Board decides fate of thousands of Iraqi detainees

Lt. Col. Guy Rudisill, spokesman for the Iraq detainee operations.


Panel of Iraqis and American military has released more than 14,000 in 18 months

By NANCY MONTGOMERY | STARS AND STRIPES Published: February 23, 2006

BAGHDAD — It’s held in a secret location. No spectators are allowed, let alone cameras. The accused isn’t there and has no lawyer present. And the decision — whether to set free a man held for months at Abu Ghraib as a threat to Iraq’s security — takes place in a matter of minutes.

But the Combined Review and Release Board, where thousands of detainee cases have been heard since the process began 18 months ago, is no star chamber, U.S. officials say. Despite its limitations, the CRRB is the beginning of due process of law, they say, in a country that has rarely, if ever, enjoyed its protections.

“I think it’s working real well,” said Col. Mark Seitsinger, senior legal adviser to the U.S. military’s detainee operations. “I don’t know whether you want to call it justice. … It’s due process.”

Since August 2004, the board — which is empowered to either release or continue to hold detainees held at Abu Ghraib, Fort Suse and other coalition-run detention centers — has heard 28,595 cases.

Of those, 14,951 detainees were released, usually after six months in custody. The majority were released “with a guarantor,” a sheik or other official, vouching for them. In 13,644 cases, the board voted, by a simple majority, that the detainee remained an imminent threat to the security of Iraq and should remain detained.

The board comprises two ministers each from the Iraqi Justice, Human Rights and Interior ministries, and three U.S. officers, usually of the rank of lieutenant colonel, said Lt. Col. Guy Rudisill, spokesman for detainee operations. Their workload, along with that of the 10 U.S. military lawyers who present the facts, evidence and intelligence in detainees’ files to the board — with an interpreter’s help — is intense.

Some 375 cases, divided among three boards, are heard each of three days the boards sit. That translates to an average of 20 cases heard per hour, and a case decided every three minutes.

“The lawyers brief the panel, they pass the file around and they vote,” Seitsinger said. Board members have recently requested to work a fourth day to decide fewer cases each day, Seitsinger said.

Iraqi board members were not allowed to be interviewed, Rudisill said, according to the Iraqi Ministry of Human Rights.

Since their inception, the boards have been the primary avenue for deciding what to do with detainees who are currently crowding detention centers. That means most detainees have not been charged with a crime but have either remained in custody as an imminent threat to the security of Iraq, under a U.N. Security Council resolution, or been released.

In fact, just 1,574 detainees have gone to trial at the Central Criminal Court of Iraq, on charges including weapons violations, terrorism and illegal border crossing, and about half — 785 — have been convicted. Those convicted are jailed in Iraqi prisons, Rudisill said. The rest went free. Some 2,139 more cases are scheduled for the criminal court, Rudisill said.

“Cases in which there are coalition deaths, I’m inclined to take to the CCCI,” Seitsinger said. “Or Iraqi deaths associated with the detainee.”

“Sure, I wish our conviction rate were a lot higher,” Seitsinger said. “I hate to see any of them go free if I think they’re guilty.”

When the boards first began reviewing detainee files, they voted to release about 60 percent, Rudisill said. But after November 2004, and a new population of more dangerous detainees, he said, that has changed to about a 40 percent release rate. In fact, Rudisill said, at least 80 percent of detainees are now classified as “high-risk,” meaning they’re thought to be a serious danger to coalition forces and Iraq security.

But so many detainees winning release at the board hearings or acquittal at trial raises the question of whether they should have been in custody in the first place. Some lawyers who present the cases say some are so weak, they believe the person was wrongly detained.

One lawyer described one such case: An Iraqi police officer was detained because he was seen driving swiftly away from an Iraqi police station that had just been bombed. Where some might assume the officer was fleeing death and danger, the U.S. forces that detained him thought he’d planted the bomb, the lawyer said, but had no evidence to buttress their belief.

But Seitsinger and others said they believe most detainees are in fact guilty — there just isn’t the evidence to prove it. “These soldiers (who gather the evidence) aren’t trained law enforcement agents,” Seitsinger said. They have no formal training in recognizing, gathering, seizing, preserving and documenting evidence, he said.

“They’re doing the best they can.”

What’s more, these soldiers and Marines charged with gathering evidence when conducting raids or searches are also often in chaotic circumstances that can quickly turn deadly, another observer familiar with the process, who declined to be named because he was not authorized to speak on the matter, pointed out.

“Expecting soldiers to gather courtroom evidence … is like trying to cut kitchen counter Formica with a chain saw or an axe,” he said. “You can do it if you really must, but the results aren’t always satisfactory.”

The result, he said, was a sort of “deed-time scale” that was also used to determine release. “‘OK, you dug a hole and planted an IED (improvised explosive device); you really don’t know how to build one but you can dig, so you get six months. Next! OK, you build IEDs, you get two years. Next!’” he said.

Whether guilty, partly guilty or detained by mistake, Rudisill said the recidivism rate — detainees let go, then arrested again for similar activities — is an amazingly low 1.6 percent.

Col. Mark Seitsinger, senior legal advisor for Iraq detainee operations, oversees U.S. military lawyers who present the cases of nearly 1,000 detainees each week to a board that can order the detainees' release.