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US Warns Human Rights Group in Baghdad

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American military personnel recently denied Human Rights Watch observers access to Iraqi detainees held under US control, threatened to expel HRW from a court if they spoke to any detainees, and deployed military escorts to prevent any such contacts with the human rights observers. These incidents are reported deep in the organization's Dec. 14 report calling into question Iraq's Central Criminal Court, the country's "flagship" criminal justice institution.

For the report, go here.

Authored by Joseph Logan with Michael Wahid Hanna, the HRW report provides new evidence of a pattern and practice of human rights violations in Iraq in violation of US and international human rights law.

Congress has failed so far to act against the abuse of 50,000 Iraqi detainees while spending over $20 billion on US advisors to Iraq's police, prison, and judicial systems. The same system of preventive detention is being implemented in Afghanistan.

The HRW report comes at a moment when the Obama administration and Congress have shown no opposition to the content of Bush's recent unilateral pact with the Iraqi government. That agreement turns over the fate of the detainees to an Iraqi regime widely depicted as a serial human rights violator.

The HRW report cites failings by the US-led Multinational Force as well, including the refusal to honor hundreds of requests by the Iraqi CCCI to release detainees. Through December 2007, US authorities admit refusing to release 367 detainees even after the CCCI dropped charges or found them not guilty.

The report further challenges the US/MNF legal argument for preventive internment "for imperative reasons of security", arguing that such a defense is no longer applicable to Iraq. Instead, HRW reasons that detainees in custody should be protected under Article 3 of the Geneva conventions and international human rights laws.

Five years after its establishment, the report goes on, the CCCI is "seriously failing to meet international standards of due process and fair trials." Torture and physical abuse, especially in early stages of detention, are persistent and well-documented, HRW says. The HRW team found that a majority of three dozen detainees they interviewed reported abuses including 40-day torture sessions, electric shocks to the genitals and ears, suspension from rods, and forced drinking of water while not allowing the prisoner to urinate.

Other HRW conclusions include:

- long periods of pretrial detention without judicial review;
- inability of detainees to challenge evidence against them;
- heavy reliance on secret informants;
- widespread abuse to extract confessions.

The HRW observers attended the investigative hearings for 71 detainees, and five trials involving 17 defendants. "Other than secret informants, the CCCI proceedings Human Rights Watch attended were devoid of any witnesses other than MNF military personnel, in cases of MNF referral."

Though the HRW report stops short of saying so, there is no chance of reversing these trends without intervention by President Obama and Congressional watchdogs. The US/MNF, which created the CCCI as a judicial model of Middle Eastern democracy, has instead fostered a Frankenstein. The report warns against physical transfers of detainees to the Iraqi system, proposes assistance in helping the Iraqis establish an independent complaints mechanism. But the HRW recommendations contradict the finding that resistance to real human rights reforms lies in within the Iraqi and US governments.

Tom Hayden is the author of Ending the War in Iraq [2007] and The Tom Hayden Reader [2008]