Geneva – Testimony documenting inhumane conditions in Iraqi prisons have been collected by the Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Monitor, which warns of an imminent humanitarian catastrophe.
The outbreak of the novel coronavirus is a particular threat to the thousands of detainees, since the prisons are overcrowded, unsanitary and lack even minimum health care.
More than 60,000 people, including about 1,000 women, are detained in 13 government prisons. In addition, there are dozens of secret prisons run by militias, political parties, and various tribal and other factions.
Iraqi authorities refuse to disclose the number of detainees, their health condition or recorded deaths, although multiple testimonies report poor health overall, rapid disease spread and medical neglect. A basic lack of hygiene makes the prisons a fertile environment for the spread of diseases such as asthma, tuberculosis and hepatitis. Inadequate ventilation exacerbates the crisis, along with an absence of sanitizers.
At the same time, Iraqi prisons are increasingly overcrowded due to the escalation of detention and judicial delays.
Testimonies collected by Euro-Med indicate that these and other government practices are systematic and deliberate, not merely individual or random.
For example, A.A. is an Iraqi policeman who told Euro-Med about a secret prison in the Tahrawa area in the Nineveh Governorate that is run by a unit known as Brigade 30. It houses about 1,000 detainees arrested on malicious, sectarian charges. Leaders of Brigade 30 force families of the detainees to pay large sums of money in exchange for the release of their relatives.
K.TH.F., another Iraqi policeman, told us that Brigade 30 has other secret prisons in Nineveh. These prisons are mainly repurposed houses, in the Al-Qaraj area of the Kokjali neighborhood, where civilians from Mosul are kept in the basements. Their families are blackmailed for money.
On June 2, Jassem al-Samarrai, a resident of the Mukeshefah area of Samarra, reported that 50 civilians had been arrested by the Saraya Al-Salam militia, run by movement leader Muqtada al-Sadr. The arrests continued for three days, without any interference from government security services. Homes were raided, with militia members blasting doors open with bombs and live bullets—terrorizing children in the process.
“Authorities should allow detainees to hire lawyers, including during interrogation,” says Tariq Al-Liwa, Tariq Al-Liwa. “Authorities also should transfer detainees to facilities where government inspectors, independent observers and lawyers have unimpeded access to them. Detainees should be released if there is no clear legal basis for their detention, or if the government is unable to address the inhumane and degrading conditions in which they are held.”
Al-Liwa adds that Iraqi authorities must control the actions of their forces to ensure the legality of their practices, as well as prevent illegal armed militias from kidnapping and hiding people in secret prisons.
Finally, he concludes that the ministries of justice and the interior should expedite investigations, assure that everyone in pretrial detention has a speedy and fair trial or is released, improve detainees’ living conditions and provide them with all necessary health care.
Over 60,000 people are detained by Iraqi authorities in prisons that do not meet the minimum requirements guaranteed by international conventions. These prisons are over-crowded and unhealthy. Last June, Euro-Med Monitor launched a petition signed by 30 human rights organizations, calling on the authorities to put an end to enforced disappearance and arbitrary detention.
Nancy Pelosi was upset. Her blitz of cable news appearances as a high-profile counterpart to Donald Trump had taken her to CNN in late April. And Jake Tapper had the temerity to question that which is not typically questioned: Pelosi’s legislative acumen.
Congress had just passed its fourth bill responding to the coronavirus crisis. Republicans wanted more money for forgivable loans for small businesses. Democrats had a host of liberal priorities left out of prior legislation that could have been paired with the extension. But Pelosi and her Senate colleague Chuck Schumer chose to go along with the Republican framework, leaving everything else for later.
Immediately afterward, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell hit the pause button on future legislation. It felt like the Democrats were played. And governors were sounding alarms about the lack of federal aid to cover massive state and local government revenue shortfalls, which triggered a loss of 1.5 million jobs in April and May alone.
“Was this a tactical mistake by you and Senator Schumer?” Tapper asked Pelosi.
“Just calm down,” she replied sternly, pivoting to tout getting more small-business money than McConnell even wanted. (As of mid-June, about $130 billion in authorized funding had not been claimed, and a May survey found that half of all small businesses expected to fail, even with federal support.) Pelosi vowed to obtain state and local fiscal relief eventually. “There’s no use going into what might have been.”
It was an interesting exchange, because it highlighted a Pelosi critique that rarely makes it into conventional accounts. Molly Ball’s biography Pelosi emphasizes more-common narratives, which throughout her accomplished career the Speaker has been able to surmount: whether a woman can compete in the typically male terrain of high-stakes politics, or whether she can withstand the caricature of a “San Francisco liberal.”
Ball, a national reporter for Time, also tries to make the case that Pelosi, underestimated by official Washington, constantly fleeces her foes at the negotiating table. Much of this is true. She stopped a newly re-elected George W. Bush from dismantling Social Security, a strategic masterstroke. Willing the Affordable Care Act forward when Democrats wanted to pull back was a signature achievement. During the interregnum between speakerships when John Boehner and Paul Ryan ran the House, she was consistently relied on for votes when they faltered, protecting liberal social programs and obtaining additional funding. And Pelosi always did it with remarkable caucus discipline, bringing together a disparate set of legislators to strengthen her hand.
But the past few months of hurried legislative output, long after Ball completed her draft, frustrate that analysis. In our endlessly gridlocked politics, real governing occurs mainly in the crucible of crisis, which forces urgent action beyond the usual game of inches. What you do in those moments matters infinitely more than how sassy you look clapping during the State of the Union address, or how you rip up that address after it’s read.
James and Noah Kulwin are the creators and cohosts of a new podcast on the war and the pathologies that emerged in its wake, aptly titled Blowback. Over the course of ten episodes, the two sketch out what they describe as a “counter-history” of America’s forays into Iraq. Listeners working their way through the series will hear clips from CNN and MSNBC broadcasts, and anecdotes drawn from the reportage of mainstream journalists, like George Packer and Bob Woodward. What emerges from the synthesis constructed by the hosts is a criticism of these conventional secondary sources. James and Kulwin paint a portrait of a deluded and venal elite convinced that the exercise of American power today will solve the problems created by the exercise of American power in the past.
The hosts include liberals among that elite, taking aim at Democratic politicians who voted to authorize the use of military force against Iraq, as well as celebrities and media figures who supported the invasion. Kulwin, whose essays on foreign policy and technology appear in the gaggle of young or revivified publications associated with the Bernie Sanders left, is a contributing editor to Jewish Currents. James also writes for publications like the Baffler and Jacobin, but he is perhaps most well known for his past role as the producer of the sardonic podcast Chapo Trap House.
It is no surprise, then, that the comical tone of the aforementioned program finds its way into Blowback — an episode describing insurgents in occupied Iraq is titled “The #Resistance,” and the historical narrative is occasionally interrupted by the voice of Saddam Hussein, played by comedic actor H. Jon Benjamin, renowned for his roles in Archer and Bob’s Burgers. But in spite of these occasional fits of humor, Blowback is not frivolous. The writing, facilitated by James’s deft scoring, shifts registers where appropriate. For example, the trauma and tragedy of the civil war unleashed by the invasion of Iraq is imparted to listeners by an account of a father searching for his missing son among the corpses in Baghdad’s overflowing morgues. The podcast’s levity comes at the expense of the unaccountable political and military figures that either negligently enabled or perpetrated atrocities in Iraq. Faced with epochal crimes for which there may be no redress, laughter becomes “a kind of sovereignty, a triumph over one’s own powerlessness.”
The substance of Kulwin and James’s critique of conventional histories of the war in Iraq is also serious. To begin with, there is the matter of chronology. Typically, the start of the war is dated to George W. Bush’s invasion in March 2003. Barack Obama’s troop withdrawal in December 2011 marks its conclusion. In Blowback, the start and end dates are hazier. They fold into a broader history of Anglo-American marauding in Mesopotamia from the 1920s to the present. Special attention is paid to the inconclusive first Gulf War and the unprecedentedly severe sanctions regime of the 1990s, both of which hollowed out Iraq’s economy and political institutions long before Bremer began issuing his ruinous decrees.
Accounts of the war with wider historical lenses often bring into focus the sectarian polarization that marred Iraq in the aftermath of the invasion. But James and Kulwin do not dwell on the topic of sectarianism. Instead, they pay an unusual amount of attention to another social cleavage that runs through both Iraq and the United States today: class. This shift in emphasis has its downsides. Blowback fails to convey the malleability of sectarian identity, and to record the myriad of ways in which American interventions in Iraq reified and exacerbated communal tensions along this axis. The widespread view, echoed by even Barack Obama, that contemporary sectarian conflicts “date back millennia,” absolves American policymakers of responsibility for destructive decisions, like creating a quota system on the Iraqi Governing Council.
On the other hand, the authentically socialist portrayal of Iraq as a flash point in a global class war casts the beneficiaries and victims of empire in a fresh light. In the first episode, the hosts explain that the British Empire’s exploitation of Iraq’s oil resources weakened restive coal miners’ unions back in the UK. In the final episode, listeners learn of Iraq’s extensive poverty — around 20 percent of the residents of the oil-rich country lived off of $2.20 a day for many years after the invasion — and of the vast fortunes of the architects of the war — Condoleezza Rice, Colin Powell, and Dick Cheney are all multimillionaires. The inchoate suggestion borne by these snippets is that somehow global inequality and perpetual interventions in the politics of the Middle East are bound together.