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Remembering Saddam's Terror By: Peter Finn
Washington Post | Tuesday, October 07, 2003


Prisoners were brought to Iraq's most feared prison in an ice-cream truck, a soft cone painted on its side. After sentencing at the nearby Revolutionary Court, following a perfunctory trial, the prisoners were hustled outside and loaded in the back.

"We were waddling like penguins because of the torture," recalled Ahmed Mohammed Baqer Attar, a 41-year-old Baghdad physician. "And then we saw an old ice-cream truck."

"It's hard to believe," he continued, a smoker's laugh rising from his chest. "But everything was hard to believe."

On the short ride to the prison, a forbidding structure that sprawls over 280 acres about 20 miles west of Baghdad, the men who had just been sentenced to death kissed those who had received jail terms and begged them to get word of their fate to their families. "They were weeping and trembling and they made us swear," said Karim Hassan Jabbar, 45, another physician who spent nine years in the prison.

In the shuddering whispers of this formerly closed society, Abu Ghraib was known as a colossal dungeon where the silent screams of its captives became the symbol of state terror. Abu Ghraib was the Iraqi gulag.

Some of those in the ice-cream van, facing 20 years in this prison rather than death, wondered if they were the unlucky ones. "I felt such agony, such despair, it felt like a knife turning in my stomach," said Hakem Kharqani, 43, of the moment he crossed the prison's threshold in 1982. He had already endured torture at the headquarters of the secret police in Baghdad, including electric shock. He feared it would continue without end.

For thousands of political prisoners crudely executed by hanging in its ghoulish death chamber, Abu Ghraib was the final station in an excruciatingly brutal system. Thousands more who eluded the hangman were forced to survive in overcrowded, putrescent, disease-infested cells where the threat of violence, including beatings, torture and summary execution, was ever-present.

Today, Abu Ghraib's political prisoners are giving witness to the apparatus of repression under former president Saddam Hussein. The survivors are providing detailed, firsthand testimony, one at a time, about the system's capricious barbarism. A more complete historical accounting is likely to take years. The prospect of trials, both for the country's onetime leadership and its functionaries, remains distant.

Among survivors, there is a strong desire that the pain of Abu Ghraib not be forgotten. They want a new legal system to exact retribution, and they want the lessons of the past to be etched into memory as a guarantee of Iraq's future freedom.

"The prisoners are Iraq's best teachers," said Kharqani.

Arrest and Torture

The secret police, dressed in civilian clothes, came for Kharqani at home. It was just hours after an evening celebration at Baghdad's Alwiya club where his civil engineering class marked its graduation. Upon his return from the club, his family showered him with chocolates, an Iraqi tradition. He was the first among seven children to get a university degree.

Away from the neighborhood, in the back of the vehicle, Kharqani was blindfolded and handcuffed. He was taken to the headquarters of the Directorate of General Security, where he was chained to a radiator in a corridor outside interrogation rooms, a hood still over his head. He could hear the screams and moans of prisoners undergoing questioning.

"They softened you up by forcing you to listen," said Attar, who was arrested after he was summoned from a class on microorganisms to the deputy dean's office at Kufa University. Two agents quietly led him away and then drove him to Baghdad.

Occasionally, a passing guard whacked the shackled prisoners with a stick. They flinched at footsteps, barely breathing in their shrouded darkness. Some prisoners had already soiled their pants.

After several hours, the prisoners were brought into an interrogation room. The questions began with the routine: name, age, occupation. Then, an offer to confess now, and avoid the worst. Some prisoners, like Kharqani, had no sense of the charges against them. Others, like Attar, understood that admitting to membership in prohibited groups, such as the Shiite Dawa party, meant death.

The word of an informer, the forced confession of a friend or, in some cases, genuine intelligence led to the arrests. Islamic activists, Communists and Kurds all shared the same fate.

Kharqani was the unwitting acquaintance of a student involved in an Islamic opposition group accused of attacking Tariq Aziz, then deputy prime minister, with a grenade as he opened a student conference. Attar moved in religiously active student circles at his college in southern Iraq, near the holy city of Najaf.

Abdul Hussein Faraj, 47, who was arrested in 1988, admits now that he was a member of the banned Dawa party.

Once one member of a family was arrested, other relatives were exposed. Kharqani's younger brother, Raheem, later disappeared, and his father died within a day of being released from the General Security headquarters. The family suspects he was poisoned.

In the interrogation room, the hoods were removed. The prisoners had their hands tied behind their backs with cuffs and rope; Faraj's wrist is still cross-hatched with scars from when he was bound. They were then hoisted by a rope attached to a hook in the ceiling so they dangled above the ground, the tendons in their shoulders tearing under the strain. The ball and socket in the shoulders of some prisoners completely rotated, Attar said.

The prisoners were lashed with cables. Clips were attacked to their earlobes, nipples and genitals and they were administered electric shocks. When they passed out, as they almost invariably did, they were dragged back to the corridor and cuffed again to the radiator, a dozen former prisoners recalled in interviews.

This torture continued for several days, hours at a time, even after the prisoners broke. Nearly all eventually signed forced confessions put in front of them and stamped them with a single fingerprint, their hands lifted to the paper by the guards because the prisoners no longer had the strength.

Prisoners who held out longer than expected were subject to further horrors. Faraj saw his mother dragged in front of him. His mother's gown was roughly lifted, exposing her bare legs and underwear as the police said they would rape her. The humiliation, he said, was unbearable. Kharqani and two other inmates were forced to watch three other prisoners killed with acid.

When the torture ended, the prisoners were bundled into one of a number of fetid basement cells so crowded that prisoners created their own rotation for lying down, sitting and standing. Newcomers were greeted with the only gift in the power of the prisoners. "All the new prisoners were washed by the others," said Attar. "You couldn't use your hands so they helped you with the toilet," a hole in the ground. The cells were about nine feet by six feet and each held between 35 and 40 prisoners, former inmates said.

For months, sometimes years, the prisoners said, nothing more happened. Kharqani was arrested in December 1980 and brought to trial in July 1983. They subsisted on small rations, thin soup and bread, sitting in their underwear because of the hot, pungent air. In whispers, those who had memorized the Koran recited it.

Eventually, they faced a trial before the Revolutionary Court, set up in 1968, when the Baath Party came to power, to try "spies, agents and enemies of the people." On the morning of Attar's trial, the court was presided over by Muslim Hadi Jubouri, who condemned the 45 prisoners assembled in front of him as "criminal scum" when the proceeding began. The signed statements obtained by the secret police lay before him.

That day 37 men were sentenced to death, five men to 20 years imprisonment and three men to seven years. The whole proceeding lasted 20 minutes, Attar said.

The Death House

Abu Ghraib's death house, shaped like an ankle-boot, is a modest building. From the main entrance, there are 10 tiny cells on the right, which held up to 25 prisoners in each. Graffiti where prisoners scratched the passing days are still on the wall, along with pleas to Allah. "God save me," reads one inscription, "and I will pray 70,000 times."

But there was no hope; decisions of the Revolutionary Court could not be appealed.

U.S. officials who are renovating Abu Ghraib, where 1,000 people have been incarcerated since the occupation began, estimate that 30,000 people were hanged there in the Hussein years. The total may be higher. Ahmed Abbas, a statistician at the prison from 1999 to 2001, said he recorded about 2,500 executions a year of both criminal and political prisoners. The execution rate in the prison was higher in the 1980s, when the government launched oppressive campaigns against its perceived enemies in both the Shiite and Kurdish communities, and again in 1991, when it put down revolts following uprisings in the Shiite south and Kurdish north.

In the early 1980s, the hangman was known as Abu Widad, according to former prisoners and guards. A tall muscular man, whom the prisoners called the "sword," he carried on his hip a pistol engraved with Saddam's name.

Executions were scheduled for Wednesdays and Sundays, beginning in the early evening and continuing for hours until, on some days, as many as 50 or 60 people had been hanged, said Kudhair Atwan Jabr, 46, an ambulance driver who witnessed the killing and then removed the bodies from the chamber.

The smell of whiskey was always on Widad's breath, he said.

Prisoners were led bound from the cells to the building's dank lobby where a committee, sitting at a table, read the death sentence. The execution chamber lay just beyond. They were then walked up a ramp and placed on one of two square trapdoors embedded in the floor. The doors split in the middle.

A thick noose hung from a crescent-shaped piece of steel set in the roof over each door. The U.S. occupation authority has the last two noose ropes found at Abu Ghraib, U.S. soldiers at the prison said.

The noose was placed over each prisoner's neck and a green hood was put over his head. A lever opened the two doors and the loud clang of them banging open signaled to the prisoners still in the cells that an execution had taken place.

Another hangman, known as Akeel, who served in the late 1980s, would sometimes stand on the trapdoor with the prisoner, embrace and fall with the condemned men to ensure they died quickly. "He always hugged the thin ones and fell with them so it would be a mercy to them," said Jabr, who worked at the prison from 1987 to 1991. The whereabouts of the executioners' are unknown.

Sattar Latif Ridha was executed by hanging in Abu Ghraib on Jan. 30, 1982. He was 18. Recently graduated from Kadhimiya high school, he was "a handsome young man," according to his religion and Arabic teacher, Aldin Ahmed Morad.

Ridha was one of a group of religiously active students from the same neighborhood picked up in the fall of 1981 and taken to the General Security headquarters. He was minding a friend's store. And then he was gone. "Young people like my brother tried to fight the regime," said Jamal Latif Ridha, Sattar's older brother. "And Saddam destroyed them."

In April 1993, a political prisoner, Awda Hamdan, received word from his family that his young son had died. Nearly hysterical with grief, Hamdan shook his fist at one of the ubiquitous portraits of Saddam Hussein that were hung or painted throughout Iraq's largest prison. Someone shouted, "Don't do it," Kharqani recalled.

The picture fell, the glass in the frame shattering, and a brief, fearful silence descended on the hallway where it had hung. Hamdan, about 28 years old, quickly insisted it was an accident, but an orderly reported him to security officers. He was savagely beaten with sticks and iron bars and tossed in one of the solitary cells just inside his ward, known as K2, Kharqani said.

Five days later, Sabawi Ibrahim Hassan, Saddam's maternal half-brother and director of Iraq's General Security Directorate from 1991 to 1996, arrived at the prison.

Hamdan was dragged out to the exercise yard and tied to a stake. A group of prisoners, about 50 or 60 in all, were summoned from different wards in the political section and ordered to sit on the dirt. Hamdan was shot repeatedly by one of the bodyguards of Hassan. "Sabawi said it was a lesson," Kharqani recalled.

A Treacherous Place

The construction of Abu Ghraib, commissioned and designed in the 1950s, was shelved until the mid-1960s, when conditions in Baghdad's Ottoman-era prison forced the government to start the building. It was completed in 1969, just after the Baathists seized power.

"A building or a place is not evil," said Abdul Kareem Hani, 75, who was appointed minister of labor and social affairs in 1963 and ordered the prison built. He ended up a prisoner in Abu Ghraib in the 1990s after failing to report a plot against Hussein in which a friend was involved. "The men who run it make it evil. Abu Ghraib was supposed to be a modern, progressive institution."

Surrounded by nearly three miles of 20-foot-high, cinder-block wall and 24 watchtowers, Abu Ghraib was divided into five sections, each with its own walled security perimeter: long-term criminal; short-term criminal; the Arabs and foreigners section; the death house; and the political section, which in the 1980s was subdivided into closed and open sections.

The prison had a 20-bed hospital, large exercise yards, agricultural land to teach farming and numerous workshops, including one for sewing and embroidery, as part of its original mandate to rehabilitate prisoners. Built to house 1,500 inmates, the prison at times held 25,000 men within its walls.

After the treatment prisoners had endured at the hands of the secret police in Baghdad immediately following their arrest, including severe torture, the conditions in Abu Ghraib, bizarrely, were something of a relief. "To be put in a cell where you could breathe, where you could lie down on your back to sleep, where you talk, it seemed like a mercy," said Abdul Kareem Shaneen, 46, who spent nine years in the prison.

But as the numbers swelled through the 1980s, medical problems, in particular, began to proliferate in filthy, lice-infested cells. The numbers in the political section grew so large that two warehouses were built to hold the overflow, including army deserters who also had their ears cut off as punishment.

"About 50 percent of the prisoners had tuberculosis," said Attar, the physician. The prison authorities only occasionally provided medicine -- streptomycin -- which the prisoners who were physicians administered. "We often used one needle over and over without hot water to sterilize," he said.

The death of a 25-year-old prisoner from tuberculosis finally sparked a revolt in 1988. The prisoner had been coughing blood for months and the guards had ignored all pleas to get him medical help. He died in his cell, and as the prison guards attempted to remove his body, his cell mates attacked the guards, forcing them to retreat and seizing their keys. They opened the other cell doors, although the 20-cell ward itself remained in lockdown.

"It was mayhem," Attar recalled.

A delegation of officials from Baghdad decided to negotiate rather than crush the small uprising, Attar said. They asked for a list of demands. In return for promises of good behavior, the prisoners in the closed sections were allowed family visits and care packages, including food, blankets and mats; guards routinely extracted bribes for their safe delivery, prisoners said.

Over the next few years, Arabic, philosophy and other classes began in the cells. Attar taught a course on logic. Hani, the former labor minister, taught English. Conditions became so lax during the Persian Gulf War that some prisoners, including Hussein Shahristani, a nuclear scientist, were able to escape.

But the prison remained a treacherous place. The authorities maintained informants to report on political activism. "You had to think of anyone you didn't completely trust as an informant," said Hani, who was imprisoned in Abu Ghraib from 1995 to 2001.

Prisoners found with radios, which were banned, or proscribed books, such as those by leading Shiite clerics, were removed to one of the security offices in each cellblock where they were tortured. One security officer, Falah Aqula, was named by seven prisoners in separate interviews, as well as by former guards, as the prison's principal torturer. Aqula fled as the war ended.

The accounts of victims are supported by former prison guards. "There were bad cases that we were forced to beat," said Jafir Sadr Mohammed, 56, a former prison captain at Abu Ghraib. "Some of them you wanted to kill. If we suspected something, we would take their confessions while we beat them and then put them in solitary."

Hussein issued several amnesties, but each time they passed Kharqani by, because he had been convicted under an espionage statute. "I thought I would die in Abu Ghraib," he said.

But on Oct. 20, 2002, the prison loudspeaker announced, "We have happy news for you." Names were called until the prison authorities simply let everyone out. Kharqani emerged to a mob scene of news media cameras and frantic relatives who had gathered by the thousands outside the prison gates.

His mother and sister were in the crowd, but he didn't see them. He and some friends, all long-term prisoners, eventually found a taxi, and the driver was so pleased for them, he gave them a tour of the city before dropping them off in their different neighborhoods.

"There was so much I didn't remember," said Kharqani. "I didn't even know my way home. I was like a child in the city."




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