Detainees overcrowded in Iraqi holding facilities
May 23, 2008
MOSUL, Iraq — The holding cells in the Al Kindi Iraq Army base appeared comfortable enough Tuesday while the detainees sat in the sunlight outside during their limited time in the fresh air. The floors were clean, and the room had little odor. Red-tinted Plexiglas on the windows kept the sun out.
But the situation began to change when the detention center lieutenant started the roll call for the detainees to go back inside. With each name the lieutenant called, the cells began to fill up. When he was finished, more than 100 detainees squeezed into a building the size of a small house.
Both Iraqi and coalition force leaders have declared Iraqi-led operations that began here earlier this month an overwhelming success. But that success has filled some Mosul detention centers beyond capacity.
As of Sunday, the Iraqi Army had detained 1,156 people in the operation, said Lt. Col. Robert Molinari, operations officer of the U.S. Army’s 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment.
The Al Kindi facility and another on the same base are holding many of those detainees. Both facilities were designed for 85 people, although they can temporarily hold twice that in extreme circumstances, said Capt. Christopher Allen, an adviser to the military police unit that runs the holding centers.
On Tuesday, one facility held 136 detainees and the other, 201 — even more than the holding center’s worst-case scenario.
"When the operation started, we didn’t think we’d get so many detainees," said Maj. Torri Sabri Slelvany, the commander of the Iraqi military police unit that oversees the holding centers.
Iraqi units began the operation with a list of 400 people they wanted to pick up or question.
Those subjects led Iraqi soldiers to many more people who weren’t on the initial lists, creating a bigger than expected crowd of detainees, Allen said.
"You go to catch one dude, and it grows to four," Allen said. "That’s not just growing pains; it’s just this is a huge mission."
The problem was acute enough to draw the attention of Iraqi division commanders, Ninewah Operations Center staff and Interior Ministry officials during a video conference on Tuesday.
After discussing whether anyone had extra space to ease the load, the group concluded that they were all feeling the same problem.
The overcrowding has made life uncomfortable for the detainees. The operation started before workers could install air conditioning in the Al Kindi holding centers.
Two or three detainees must share a plate of food, and each detainee gets only about three small bottles of water a day. Detainees may stay in a cell up to a week before they get a chance to see a judge.
"You have people that will eventually be released, OK," Col. David Brown, who heads a group of American military advisers to the 2nd Iraqi Army Division, told those at Tuesday’s meeting. "If you don’t treat these people right, they will become insurgents."
Guards can easily fix the water problem by refilling the bottles with less-than-pure water from the tap, as many Iraqi soldiers themselves do.
But fixing the other problems will be harder, and few were optimistic that help would be coming from the Iraqi government.
"They’re gonna die before Baghdad gives them anything, believe me," said Brig. Gen. Abdulah Karim Abdul Satar, the 2nd Iraqi Army Division commander. An Iraqi intelligence officer also noted during Tuesday’s meeting that units are already cutting their soldiers’ own rations to make up for the food shortfall.
"They’re doing everything right. They’re just overwhelmed," said Allen, noting that he was pleased to see the Iraqi leaders addressing the problem without American prodding. "They understand humans have human rights."
The military bars reporters from interviewing detainees, and Stars and Stripes was not able to speak with any of those in the cells.
Time alone may alleviate much of the problem as detainees are either cleared or transferred to more permanent facilities. Tuesday’s total of 337 detainees at Al Kindi was 14 fewer than the day before — seven people had been released and another seven had been transferred to the Iraqi police. Allen said he wouldn’t recommend spending money on more jails because they wouldn’t be used most of the time.
In the meantime, Iraqi soldiers will be working longer to handle the mass of inmates. Sgt. Maj. Mohammad Ghazi, a military police soldier at one of the jails, told an American adviser that the hours had been long since the start of the operation. It had been too long since he’d seen his family, he said.
"But it’s our duty. We should do it," Ghazi concluded.