints surfaced of human rights violations in prisons administered by occupation authorities. It took almost a year and published photographs of horrific incidents of torture in Abu Ghraib before the world began to heed the voices of detainees and those trying to defend them.

Today, four years into the Anglo- American occupation, tens of thousands of Iraqis are still languishing in prison without charge, no trial in sight, deprived of the right to contest the grounds of their detention before judicial authorities. For various reasons, Iraqi women, too, have been caught up in the sweep of detentions and account for a goodly percentage of detainees, not only in Abu Ghraib, but in many other prisons. In addition to suffering the same hardships as male inmates, the women endure another plight: silence. The plight is two-fold, emanating, first, from the occupation authorities' denial that there are female detainees to begin with, and second from the nature of the stigma surrounding the arrest and detention of women.

I will discuss here obfuscations surrounding the existence of "female security detainees" and the pretexts cited by occupation authorities for detaining them. I will then address how women are treated during the arrest and interrogation process, for their ordeal does not begin in prison but rather from the moment security forces descend upon them.

DENIAL: Occupation authorities (by which I mean foreign military forces and Iraqi army, police and special forces operating under the command of the occupation) apply the term "security detainee" to all "security detainees arrested under the provisions of UN Security Council Resolution 1546 on the grounds that they are considered an imperative threat to the stability and security of Iraq". So much for theory. In practice, a "security detainee" is anyone who has been subject to random arrest -- i.e. without a court order -- regardless of sex, age or circumstances.

Numerous rights organisations have reported the presence, "for security reasons," of female detainees in many prisons throughout Iraq. Evidence indicates widespread maltreatment, degradation and physical and psychological torture, in addition to unhealthy and unhygienic conditions of detention. There remains considerable uncertainty about the number of female detainees.

Among organisations involved in documenting the detention of Iraqi women are several independent women's and human rights groups operating inside Iraq and abroad (such as Women's Will, Occupation Watch, the Iraqi League and the Human Rights' Voice of Freedom), official and political party publications (notably those produced by the Association of Muslim Scholars, the Iraqi Islamic Party, the Iraqi National Media and Culture Organisation), and international agencies and human rights and anti-war organisations (Amnesty International, the International Red Cross, the UN Assistance Mission in Iraq, and the BRussells Tribunal).

In addition, there is the personal testimony of detainees following their release. One such case is Hoda Al-Azawi, who was interviewed following her release from Abu Ghraib. Another is Abdul- Jabbar Al-Kubaysi, secretary-general of the Iraqi Patriotic Alliance, who spent over a year in detention in Camp Cropper and who recalls hearing, night after night, day after day, the cries and screams of women being tortured under interrogation.

SECRECY AND SCANDAL: Estimates of the number of Iraqis arrested since the invasion in March 2003 range from 30,000 to 100,000. A heavy cloak of secrecy and misinformation surrounds the status and welfare of security detainees, even ones as well known as the short story writer and translator Mohsen Al-Khafafi who was arrested in April 2003 and only released in April this year. In general, occupation authorities refuse to be specific about the number of detainees -- perhaps to be at liberty to increase or reduce their number as deemed necessary.

The same applies to the extent and whereabouts of female detainees. However, in their case the source of secrecy is two-fold: over the first two years at least, not only did the occupation want to cover up its detention of women, so too did their families. There were two major reasons why these families would have wanted to collude in the silence. First, the detained women may have been members of the Baath Party or one of its agencies and they feared revenge. Second, they feared the stigma of having a female relative in prison, the thought of which conjures up rape and unwanted pregnancy.

Occupation authorities, for their part, were eager to deny the existence of female detainees, especially after the sexual abuse scandal at Abu Ghraib. They refused to release information in the hope of deceiving public opinion at both the international and domestic levels. Internationally, the Bush administration was particularly wary of international peace, human rights and women's rights organisations and activists. After congressional members saw photographs of female prisoners at Abu Ghraib forced at gunpoint to bare their breasts, officials in the Bush administration blocked these photographs from going public. Although they cited reprisal attacks against US forces in Iraq, it is commonly believed that the cover up was to spare the US additional international ignominy.

Inside Iraq, occupation authorities suppressed information about female detainees so as not to provoke anger, on the one hand, and so as to give the Iraqi people the sense that the occupation respected local traditions, especially with regard to the sensitive status of women, on the other. On occasion, Iraqi collaborators helped promote this impression. On 18 April 2004, Ministry of Interior Chief Ahmed Youssef issued a statement denying maltreatment of female detainees. He said: "we are Muslims. We know very well how to treat our female detainees."

Apart from cases of such well-known detainees as Hoda Saleh Ammash and Rihab Taha, occupation authorities are generally mute about the existence of female detainees. Available information gives lie to their silence.

MALTREATMENT AND PROOF: On 20 April 2004, Abdul-Bassat Turki, the first Iraqi minister of human rights, gave an interview to The Guardian on the condition of female prisoners in Iraq. Turki had recently resigned from his post in protest against the human rights violations committed by American forces and Paul Bremer's determination to ignore his reports and to refuse him permission to visit Abu Ghraib.

Turki told the Guardian that he had warned Bremer repeatedly of the abuses of prisoners in Abu Ghraib, but that Bremer had consistently ignored all warnings. In December 2003, a month before the US military mounted its own secret investigation into Abu Ghraib, Turki phoned Bremer to complain of the treatment of female detainees. "They had been denied medical treatment. They had no proper toilet. They had only been given one blanket, even though it was winter," the former minister said.

Amnesty International interviewed several female victims of maltreatment and torture after their release from Abu Ghraib. Many complained of having been beaten, threatened with rape, verbally abused and held in solitary confinement for long periods of time. One Amnesty report states that since the invasion in 2003 women in Iraqi jails have been routinely threatened with rape.

One of the rare occasions in which Anne Clwyd, the British human rights envoy to Iraq, was moved to speak out about human rights violations after the invasion was when she learned of the arrest and subsequent torture of a 70-year-old woman, whose torturers forced her into a makeshift bridle and then mounted her like a donkey.

A report by the Iraqi Women's Will organisation listed the types of physical and psychological torture inflicted upon women in Iraqi jails. Amongst the most degrading is being brought in nude for questioning and hence subject to derisive and humiliating remarks by interrogators, wardens and translators. Prior to this, detainees are routinely threatened to be deprived of water, food, have been confined to small cages inhibiting all movement, exposed to extremes of heat and cold, and subject to forced sleep deprivation.

Hoda Al-Ezawi relates that she was kept in solitary confinement for 156 days. Then her sister was arrested and thrown into the cell with her, along with the corpse of their dead brother. Among the other types of torture inflicted upon her was to be kept standing for more than 12 hours straight while subject to continual threat and intimidation. US forces and the Iraqi National Guard arrested Al-Ezawi along with her two daughters, Nora, 15, and Sara, 20, on 17 February 2005 on the charge of supporting the resistance.

Ali Al-Qeisi, the man whose torturers thrust a bag over his head, forced to stand on a crate as they coiled wires around him and then photographed producing the picture that has become a worldwide symbol of the occupation and the horror of Abu Ghraib, recalls his anguish at hearing the screams and cries of female detainees. "Their food was brought into their cells by naked men," he relates, adding, "we felt helpless as we listened to their screams, unable to do anything but pray to God Almighty."

The Ministry of Interior's Wolf Brigade arrested Khalda Zaki, a 46-year-old housewife, in her native Mosul. Soon afterwards she appeared on Iraqi state television claiming she had supported an insurgent group. Later she retracted this confession, revealing how her captors had whipped her and threatened to rape her. The "Wolves", a group founded in October 2004, received two months' intensive training by American military personnel before being deployed in security operations against "armed groups". The brigade has become notorious for its use of torture and other forms of inhuman treatment.

Suheib Baz, a cameraman for Al-Jazeera, told The Independent that he had personally seen a 12-year-old girl being tortured: "She was naked, and crying out to me for help while being beaten." He also relates that prison wardens would photograph these horrors.

Still, the denial continues or the figures are airbrushed. As a result, we continue to encounter such reports as, "On 6 February 2006, a military spokesman told the French Press Agency that 50 detainees had been released, although he denied that any women were among them," and "four women have remained in detention after 400 detainees were released last month, among whom were five women."

British authorities recently announced that since October 2005, British authorities no longer held any women or children in custody. Even taking this statement at face value, it indicates that British authorities had detained women and children prior to that date, in conflict with previous denials.

It also conflicts with statements made by General Muntazer Al-Samerani in interview with the French Press Agency in December 2005. The former supervisor of Iraqi Special Forces revealed the existence of nine secret detention centres as well as the existence of women detention centres in Baghdad in the districts of Kazemiya and Rishad. He added that the women in these centres were routinely subject to torture and rape.

On 20 October 2005, officials of the Kazemiya women's prison confirmed an instance of rape. The UN was refused permission to investigate.

According to a report of the UN Assistance Mission to Iraq, Iraqi police tortured a woman detained in Diwaniya police station since March 2005. The victim recounted that electric shocks were applied to her heels. She was told that her teenage daughter would be raped if she did not supply the information her interrogators wanted.

This is the tip of the iceberg. A report published by the Iraqi National Association for Human Rights on 29 October 2005 found that women held in Interior Ministry detention centres are subject to numerous human rights violations, including "systematic rape by the investigators and to other forms of bodily harm in order to coerce them into making confessions". The report added that prisons fail to meet even the most basic standards of hygiene and that the women were deprived of facilities as fundamental as toilets. The Ministry of Justice has confirmed the accuracy of the report.

In such circumstances, it is insult to injury that female detainees are often forced to sign a paper prior to their release in which they testify to being properly treated. The purpose of this affidavit is to silence them and deprive them of recourse to litigation in the future.

It should be noted, here, that the first question that is put to female detainees is: "Are you Sunni or Shia?" The second is, "Are you a virgin?"

METHODS OF ARREST: Random arrests continue in spite of the so-called "national unity government". Occupation forces are deliberately as brutal as possible when they raid people's homes. They threaten women, "confiscate" money, jewellery and other property, force women to watch as they deliberately humiliate their husbands, sons or fathers, and sometimes order them to take pictures with the cameras of American soldiers.

Most arrests and raids take place after midnight while people are asleep. In some neighbourhoods, women now sleep fully dressed so as not to be caught in their nightgowns if their homes are raided.

Heavy artillery -- including tanks and helicopters -- are sometimes deployed in raids, despite the fact that such a display of force far exceeds the demands of the operation. Slapping, kicking and insulting male members of the household and locking women and children into bathrooms are a matter of course.

In Mosul, on 18 June 2005, the Iraqi League met several former female detainees and relatives of women still in prison. The league learned the following: security forces routinely take wives, parents, brothers or sisters, or even minors, as hostages in the event the suspect they are pursuing is not home.

Interrogators almost invariably ask women who have been taken into detention about the whereabouts of their male relatives rather than restricting their questions to acts for which the women themselves may have been accountable.

There are numerous women in prison who were still nursing infants at the time of their arrest and suffer intense psychological trauma from being separated from their children.

UNLAWFUL PRETEXTS: One of the most widespread causes of the detention of women in Iraq is to be used as bargaining chips to force their male relatives to surrender to authorities. Wives and daughters are brought in and threatened with rape in front of their male relatives so as to coerce the latter into confessions.

Not uncommon, too, is for women to be arrested on the grounds of "supporting the resistance". The stories below only hint at the scale of the constant threat that hangs over the heads of Iraqi women:

"Zakiya Sabaawi has been arrested because her husband, who is wanted by the occupation army, has fled ... "

"Iman Ahmed, of Amiriya, was taken into custody in order to force her brother, who is being pursued by occupation forces, to surrender himself."

"Sara Taha Al-Jumaili of Falluja was arrested twice. The first time occurred on 19 October 2005, when US forces alleged that she was the daughter of Zarqawi. It is common knowledge that Sara is the daughter of Taha Al-Jumaili, the well- known politician, who was under detention with the occupation forces when Sara was arrested. She was released in response to a popular demonstration and the declaration of a general strike. She was arrested again on 8 November on the charge of being a terrorist. Again, she was not released until the people declared a general strike and disseminated leaflets threatening the occupation forces with retaliatory acts."

"An official at the Iraqi Ministry of Justice announced yesterday that a board of review, consisting of six Iraqi officials and three American officers, met on 17 January and agreed to release the six Iraqi female detainees within a few days. Yesterday, the Ministry of Justice confirmed that it still expects US forces to release the women, in spite of US statements to the contrary... Since that time, the statements of Iraqi officials have conflicted with the statements of their American counterparts with regard to the release of six of the eight Iraqi women being held in American prisons on suspicion of involvement in terrorism."

"Occupation forces arrested Ilham Hussein, whose husband, Yasser Ibrahim Hassan, had just been killed in front of her and her family on 6 May 2006 during a raid on their home in the university district in central Baghdad. The couple had just celebrated the birth of their first son five days ago."

UNKNOWN JAILS: There are no exact figures on the number of jails and detention camps controlled by occupation authorities. According to a recent Amnesty International report, most "security detainees" are held in one of four American-run facilities: Camp Bukka outside Basra, Abu Ghraib in Baghdad, Camp Cropper in Baghdad and Fort Sousa near Suleimaniya. In addition to these, US forces use the detention facilities of various regiments throughout the country for temporary purposes. British forces hold a number of "security detainees" in a detention facility in the Shoeiba Camp near Basra.

Iman Khammas maintains that there are five secret prisons in Iraq on top of the 10 known, of which three are in Baghdad: the notorious Abu Ghraib, Al-Kazimiya and Al-Risafa. On 4 May 2004, Deputy Operations Commander Major General Jeffrey Miller told a press conference that in addition to the three major detention centres operated by the US army there were 13 or 14 smaller camps used for the assessment of detainees. Hajj Ali, director of the Organisation for the Defence of Detainees in Occupation Jails, remarked: "Under Saddam there were 13 prisons. Now there are 36 run by the government and 200 run by the militias. All these have the approval of the American government."

According to the report of the US State Department's Democracy and Human Rights Bureau of 6 March 2006, there are 450 detention centres in Iraq. Some of these are administered the Ministry of Interior and others by the Iraqi Ministry of Defence. In addition, there are secret detention centres scattered throughout the country. Kurdish parties also run at least five detention centres outside the official penal system.

THIS IS INTOLERABLE: Torture and inhuman treatment are regarded as gross violations of human rights under the Fourth Geneva Convention (Article 147). Even following the supposed transfer of authority on 28 June 2004, the UN Security Council reaffirmed the continued and full standing of, and obligation of all parties to respect, international humanitarian law in Iraq, including the Geneva Conventions.

Torture and inhuman treatment are prohibited under international law, as reflected in the Rome Statute establishing the International Criminal Court (Article 8:2) where cruel and inhuman treatment and torture in non-international armed disputes are considered war crimes.

Whereas Amnesty International ranked the security detention system -- and the acts of torture and brutality inflicted upon the detainees in that system -- as crimes of war, it described the system that supplanted it following the handover of sovereignty as tyrannical because of the systematic and widespread violations of fundamental human rights and international humanitarian law.

The human rights organisation holds American-led multinational forces in Iraq directly responsible for these crimes, including those that are increasingly perpetrated by Iraqi security forces. International law and international humanitarian law make absolutely no exceptions on the prohibition of torture, even under conditions of emergency or warfare.

Compounding the intolerable, "multinational forces", and all who work with them, enjoy immunity from prosecution under Iraqi civil and criminal law, in accordance with Security Council Resolution 1546 and the accompanying exchange of letters between Iraqi and American authorities. In addition, the recommendations of the joint board of review for the release of detainees, whose membership includes representatives from the Iraqi ministries of justice, interior and human rights, are not binding. It is the multinational forces' deputy commanding general for detention operations who has the ultimate say as to whether or not a detainee is to be released.

With respect to Iraqi governments under occupation, until now there are no cases of perpetrators of maltreatment, torture and murder having been brought to justice, with the sole exception of a few policemen in Baghdad charged with the systematic rape and torture of female detainees.

Female detainees, like men and children in Iraqi jails, are the victims of a brutal, degrading and life-threatening system. In addition, the gender-related injustices perpetrated in the course of arrest, interrogation and detention constitute a deliberate affront to the cherished values and morals of Iraqi society.

There will be no end to these violations as long as Iraq remains occupied by forces that enjoy immunity from prosecution under Iraqi law and as long as occupation authorities continue to treat Iraqi citizens with racist contempt in order to feel better about plundering the nation's wealth and depriving its people of their most fundamental rights under international law and human rights conventions. It is all the more unfortunate that this situation is condoned by Iraqi authorities that claim to represent an independent and sovereign nation.

* The writer is a London-based Iraqi novelist.

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