Tortured screams ring out as Iraqis take over Abu Ghraib
By Ali Saber in Baghdad and Gethin Chamberlain
The notorious Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad is at the centre of fresh abuse allegations just a week after it was handed over to Iraqi authorities, with claims that inmates are being tortured by their new captors.
Staff at the jail say the Iraqi authorities have moved dozens of terrorist suspects into Abu Ghraib from the controversial Interior Ministry detention centre in Jadriyah, where United States troops last year discovered 169 prisoners who had been tortured and starved.
An independent witness who went into Abu Ghraib this week told The Sunday Telegraph that screams were coming from the cell blocks housing the terrorist suspects. Prisoners released from the jail this week spoke of routine torture of terrorism suspects and on Wednesday, 27 prisoners were hanged in the first mass execution since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein's regime.
Conditions in the rest of the jail were grim, with an overwhelming stench of excrement, prisoners crammed into cells for all but 20 minutes a day, food rations cut to just rice and water and no air conditioning.
Some of the small number of prisoners who remained in the jail after the Americans left said they had pleaded to go with their departing captors, rather than be left in the hands of Iraqi guards.
"The Americans were better than the Iraqis. They treated us better," said Khalid Alaani, who was held on suspicion of involvement in Sunni terrorism.
Abu Ghraib became synonymous with abuse after shocking pictures were published in 2004 showing prisoners being tortured and humiliated, galvanising opposition to the US presence in Iraq.
The witness gained access to the prison just days after the Americans formally handed over control to the Iraqi authorities on Sept 1.
Inside the 100-yard long cell block the smell of excrement was overpowering. Four to six prisoners shared each of the 12ft by 15ft cells along either side and the walls were smeared with filth. The cell block was patrolled by guards who carried long batons and shouted angrily at the prisoners to stand up.
Access to the part of the prison containing terrorism suspects was denied, but from that block came the sound of screaming. The screaming continued for a long time.
"I am sure someone was being beaten, they were screaming like they were being hit," the witness reported. "I felt scared, I was asking what was happening in the terrorist section.
"I heard shouting, like someone had a hot iron on their body, screams. The officer said they were just screaming by themselves. I was hearing the screams throughout the visit."
The witness said that even in the thieves' section prisoners were being treated badly. "Someone was shouting 'Please help us, we want the human rights officers, we want the Americans to come back'," he said.
Prisoners interviewed in the presence of their jailers said they were frightened for their safety. They complained that chicken and milk had been cut from their rations, leaving them on rice and water. They also complained about the oppressive heat.
Outside the prison, relatives of some of the inmates said they were being tortured by their captors. One woman, who gave her name as Omsaad, said: "My son Saad [who was arrested in Fallujah as a suspected insurgent] said he is being tortured by the Iraqis to confess the name of his leader. I met my son and he told me they were being treated badly by the Iraqis."
Haleem Aleulami, who was released from the jail last week, three weeks after being arrested in Ramadi for carrying a pistol in his car, said the Americans had treated him better when they ran the jail. He claimed that visits from the International Red Cross staff had dried up and accused local human rights workers of being members of Shia groups who turned a blind eye to problems in the jail.
"The people are Iraqis and they are members of the Sciri and al Dawa parties. They have a good relationship with the leaders of the jail and they keep quiet," he said. The guards swore at the ordinary prisoners, he said, but those in the terrorist section were treated more brutally.
"The guards were swearing at us, but in the terrorist section they were beating them. I heard it all the time. Everyone knows what is happening."
And Khalid Alaani, who was also picked up in Ramadi suspected of involvement in Sunni terrorism, said: "We preferred the Americans. We asked to move with them to Baghdad airport because we knew the treatment would be changed because we know what the Iraqis are. When the Americans left everything changed."
Staff at the jail said that the prisoners were allowed out from their cells for only 15 to 20 minutes a day because of the danger from the regular mortar attacks. They are no longer allowed access to the main hall where the Americans had allowed them to watch television and the room is now reserved for the use of officers and guards. Staff explained that the air conditioning in the cell blocks had broken, although it was working in their quarters.
One officer, Capt Ali Abdelzaher, said: "We have a problem with the financing for the food, not like the Americans, and there is a technical problem with the air conditioning."
Capt Abdelzaher also confirmed that a number of inmates had been transferred from the Jadriyah detention centre, along with their guards and interrogators.
Graphic stories of abuse at that previously secret facility emerged after US soldiers found 169 prisoners showing signs of torture last November.
Most of the prisoners held by the Americans at Abu Ghraib were either released in recent months or transferred to a new £32 million detention centre at Camp Cropper near Baghdad International Airport.
Yesterday, the International Red Cross confirmed that its visits to the prison had been suspended since January 2005 on security grounds.