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Systemic Failures in Iraqi Prisons Create Breeding Grounds for Extremism

The prisons of Iraq have maintained their abysmal pre-2003 reputation and serve as another indicator of Iraq’s democratic shortcomings. The conditions of these prisons are horrendous, and inmates are forced to remain detained for long durations to receive their sentences. While serving time, the security guards subject these detainees to different types of torture. The Iraqi government, instead of preventing such practices, indirectly facilitates them. In addition, women and children are being imprisoned for various reasons that do not include justice. Whether it is to pressure their male relatives or simply for extortion and negligence, women and children are equally suffering because of injustices brought upon them by a dysfunctional political system.

Overcrowded and Under-Resourced Prisons

The conditions of Iraqi prisons after the 2003 invasion of Iraq continued to be dreadful. The prisons in Iraq are overcrowded, lack prerequisites for basic needs, and have abysmal medical facilities, resulting in the prevalence of several diseases. Iraqi prisons are extremely crowded as some operate at a 300% capacity, according to the spokesman for the Iraqi justice ministry. According to the United Nations, “more than 60,000 people, including about 1,000 women, are detained in 13 government prisons. In addition, dozens of secret prisons run by militias, political parties, and various tribal and other factions.” Some prisoners are charged but they remain for months if not years, while others stay in prison without being charged.

According to some sources, 28,000 prisoners are charged, while another 29,000 are still waiting to be charged. In three pretrial facilities in the northern Iraqi Nineveh governorate, there is a maximum capacity of 2,500 people, but it was holding 4,500 prisoners and detainees. One thousand three hundred of those were tried and convicted but have not been transferred to Baghdad more than six months after their convictions. Not only does the Ministry of Justice prevent human rights organizations from visiting the prisons in some instances, but it also refuses to disclose the conditions of the prisoners. Many times, inmates’ families are forced to pay bribes to visit their relatives in prison. The cost of such visits can reach thousands of dollars, and with prominent prisoners, that amount can reach tens of thousands of dollars. But the conditions are only one ugly face of Iraqi prisons.

Abuse and Torture Plague Iraqi Prisons

The post-2003 Iraq prisons are rampant with human rights abuses against the inmates. There are many confirmed reports of torture, extrajudicial killings, and arbitrary detention, as security forces and militias resorted to brutal tactics to extract confessions or punish perceived enemies. The lack of oversight, accountability, and due process further exacerbated the situation, as detainees had little legal recourse or protection from abuses by the authorities. Despite the constitutional prohibition of torture, it is widespread in Iraqi prisons. The courts effortlessly accepted forced confessions from inmates, and 42 inmates died in one prison from torture and malnutrition within 5 months.

One inmate was hung for many hours several times while being beaten by the prison guard. He did not reveal to the judge the cases of torture for fear of reprisal from the guards. Other inmates faced an even grimmer outcome. A prisoner in Basra was arrested because he shared the same name of a criminal and died under torture. Another inmate was tortured and forced to confess to the killing of his wife on a television program. Six months later the wife returned and he was released afterward. Another prisoner in Kirkuk was arrested on charges of terrorism and was tortured by the federal police. Still he was released because he only had a similar name to a terrorist. Two security officers in the same prison stated that some colleagues enjoy practicing torture, and they considered it a hobby.

Fuel Future Terrorism Risks

Iraqi prisons have become notorious for holding numerous women and children under spurious charges and unlawful circumstances. A significant proportion of the women detained are not implicated in their actions but are often leveraged as pawns while interrogating their male relatives suspected of supporting militant groups. Thousands of women also find themselves unlawfully detained, enduring months or even years of incarceration without trial. They often face torture, threats of sexual abuse, and questioning predominantly about their male relatives rather than any alleged crimes. The appalling conditions led to a hunger strike involving 400 women in a Baghdad prison, who also reported the death of 30 children over six years within the confines of Rusafa prison.

Photographic evidence inside these Iraqi prisons has exposed the deplorable conditions in which women and children are kept. Images depict prison cells crammed with detainees to the extent that the floor is invisible. Adolescent boys are constrained into sleeping in a fetal position due to a lack of space. The Interior Ministry admits to holding boys as young as 13 with limited access to medical care, and in some cases, children as young as three have been found in detention centers.

Far from serving as a correctional facility or deterring fundamentalist behavior, the conditions within the Iraqi prisons provide a fertile ground for cultivating future criminals and terrorists. Perhaps most disturbing is the government’s apparent lack of initiative to reform this system and its failure to fully appreciate the consequences. The rampant torture, extortion, and mistreatment experienced by women and children heighten feelings of inequality and injustice, fostering resentment towards the political system. With a history of terrorists from groups like Al Qaeda and ISIS having spent time in these Iraqi prisons, the fear is that current detainees may be radicalized into joining future terrorist organizations.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.

Issue: Politics & Governance
Country: Iraq

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Dr. Massaab Al-Aloosy is a Non-Resident Fellow at Gulf International Forum and a researcher focusing on Iraq, Iran, and Shia non-state armed groups. He holds a PhD from the Fletcher School-Tufts University and is the author of The Changing Ideology of Hezbollah, Palgrave 2020.


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