It is raining, and many of the yellow-jumpsuited prisoners in Camp Redemption are looking for a dry place to stand. There are few prisoners outside their leaky tents, save those receiving family visitors or those who have decided to take shelter under the concrete culverts provided for mortar attacks.
Redemption, which was built for 2,500 inmates but holds about 3,300 at the moment, is an open-air prison and all that remains of the US military’s presence at Abu Ghraib, the facility that was formerly synonymous with Saddam Hussein’s brutality and is now synonymous with the brutality of the US occupation. The cellblocks where the abuse scandal took place were turned over to the Iraqi justice system last spring.
As we slog through the mud to visit soaked soldiers at the camp (interviews with detainees are not allowed), a US spokesman says military officials in Iraq have requested that Redemption be replaced with a more permanent facility alongside Camp Cropper at Baghdad International Airport, where the United States has a military base and houses about 100 “high value” detainees. In part, the aim is to provide the prisoners with more suitable dwellings, but it also reflects the lack of safety on the few miles of road between the airport and Abu Ghraib. The Abu Ghraib site is often attacked by insurgents, as are the police in Abu Ghraib village.
Two years after the US invasion of Iraq, the theater-level detainee population is approximately 9,100, the highest it has been. The theater-level facilities are Abu Ghraib, Camp Bucca in the south (the largest) and Camp Cropper at the airport. At any given time, there are 1,000-1,500 detainees at the nontheater level at various military bases around the country. Some of these are released without charge and others are eventually transferred to the theater-level facilities. But prisoners are essentially off the books until that point.
Despite the expanding prison population, the US military controls no more ground than it did when major combat operations ended two years ago. Abu Ghraib is a place I’ve visited intermittently throughout my time in Iraq, usually to conduct interviews with families waiting outside the prison for information or to visit family members. Like most military/government installations in and around Baghdad, the most notable change over the past two years is the continuing addition of concrete and earth-filled blast barriers and concertina wire, pushing visitors ever farther from the walls of the actual complex. All roads out of the capital are considered extremely dangerous, and the entire time we are outside the prison, we hear explosions in the surrounding town.
Some former detainees allege that abuse continues to occur at base detention facilities as well as at the theater level, including the use of electric shocks during interrogation, beatings and stress positions. “I was made to stand for two days at a time. Almost every night they took us out of our cells and beat us,” says Mustafa, a 24-year-old who was arrested in November at his home in southern Baghdad. “They often used [tazers], which would knock people out for five minutes at a time.” Mustafa says he was held at Scania, a base on the city’s southern edge, for nearly a month, and that he never received a formal detainee identification bracelet, which prisoners receive at theater level. “They just wrote numbers on our hands with a marker. That was how they identified us.”