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Iraq's Prisons Strained as Security Improves

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Here's one side effect of improved security in Baghdad: Iraq's prisons are overcrowded. The U.S. is helping to pay for at least three new facilities, but overcrowding is only one of the problems. NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro reports.

(Soundbite of sirens)

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO: Every time the gate to the Rasafa Prison in Baghdad opens and a bus comes out, Salima Mohammed Solman(ph) cranes her neck excitedly. She's been told her son will be released today.

Ms. SALIMA MOHAMMED SOLMAN: (Through Translator) I feel crazy. I keep wondering what he felt, what he said when they told him he was going to be released. Was he crying, laughing? It's been eight months since they took him.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The hours pass in the dust and heat. Salima sits in a cluster of four other relatives, swathed in torn in black veils. Time drags and her sister begins to wail.

Unidentified Woman: (Foreign language spoken)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: He is innocent, she cries over and over. Salima says police beat her son during those first days of detention at the police station near her home. They wanted to extract a confession from him, she says. She tried everything to get him released, even bribing a corrupt cop.

Ms. SOLMAN: (Through translator) Every side wanted something from us. We paid one policeman. He promised to release him, so we paid $2,600. Then we started to call him, and he switched off his phone, and we called and called. Then he disappeared.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Her story is far from uncommon. There are two separate prison systems in Iraq today. The American military holds around 20,000 people. The Iraqis, as of December, have around 26,000 people in their Iraqi-run facilities. In 2004, the Abu Ghraib prison scandal rocked the U.S. The year later, though, Iraq's own prison system came under scrutiny when secret detention facilities run by the Ministry of Interior were discovered. Now a United Nations human rights report says that the Iraqi system is still riven with abuse.

Ms. MARIA SOLIAPASO(ph) (Human rights officers for the United Nations): There is progress. I can't say it's dramatic. I mean, there - we're still a long way.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Maria Soliapaso is a human rights officer for the United Nation's mission in Iraq. She says she's visited prisons and detention facilities and spoken to those being held.

Ms. SOLIAPASO: Almost all of them with whom I talked have been subjected to abuse, ill treatment, torture, depending on the degree - mostly due to the interrogation of detaining authorities.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That means the police and the Iraqi Army. These abuses, she says, happens in large part because to get a conviction in Iraq, you need a confession.

Ms. SOLIAPASO: They still rely almost 100 percent on having a confession. And how do we achieve a confession? By applying pressure or force of some kind.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: There are even more serious allegations, sources say - that at the Rasafa Prison, for example, Sunni prisoners have regularly disappeared.

Unidentified Man: (Singing in foreign language)

General Juma Hussein sits at his desk while the call to prayer echoes through the Rasafa compound. He runs the prison system in Iraq and is based here. He denies the charges of prisoner abuse.

General JUMA HUSSEIN (Director, Iraqi Prison System): (Through translator) After the U.S. invasion, the Iraqi prison system changed. It's different now than it was under Saddam Hussein. The food, the shelter we give them is different than before. We now apply human rights inside the prisons.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: There is no doubt that there's more oversight than there was before. William Gallo is the American director of the Law and Order task force, which has its headquarters just next door to the Rasafa Prison. He says that the Iraqi prison system is still facing a number of challenges.

Mr. WILLIAM GALLO (American Director, Law and Order Task Force): It's a combination of many, many factors: work ethic, lack of automation to track prisoners through the system, influences that are outside pressures that are brought to bare as well.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: He says many people stay in detention for longer than they should.

Mr. GALLO: We have had prisoners over there at the Rasafa Prison for four years, without having seen a judge and without having any charges lodged against them.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: NPR was allowed to speak with two detainees. Both said that they had yet to see a lawyer or a judge after months behind bars. The law and order task force is in the process of putting in a kind of on-site legal aid office at Rasafa. It will help process the detainees at this facility, but there are dozens of prisons all over Iraq with the same problems, and the backlog is about to get worse. Iraq's parliament passed an amnesty law that will potentially release thousands of prisoners, but each case will have to be reviewed by a panel of judges.

Unidentified Man: (Foreign language spoken)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Back outside the prison, a policeman reads off the names of those about to be released. He finishes without naming Salima Mohammed Solman's son.

Ms. SOLMAN: He's not on the list, she cries. There's no one to ask what has happened to him - when, or even if he'll be let go.

Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR News, Baghdad. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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Lulu Garcia-Navarro is the host of Weekend Edition Sunday and one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. She is infamous in the IT department of NPR for losing laptops to bullets, hurricanes, and bomb blasts.