American Kurdish Style Justice

Hundreds Disappear Into the Black Hole of the Kurdish Prison System in Iraq

SULAIMANIYA, Iraq — The inmates began their strike with an angry call. “Allahu akbar!” they shouted, 120 voices joining in a cadence punctuated by whoops.

They thrust their arms between the metal bars and ripped away the curtains and plastic sheets covering the windows facing the prison courtyard. Their squinting faces were exposed to light.

Their Kurdish guards gathered, ready to control a prison break. There was no break. The inmates were able only to shove their bunks against the doors and barricade themselves in their cells. They settled into a day of issuing complaints.

They were not allowed the Koran, they said. Their rations were meager and often moldy. Sometimes the guards beat them, they said, and several inmates had disappeared. The entire inmate population had either been denied trials or had been held beyond the terms of their sentences, they said — lost in legal limbo in the Kurdish-controlled region of Iraq.

The prison strike here, on Dec. 4, ended when the local authorities agreed to transfer three unpopular guards and to allow copies of the Koran in the cells. But it exposed an intractable problem that has accompanied Kurdish cooperation with the United States in Iraq.

The Kurdish prison population has swelled to include at least several hundred suspected insurgents, and yet there is no legal system to sort out their fates. So the inmates wait, a population for which there is no plan.

The Kurdish government that holds the prisoners says they are dangerous, and points out that the population includes men who have attended terrorist or guerrilla training in Iraq or Afghanistan. But it also concedes to being stymied, with a small budget, limited prison space and little legal precedent to look back on.

“We have not had trials for them,” said Brig. Sarkawt Hassan Jalal, the director of security in the Sulaimaniya region. “We have no counterterrorism law, and any law we would pass would not affect them because it would not be retroactive.”

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