Abu Ghraib reopens with new name
Sunday, February 22, 2009
BAGHDAD -- A gym, barber shop and planters of plastic flowers: Welcome to the gentler face of the infamous Abu Ghraib prison.
The lockup where U.S. military guards tortured and humiliated Iraqi prisoners west of Baghdad has reopened with fresh paint and a new name in a bid to shed its notorious reputation.
Mohammed al-Zeidi, the assistant director of the Iraqi Rehabilitation Department, said the new prison would be operated in accordance with international standards.
"All kinds of human rights violations took place in this prison. So we felt that it was our duty to rehabilitate the prison," he said Saturday during a press tour of the grounds. "We turned it into something like a resort not prison. The first step was to change the name."
Iraqi officials defended their decision to reopen the facility -- now called the Baghdad Central Prison -- saying they need the space as the U.S. military has begun handing over the thousands of detainees in its custody under a new security agreement that took effect Jan. 1.
"We have decided to reopen and renovate the prison because building a new one would take a long time and we already have crowded prisons," deputy justice minister Busho Ibrahim said, adding authorities also planned to build a larger prison north of Baghdad.
The Iraqis also promised to treat prisoners in accordance with international standards as they face concerns by the United Nations and human rights groups about overcrowding and violations against inmates already in Iraqi custody.
Judicial authorities showed off the nearly $1 million renovated section Saturday that included a sewing room, exercise equipment, computers, a library, outdoor recreational areas and a barber shop. Plastic flowers lined the halls. Iraqi officials said they expect the rest of the renovations to be done by the end of the year.
Greenhouses stood in the field outside where once tents were erected to house the overflow from prisoners when Abu Ghraib was controlled by the U.S. military. No U.S. soldiers were on the premises Saturday.
Abdul-Mutalb Jassim, general-director of the Iraqi Rehabilitation Department, said about 400 convicts of crimes ranging from theft to murder have been transferred to the prison. A total of some 3,000 inmates are expected shortly with an eventual total population of 12,000 to 15,000, according to the Justice Ministry.
The compound of gray, stonewalled buildings and watchtowers west of Baghdad became the center of a global scandal in 2004 after photos were released showing U.S. soldiers sexually humiliating inmates.
Outrage over the pictures fueled support for the insurgency as well as anti-American sentiment among Iraqis.
The 280-acre prison, which was already notorious as a torture center under Saddam Hussein, closed in 2006 after the U.S. handed it over to the Iraqis.
But the photos from Abu Ghraib brought the prison to the world's attention, adding another serious stain to America's reputation after worldwide protests against the March 2003 invasion. They also discredited Washington's claims that it was trying to build a country based on rule of law and respect for human rights on the wreckage of dictatorship.
In all, 11 U.S. soldiers were convicted of breaking military laws and five others were disciplined.
American authorities implemented a series of policy changes in the aftermath, including separating extremists from prisoners considered more moderate and implementing educational programs, although they still faced complaints about prolonged detentions without charges.
More recently, concern has been raised about the Iraqis' ability to care for inmates.
The New York-based group Human Rights Watch warned in a December report that defendants in Iraqi custody often are detained for long periods without judicial review and abuse in detention appeared common. The failings "show disturbing continuity" with Saddam's era, it said.
Iraqi officials said that would not be the case at Abu Ghraib, with each cell to hold eight prisoners, as opposed to 30 per cell under Saddam.
"This prison has had a bad reputation," Jassim told reporters in a light blue and cream colored corridor that was separated by iron gates and helmeted guards. "Now it is a place where law and justice are respected and prisoners are rehabilitated."
Last year, the government said it would turn a section of the prison into a museum documenting Saddam's crimes but not the abuses committed by U.S. guards.
Ibrahim said the plan was to establish the museum in the cell blocks where some of the worst abuses occurred, but authorities were still trying to figure out how ordinary people could get into the prison to visit it.
The Justice Ministry has about 17,000 prisoners under its control, while the U.S. military recently said it had 14,500 remaining in its custody after it began this month releasing an average of 50 detainees per day in accordance with the security agreement.
Associated Press Writer Sameer N. Yacoub contributed to this report.