The Guardian, May 20, 2004
Women the Other Iraqi
BYLINE: Luke Harding
The scandal at Abu Ghraib prison was first exposed
not by a digital photograph but by a letter.
In December 2003, a woman prisoner inside the
jail west of Baghdad managed to smuggle out
a note. Its contents were so shocking that,
at first, Amal Kadham Swadi and the other Iraqi
women lawyers who had been trying to gain access
to the US jail found them hard to believe.
The note claimed that US guards had been raping
women detainees, who were, and are, in a small
minority at Abu Ghraib. Several of the women
were now pregnant, it added. The women had
been forced to strip naked in front of men,
it said. The note urged the Iraqi resistance
to bomb the jail to spare the women further
Late last year, Swadi, one of seven female lawyers
now representing women detainees in Abu Ghraib,
began to piece together a picture of systemic
abuse and torture perpetrated by US guards
against Iraqi women held in detention without
charge. This was not only true of Abu Ghraib,
she discovered, but was, as she put it, "happening
all across Iraq".
In November last year, Swadi visited a woman
detainee at a US military base at al-Kharkh,
a former police compound in Baghdad. "She
was the only woman who would talk about her
case. She was crying. She told us she had been
raped," Swadi says. "Several American
soldiers had raped her. She had tried to fight
them off and they had hurt her arm. She showed
us the stitches. She told us, 'We have daughters
and husbands. For God's sake don't tell anyone
Astonishingly, the secret inquiry launched by
the US military in January, headed by Major
General Antonio Taguba, has confirmed that
the letter smuggled out of Abu Ghraib by a
woman known only as "Noor" was entirely
and devastatingly accurate. While most of the
focus since the scandal broke three weeks ago
has been on the abuse of men, and on their
sexual humilation in front of US women soldiers,
there is now incontrovertible proof that women
detainees - who form a small but unknown proportion
of the 40,000 people in US custody since last
year's invasion - have also been abused. Nobody
appears to know how many. But among the 1,800
digital photographs taken by US guards inside
Abu Ghraib there are, according to Taguba's
report, images of a US military policeman "having
sex" with an Iraqi woman.
Taguba discovered that guards have also videotaped
and photographed naked female detainees. The
Bush administration has refused to release
other photographs of Iraqi women forced at
gunpoint to bare their breasts (although it
has shown them to Congress) - ostensibly to
prevent attacks on US soldiers in Iraq, but
in reality, one suspects, to prevent further
Earlier this month it emerged that an Iraqi woman
in her 70s had been harnessed and ridden like
a donkey at Abu Ghraib and another coalition
detention centre after being arrested last
July. Labour MP Ann Clwyd, who investigated
the case and found it to be true, said, "She
was held for about six weeks without charge.
During that time she was insulted and told
she was a donkey."
In Iraq, the existence of photographs of women
detainees being abused has provoked revulsion
and outrage, but little surprise. Some of the
women involved may since have disappeared,
according to human rights activists. Professor
Huda Shaker al-Nuaimi, a political scientist
at Baghdad University who is researching the
subject for Amnesty International, says she
thinks "Noor" is now dead. "We
believe she was raped and that she was pregnant
by a US guard. After her release from Abu Ghraib,
I went to her house. The neighbours said her
family had moved away. I believe she has been
Honour killings are not unusual in Islamic society,
where rape is often equated with shame and
where the stigma of being raped by an American
soldier would, according to one Islamic cleric,
be "unbearable". The prospects for
rape victims in Iraq are grave; it is hardly
surprising that no women have so far come forward
to talk about their experiences in US-run jails
where abuse was rife until early January.
One of the most depressing aspects of the saga
is that, unaccountably, the US military continues
to hold five women in solitary confinement
at Abu Ghraib, in cells 2.5m (8ft) long by
1.5m (5ft) wide. Last week, the military escorted
a small group of journalists around the camp,
where hundreds of relatives gather every day
in a dusty car park in the hope of news.
The prison is protected by guard towers, an outer
fence topped with razor wire, and blast walls.
Inside, more than 3,000 Iraqi men are kept
in vast open courtyards, in communal brown
tents exposed to dust and sun. (Last month,
nearly 30 detainees were killed in two separate
mortar attacks on the prison; about a dozen
survivors are still in the hospital wing, shackled
to their beds with leather belts.) As our bus
pulled up, the men ran towards the razor wire.
They unfurled banners and T-shirts that read:
"Why are we here?" "When are
you going to do something about this scandal?"
"We cannot talk freely."
The women, however, are kept in another part
of the prison, cellblock 1A, together with
19 "high-value" male detainees. It
is inside this olive-painted block, which leads
into a courtyard of shimmering green saysaban
trees and pink flowering shrubs, that the notorious
photographs of US troops humiliating Iraqi
prisoners were taken, many of them on the same
day, November 8 2003. A wooden interrogation
shed is a short stroll away. As we arrived
at the cellblock, the women shouted to us through
the bars. An Iraqi journalist tried to talk
to them; a female US soldier interrupted and
pushed him away. The windows of the women's
cells have been boarded up; birds nest in the
outside drainpipe. Captain Dave Quantock, now
in charge of prisoner detention at Abu Ghraib,
confirmed that the women prisoners are in solitary
confinement for 23 hours a day. They have no
entertainment; they do have a Koran.
Since the scandal first emerged there is general
agreement that conditions at Abu Ghraib have
improved. A new, superior catering company
now provides the inmates' food, and all the
guards involved in the original allegations
of abuse have left.
Nevertheless, there remain extremely troubling
questions as to why these women came to be
here. Like other Iraqi prisoners, all five
are classified as "security detainees"
- a term invented by the Bush administration
to justify the indefinite detention of prisoners
without charge or legal access, as part of
the war on terror. US military officials will
only say that they are suspected of "anti-coalition
Two of the women are the wives of high-ranking
and absconding Ba'ath party members; two are
accused of financing the resistance; and one
allegedly had a relationship with the former
head of Iraq's secret police, the Mukhabarat.
The women, in their 40s and 50s, come from
Kirkuk and Baghdad; none has seen their families
or children since their arrest earlier this
According to Swadi, who managed to visit Abu
Ghraib in late March, the allegations against
the women are "absurd". "One
of them is supposed to be the mistress of the
former director of the Mukhabarat. In fact,
she's a widow who used to own a small shop.
She also worked as a taxi driver, ferrying
children to and from kindergarten. If she really
had a relationship with the director of the
Mukhabarat, she would scarcely be running a
kiosk. These are baseless charges," she
adds angrily. "She is the only person
who can provide for her children."
The women appear to have been arrested in violation
of international law - not because of anything
they have done, but merely because of who they
are married to, and their potential intelligence
value. US officials have previously acknowledged
detaining Iraqi women in the hope of convincing
male relatives to provide information; when
US soldiers raid a house and fail to find a
male suspect, they will frequently take away
his wife or daughter instead.
The International Committee of the Red Cross,
whose devastating report on human rights abuses
of Iraqi prisoners was delivered to the government
in February but failed to ring alarm bells,
says the problem lies with the system. "It
is an absence of judicial guarantees,"
says Nada Doumani, spokesperson for the ICRC.
"The system is not fair, precise or properly
During her visit to Abu Ghraib in March, one
of the prisoners told Swadi that she had been
forced to undress in front of US soldiers.
"The Iraqi translator turned his head
in embarrassment," she said. The release
of detainees, meanwhile, appears to be entirely
arbitrary: three weeks ago one woman prisoner
who spoke fluent English and who had been telling
her guards that she would sue them was suddenly
released. "They got fed up with her,"
another lawyer, Amal Alrawi, says.
Last Friday, about 300 male prisoners were freed
from Abu Ghraib, the first detainees to be
released since the abuse scandal first broke.
A further 475 are due to be released tomorrow,
although it is not clear if any of the women
will be among them. General Geoffery Miller,
who is responsible for overhauling US military
jails in Iraq, has promised to release 1,800
prisoners across Iraq "within 45 days".
Some 2,000 are likely to remain behind bars,
he says. Iraqi lawyers and officials aredemanding
that the US military hands the prisons over
to Iraqi management on June 30, when the coalition
transfers limited powers to a UN-appointed
caretaker Iraqi government. Last week, Miller
said "negotiations" with Iraqi officials
Relatives who gathered outside Abu Ghraib last
Friday said it was common knowledge that women
had been abused inside the jail. Hamid Abdul
Hussein, 40, who was there hoping to see his
brother Jabar freed, said former detainees
who had returned to their home town of Mamudiya
reported that several women had been raped.
"We've know this for months," he
said. "We also heard that some women committed
While the abuse may have stopped, the US military
appears to have learned nothing from the experience.
Swadi says that when she last tried to visit
the women at Abu Ghraib, "The US guards
refused to let us in. When we complained, they
threatened to arrest us."
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