Fair treatment of prisoners crucial to policing of Baghdad
Stars and Stripes June 15, 2003
BAGHDAD, Iraq — As the sun sets on the Iraqi capital, soldiers from the 501st Forward Support Battalion prepare themselves for a night of tending to prisoners captured on the city’s streets.
The Friedberg, Germany-based soldiers recently took over a makeshift jail at Baghdad’s Shaab Stadium from the 3rd Infantry Division. Each night, a dozen or more Iraqis who either break the law or the 11 p.m. curfew end up in small cages underneath the stadium seats.
“We’ve got to have the weapons for evidence,” Spc. Cary Rybus shouted to some soldiers who arrived with prisoners. “If not, they’ll walk.”
In the back of a 5-ton truck, Spc. Clint Brookins, a tanker from the 1st Battalion, 37th Armor Regiment, guarded five Iraqi prisoners. The men were pinched driving in a taxi with weapons. Soldiers on duty confiscated a 9 mm Tariq pistol and an AK-47 with two magazines of ammunition. But the tankers just took over their police beat, and didn’t know to bring the guns along.
Rybus, 33, of Leseur, Minn., who normally works in motor pool supply, is now working as a jailer in Iraq. He cut off the plastic handcuffs and told soldiers to reapply them looser so they don’t hurt prisoners’ wrists.
“I just want to make sure they’re not mistreated. After all, they are still people,” Rybus said. “While they are here, they’re treated well.”
Once the tankers returned with evidence, Rybus escorted the prisoners one at a time to a dark area within the stadium lined with cages, which Rybus calls “Cellblock C.”
Pfc. Darin Jones, 32, of Colon, Panama, a generator mechanic, helped escort the prisoners to a small cage. Before he locked the gate, he cut open a humanitarian ration wrapped in yellow plastic and tossed it to the floor.
Some prisoners asked if the Americans are taking them to prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, said Baddie, a translator who asked that only his first name be used.
The former baker uses his limited English to help soldiers question incarcerated Iraqis. At times, it’s the first time they have a chance to explain their story in Arabic, because U.S. patrols don’t always have interpreters.
“They sometimes say they are scared, and they want to know what will happen to them,” Baddie said. “They always say that the weapon wasn’t theirs, or they didn’t do anything. About 30 percent are innocent, but the rest are criminals.”
Military lawyers need evidence to back up an incarceration, said Sgt. Kevin Dollens, 40, of Houston. On average, Dollens and his crew process 15 Iraqis each night. He makes sure each prisoner’s paperwork is properly filled out and all evidence is tagged and recorded.
Most Iraqis who break the 11 p.m. curfew spend just 24 hours in U.S. custody unless military investigators want to question them further. Iraqis charged with serious crimes are transported to a detention center at the Baghdad airport, where U.S. and Iraqi judges hear their cases, Dollens said.
Since late-April, the holding cells have been under the supervision of Sgt. 1st Class Robert Okrasinski, 37, of Neenah, Wis., who normally repairs weapons for the 3rd Forward Support Battalion. He called the place “The Doghouse.”
“We’ve had murderers, carjackers and rapists,” Okrasinski said. “On some days we held more than 70 people. But 40 was about average.”
In mid-May, he began tracking statistics. In two weeks, soldiers held more than 400 Iraqis and confiscated more than $100,000 in cash. One criminal suspect carried $41,000 in his pocket, Okrasinski said.
Okrasinski shrugged when asked why the Army assigned a weapons repairer, rather than the military police, to jail duty.
“You know,” he said. “I’ve been wondering the same thing.”