The Continuing Legacy of Abu Ghraib - 10.02.2005

Haj Ali is an Iraqi who was released from Abu Ghraib after five months when it was decided that he was “wrongfully arrested.” In the States many people seem to think that after the Abu Ghraib investigations, everything changed in Iraq, and this ended the mistreatment of prisoners that has often involved abuse, at best, and torture, at worst. In fact these practices still go on, particularly in so-called “private prisons” and “party prisons.” I spoke with Haj Ali last night and he explained some of this to me.

Haj Ali, who was prisoner number 151716, was taken to Abu Ghraib on the fifteenth of October 2003. He was kept there for five months until he was put on a truck, taken to the desert and dropped off on the highway. The soldiers told him he was free because he had been “wrongfully arrested.” He stood up to leave the truck and he says he “was kicked in the ass by one of the soldiers and because he is fat he fell off the truck and hit the ground very hard.” When he removed the hood he found himself on the highway with many other released prisoners. They were abandoned by the military and left to make their own way back to their homes.

Haj Ali has since spoken at many conferences about Human Rights and detentions, mainly in the Middle East because he has much difficulty obtaining a visa to leave the country. Just this week he was to go to Italy to speak at a conference there, but the Italian Embassy has stonewalled his attempts to obtain a visa. They claim that he is a terrorist. It is unclear if this is because he was in Abu Ghraib, or because he is an Iraqi, or perhaps because he is an outspoken Iraqi. Haj Ali claims he is the Iraqi pictured in the now infamous photo of a detainee in a black hood with electrodes attached to his hands. I have not yet been able to confirm this, however while I have been here an Australian journalist, Olivia Rousset from SBS Dateline in Australia has been following Haj Ali. SBS apparently feels Haj Ali’s story is credible enough to finance a short documentary piece on him and the Abu Ghraib story. Haj Ali has also helped found an organization, ostensibly with all of the surviving Iraqis from the infamous Abu Ghraib photos. His organization, Association of Victims of American Occupation Prisons, is hoping to create a change for Iraq, in the way the prisons are run, in the manner that Iraqis are treated, and, he hopes, a change for Iraq overall.

Haj Ali assured me that his organization is important because these actions continue, many of them now caused by Iraqi guards, who were trained by the United States and who attempt to imitate the Americans’ actions. He wanted to emphasize that the best thing that can happen is for the United States to leave Iraq, for many reasons, not the least of which being the soldiers’ abuse of Iraqis and their impact on average Iraqis because they have encouraged the practice of abuse and torture by their actions.

While he was in Abu Ghraib, he suffered many things, not only the pictures with the electrodes and the hood. They gave him many nicknames, strip him naked and then, with a thick marker, they wrote on him. For awhile they called him “Colin Powell,” after the previous Secretary of State, and the soldiers wrote this name on his forehead, across his chest and back, all over his body. They gave him other nicknames as well, such as Gilligan and Big Chicken. They also forced him to dress in a bikini type bathing suit or underwear, and they threatened to show this to all his family, his children, his wife, his cousins and other family. For those who are not aware about Muslim custom, it is important to make clear why this is so offensive, even more so than simple humiliation.

In Islam, it is forbidden to publicly display your body, from your midriff near the belly button to your knees. So for Haj Ali, who is a very religious man, this is an incredible insult and defamation, it is a violation of his religion for him to do this. One way to understand how dedicated and religious Haj Ali is will be to understand the reason he is referred to by the term “Haj.” This is because he has made the Haj, the religious pilgrimage to Mecca. So now, as a term of respect, though his given name is Ali Shalal Abbas, most people simply call him Haj Ali.

Today these prisons and humiliations still continue in Iraq, whether we discuss the public use of confessions and humiliations of alleged insurgents on television, or less public actions, it is continuing. There are prisons run by militias and parties all over Iraq. This is because the only groups that have been able to keep order continuously in Iraq are the militias, which are dedicated to the goals of their specific parties, which are often no more than the political arms of tribal factions in Iraq. Groups such as the Badr Brigade and the Mahdi Army are only some of the militias that are better known in the media.

To prove that these torturous practices and abuses are still continuing, Haj Ali provided me with two dozen photos of injured or deceased Iraqis, with many clear signs of abuse. These photos are all of detainees from Iraq, and clearly demonstrate abuse. I can only post the photos here for your perusal to make your own decision about their truth. A photographer who works for the Association produced these. In my own investigations, they appear to me to be valid, but in today’s world of Adobe Photoshop and digital imaging, I admit it can be difficult. Many of these photos are quite gruesome, so please be advised. You can find them here.

Being aware that these practices are still occurring is very important, because the media in the United States, particularly, has appeared to describe Abu Ghraib as an isolated phenomenon. But because these abuses are still happening, and are quite widespread, it is important to be aware of this. The abuses are still occurring, often carried out by members of the Wolf Brigade, the Badr Brigade, and others. The use of private detention facilities has shown up recently in Basra as well. In Basra, militia members posing as police detained two British soldiers, and the conflict between competing militias and parties has risen again.

Beyond this, he informed me that “many of the people who are now in the interim government are known criminals, and just because they were imprisoned by Saddam, that does not mean they are not criminals.” For example, it is important to remember that Ahmad Chalabi was a criminal, who left Iraq for London to evade prison. “The United States, they brought many criminals to Iraq to run the government, and these people, they don’t really care about Iraq, each one wants the best for his own party, his own group, not for Iraq.” These parties are the same as the militias and parties discussed above. Haj Ali also told me that Iran is very much involved in influencing the Shi’a parties in the Iraqi government, using money and influence to push an Iranian agenda in Iraq.

Haj Ali believes that the way the United States can be made to leave Iraq is if the American people make it so, much like in Vietnam, if the people of the United States say no, he believes the government will have to leave. This is because “the United States, the people, are always there, governments change, but the people are still there, so perhaps the United States will not leave today, but the government will change, George Bush will leave office eventually, and if the American people want it, then the United States will leave Iraq. He told me that he knows “the American people they can be very generous, that they have helped many countries in the past but right now, in Iraq, this is not the situation, and they must leave because the Americans are not helping.

for another story about Haj Ali, look here.

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