This question is addressed in David Enders' great report on Camp Bucca in Iraq and the situation with detainees from the Iraq war.
Close to the Kuwaiti border, Bucca is the U.S. military's largest detention center in Iraq. About 80% of the detainees there are Sunni, not Shi'a, Muslim.
One of the biggest complaints is that the vast majority of detainees have not been charged with any crime. "Why don't the U.S. forces charge him if he has done something? Then at least we would know how long he will be here," said Hadia Khalaf, whose son Qusay was arrested in September 2007. "He was our provider," she said, reflecting the plight of many families who rely on extended family and charity to survive.
Since 2003, approximately 96,000 Iraqis have been officially detained by the U.S. military, with 100,000 more having been temporarily detained but never sent to a theater-level internment facility like Bucca. The other theater-level facility currently open is Camp Cropper, near Baghdad International Airport, which serves as the system's in- and out-processing center and holds about 3,000 detainees, including roughly 300 juveniles.
Yes, that's right. We're detaining juveniles in Iraq. Without charge. And God knows what else is happening to them. And the "300" figure was only about Camp Cropper. How many are at Bucca, a much larger facility. And what happens to the families whose provider in Iraq's tough economy is now in US detention without access to due process, without even being charged with anything.
The legal basis for detentions stems from a single line of a 2004 UN Security Council resolution, which has been renewed every year since by agreement between the U.S. and Iraqi governments. This resolution, which gives the legal justification for continued U.S. military occupation, allows "internment where this is necessary for imperative reasons of security."
As you might imagine, the Iraqis are now happy about renewing this "right" and are working on negotiating another "contract" which would end the US's policy of detaining Iraqis without charge.
The Iraqi government has demanded that the U.S. military no longer be allowed to detain Iraqis without its approval. The State Department and White House have been largely mum about the discussions, while Maliki's office has regularly leaked parts of the agreement and says that the final sticking points are whether U.S. troops will continue to be immune from prosecution under Iraqi law and the extent to which the U.S. military will have to coordinate with and receive approval from the Iraqi government before launching operations.
Of course, whatever "imperative reasons of security" means is up to an unknown selection of folks on the ground. Not having to charge them with anything means we can essentially pick guys up and keep them at Bucca and elsewhere for as long as we like. This creates more humanitarian tragedy and resentment from the Iraqi people we claim to be "helping", not to mention being not the way it's supposed to be done. We're acting as if we are occupying in every way, shape and form.
Joseph Logan, a researcher for Human Rights Watch's Middle East and North Africa section, thinks an amnesty might be the answer. "If you don't have the evidence to transfer someone to the Iraqi system, it's probably the case that their outright release should be considered," Logan said.
"The U.S. is on the one hand claiming broad powers of detention, and at the same time is claiming the conflict is not a war or occupation," he said. "You can't have it both ways. If you want these completely unchecked powers of detention, you have to occupy the country again" -- that is, revert to the legal status the United States held before the 2004 UN resolution.
Detainees receive an initial review of their case before being sent to Cropper, but they are not allowed to attend it. The reviews are conducted by a panel of three U.S. military officers. Detainees are allowed to attend later reviews, but at no point are they given access to a lawyer.
Not only that, but there's no time limit. I mean, even the most heinous criminals get time limits (unless it's "life" or "death", but at least they know what it is). But these are people who may have just done something someone considered "suspicious." It's truly horrific.
Detention operations have been a rocky road. Torture and abuse at Abu Ghraib in 2003 and 2004 received the most coverage, but thousands of prisoners living in leaky tents outside the prison's "hard site" complained of lack of medical care, indifferent and at times hostile treatment from guards, inedible food and extreme weather, including flooding. American troops even admitted at the time that they believed more than 80 percent of those detained were innocent of wrongdoing. Recently released Iraqis, as well as Iraqi officials, say this statistic is probably still true.
Yes, our American troops didn't feel that these detainees were an "imperative" threat to security. But they can't do anything about it, and neither can anybody except ... Condoleeza Rice? Or Dick Cheney?
And what about torture?
Torture and abuse at Abu Ghraib in 2003 and 2004 received the most coverage, but thousands of prisoners living in leaky tents outside the prison's "hard site" complained of lack of medical care, indifferent and at times hostile treatment from guards, inedible food and extreme weather, including flooding.
Torture also certainly continued past 2004. On a visit to Abu Ghraib in March 2005 (it has since been closed), I saw a detainee who had been strapped to a chair and left in the pouring rain. Only after reading former interrogator Tony Lagouranis' book Fear Up Harsh did I learn this was a tactic used to induce hypothermia. At the time, the guards told me the prisoner had been restrained because he refused to stop throwing feces at his captors.
It's getting harder to find out about this issue, though.
None complained of abuse during detentions or interrogations once in Cropper or Bucca, though some said they had been beaten and roughly interrogated before being put into the theater-level system.
"The first three days they didn't give me any food," said Samir Mohamed, who was arrested in 2007 while driving between Damascus and Baghdad. He said he was blindfolded for three days while he was interrogated and beaten. "They put cigarettes out on me," he said. One U.S. soldier I spoke to who requested anonymity said the CIA maintained an off-the-books "black site" at Camp Anaconda near Balad as recently as mid-2007. I have not been able to confirm this independently.
And could all this actually be a side effect of the "Surge"???
But if the treatment once incarcerated is generally better than in the past, the intelligence that puts Iraqis there does not seem to be. "I was working as a guard at a gas station," said Jassim, who was arrested in August 2007, during the surge in Baghdad. "There were eight of us working as guards, and they lined us up and said, 'We'll take the first four.'" The U.S. military has admitted that the surge led to a surge in detainees as well, as a result of increased raids, which strained an already overcrowded system and elicited fresh reports of arbitrary detentions.
Plus, the military has admitted that some of the insurgents in detention have actually run their own courts inside the prison camps. This supposedly doesn't happen anymore, but the camps are run in a rather, shall we say, counterproductive way.
The first time Abu Wissam, 58, was arrested by U.S. troops was in a roundup in December 2003. He was arrested again in September 2007. He has spent most of the latest detention in Bucca's Camp 26, which is known as a takfiri camp, since takfiris -- Sunni Muslim extremists who consider Shiites to be heretics and non-Muslims -- have been allowed to run it. "Sometimes they wanted to punish a prisoner," Abu Wissam said. "They would put someone in the camp and tell the takfiris, 'This guy worked with the police.' The takfiris hate anyone who works with the Iraqi government or the Sahwa or the police."
In other words, the Sunni extremists are allowed to run one of the camps in Bucca. And, of course, they take revenge of anyone suspected of working with - you guessed it! - the Shi'a-dominated Bush-backed government. Genius at work! Whatever is going on here, I think there's some problems with the direction...
"The Sahwa people were scared to sleep inside," Abu Wissam said, referring to the movement of former Sunni resistance fighters who have made a marriage of convenience with the U.S. military since late 2006 to battle al Qaeda. He and other prisoners I interviewed said interrogations mostly focused on general questions. For Abu Wissam they were questions such as "did you fight against Israel" during the 1973 war -- apparently considered a mark of suspicion by U.S. interrogators but something that a member of the Iraqi army would have been shot for refusing to do. Abu Wissam said he was given a paper to sign, admitting guilt to a list of charges that included murder, attacking U.S. troops, kidnapping and sectarian cleansing. In July the U.S. military admitted that Islamic extremists had been running courts inside Bucca for years and had even carried out killings inside the prisons.
The whole thing is so incredibly confused and, of course, unjust. Is this part of the "democratization" of Iraq? Well, who cares, says the GOP, as long as we can tap into Iraqi oil? And did the detainees have a choice in signing the list of crimes they were guilty of? Did they have any idea what it was all about, or what the consequences would be?
Abu Wissam said he complained about the treatment, especially the fact that all prisoners suffered because of the actions of some. "I asked the American officer, 'Why do you treat all of us like takfiris?' and he said, 'You killed our friends. You are all takfiris.'"
Oh, Great! Collective punishment. Well, it seems to be the U.S. foreign policy of late, from sanctions on the people as punishment for acts of a government that will neither suffer significantly nor step down as a result from their power-seat, nor, of course, change their policies towards the U.S., which was the supposed whole point.
If that exchange suggests collective punishment of prisoners, the review process shouts it. Detainee review hearings at Camp Cropper are held in a sparsely furnished trailer. An Iraqi flag hangs on the wall, no doubt an unintended irony. Prisoners swear on a Quran before three U.S. officers, who read a list of accusations.
In one hearing I observed in early August, the defendant had been rounded up with relatives after a weapons cache was found nearby. The military strongly believed the young man's father was an insurgent, but the officers thought it was more than likely the accused had been picked up simply because he happened to be there. Regardless, it had been enough to hold him for at least four months.
"I just want to go back to school," the young man told the officers when given a chance to speak. "I have missed a year because of this."
"You're still young," one of the officers replied. "You'll have time to catch up."
Whereas in Guantanamo, detainees are held in Xtreme Security with hoods on, etc., in Camp Bucca, it seems to be more of a world within itself, where just simply being in it is the horrible thing, as there's no way out except what seems to be arbitrary, blind luck.
"I don't think that there is a law that covers what we're trying to do -- that is, to detain people indefinitely. There have been terrorist acts throughout history, so this war is never going to end," said retired Adm. John Hutson, a military law expert. "The 250 guys at Guantanamo can have habeas corpus, but the thousands of detainees elsewhere don't have any rights. I think we have focused like lasers on Guantanamo because it's iconic and it's 90 miles off our shore. But you can't make legal, diplomatic or moral distinctions based on the locale of the detainee. We've worried about Guantanamo, but there are more detainees elsewhere. Whatever rules we come up with have to apply across the board."
"This war is never going to end"! And these detainees will be detained "indefinitely"? Sounds like the message of John McCain and his 100 years plus occupation/war. The same officer, retired Col. Janis Karpinski, who was in charge, more or less, of Abu Ghraib, was more recently in charge of Bucca - until someone worse came in.
Bucca was originally slated to be shut down in late 2003, Karpinski said, before Maj. Gen. Geoffrey Miller and his staff, who were responsible for setting up Camp X-Ray at Guantanamo, took over from Karpinski. Karpinski said Miller told her he would "Gitmo-ize" the system, after which Abu Ghraib and then Cropper became the main center for interrogations.
"Bucca is holding this massive population of Iraqis who were hauled in and are security detainees that have no intelligence value. When you determine that they have no further intel value, you transfer them to Bucca," Karpinski said.
So what's the point?
Well, ominously, when Karpinsky asked Miller's attorney, Lt. Col. Diane Beaver, a simple question about "procedures", this is what she got:
"I asked her specifically about release procedures for the prisoners at Gitmo," Karpinski said, "thinking, naively, we might be able to learn something from their procedures. Beaver looked at me like I was crazy and arrogantly said, 'Release, ma'am? There is no release plan for our prisoners. Most, if not all of them, will spend every last day of their lives at Gitmo.'"
Folks, this is a POLICY, not a tactic or even a strategy. What does it say about justice in general or the U.S. in particular when it has a policy of permanently imprisoning people who are not its citizens, not citizens of countries at war with the United States, and who are not even accused of any crime, and have no recourse to justice, for the rest of their natural lives???
Outside Bucca, as the sun comes up, Ali, 12, reads a letter he has written to his father. "Dear Daddy, How are you? I hope you are doing well. I miss you so very much and I miss you taking me in your arms. Dear Daddy, we are all doing well, thank God! I pray that God gives me and Mommy and my sister Nour the patience to survive while you are absent. I asked God to help you and all the detainees with you to be released. Dear Daddy, you can rely on God, then on me, to take care of the house and the family. I cry every day, every day thinking of you. I pray for you because you are oppressed. I ask God to release you from your misery, Inshallah!"
Around him, other families, almost all women, wave pictures of the incarcerated. One woman has five sons inside; another has a brother who has been in U.S. prisons since 2004. Another says this is her twelfth visit to Bucca. All say that the trip is a financial strain. One says that without her husband to support her, she has been reduced to begging. Others complain that their children are depressed and failing in school.
It's the lack of rights, the total lack of justice, redress, or even hope for a legitimately-obtained freedom that smacks of ... anything, really, anything at all, but .... what used to be ... America. Who, or what, will bring these families back together? Does "family values" have to be just a slogan with closed doors on the rest of the world? It certainly means nothing whatsoever on the ground in Iraq. Rights, compassion, humanity, all that is so much "security risk".
Change these tactics or... say to America, the former bastion of freedom, justice and democracy...