Almost 10,000 prisoners from President George W. Bush’s so-called war on terror are being held around the world in secretive American-run jails and interrogation centres similar to the notorious Abu Ghraib Prison.
Some of these detention centres are so sensitive that even the most senior members of the United States Congress have no idea where they are.
From Iraq to Afghanistan to Cuba, this American gulag is driven by the pressure to obtain “actionable” intelligence from prisoners captured by US forces.
The systematic practice of holding prisoners without access to lawyers or their families, together with a willingness to use “coercive interrogation” techniques, suggests the abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib now shocking the world could be widespread.
Iraq has become a holding pen for America’s prisoners from 21 countries, according to a report from the international campaign group Human Rights Watch.
The US military is keeping prisoners at 10 centres, most of which were used by Saddam Hussein’s regime. The total in January was 8968, and is thought to have increased.
Prisoners are being held from, among other countries, Algeria, Egypt, India, Iran, Iraq, the Palestinian territories, Jordan, Lebanon, Libya, Malaysia, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, Sweden, Tunisia, Turkey, Ukraine, the United Kingdom and Yemen.
A report in the Washington Post has revealed that up to 8000 Iraqi prisoners are being held at Abu Ghraib, the jail west of Baghdad also known as the Baghdad Central Correctional Facility or BCCF, and nine other facilities inside Iraq.
It is impossible to know for sure because the Pentagon refuses to provide complete information.
Officials say prisoners range from those accused of petty crimes to detainees believed to be involved in attacks on US forces, though it is increasingly clear that many hundreds are simply Iraqi civilians swept up in raids by US and British soldiers.
Military and diplomatic sources say a number of detainees were taken to Iraq from Afghanistan.
In Afghanistan, the US military still holds 300 or more prisoners at Bagram, north of Kabul, and at facilities in Kandahar, Jalalabad and Asadabad.
The CIA, meanwhile, runs an interrogation centre in Kabul that is known by special forces and others simply as “The Pit”.
At Guantanamo Bay, more than 600 prisoners remain incarcerated more than two years after they were captured in the aftermath of the US operation against the Taleban.
Last week the US admitted that two guards at the camp had been disciplined for using “excessive force” against prisoners.
Michael Ratner, vice-president of the New York-based Centre for Constitutional Rights, which has represented many of the Guantanamo prisoners, said yesterday it was clear that a pattern was emerging.
“To me it means they are breaching international law as well as domestic law. The treatment is obviously illegal,” he said.
“It puts what is happening in Iraq into perspective. The idea that just a few soldiers came up with this is inconceivable. It has come from very high up in the Administration.”
From interviews with relatives and lawyers for the seven US soldiers facing courts-martial for the Abu Ghraib abuse, there is growing evidence that their actions were encouraged and even ordered by Military Intelligence and privately contracted interrogators to “soften up” the prisoners. Major General Geoffrey Miller, formerly the warden at Guantanamo Bay, took control of Abu Ghraib last year with a plan to turn it into a hub of interrogation.
He placed the military police under the tactical control of the 205th Military Intelligence Brigade.
The lawyers representing Lynddie England, the 21-year-old woman from the 372nd Military Police Company who was caught in photographs sexually humiliating hooded Iraqi prisoners and leading one by a lead, insisted she was following orders.
The pictures were a deliberate part of the humiliation, they said.
“People told Pfc England, ‘Hold that leash’ … told her to smile, so they can show the photos to subsequent prisoners,” said lawyer Carl McGuire. Another member of her legal team, Rose Mary Zapor, said: “They picked her to get the smallest, youngest, lowest-rank woman they could find and that would increase the humiliation for an Iraqi man.”
This claim is supported by two members the 205th Military Intelligence Brigade, assigned to Abu Ghraib, who on their arrival immediately realised what was taking place was illegal.
The soldiers said beatings were meted out with the full knowledge of intelligence interrogators, who let military police know which prisoners were co-operating with them and which were not.
A leaked report by the International Committee of the Red Cross, the only outside body permitted to visit the prison, also confirmed widespread ill-treatment and abuse that the authorities failed to stop.
It estimated that up to 90 per cent of the prisoners had been “arrested by mistake”.
New Zealand Herald