What happened to the women held at Abu Ghraib?
The government isn’t talking. But some of the women are.
By Tara McKelvey
Prospect" -- On the morning of September 24, 2003 -- ﬁve weeks after the suicide bombing of a United Nations compound in Baghdad killed 23 people, including top envoy Sergio Vieira de Mello, signaling an intensiﬁed phase of Iraqi insurgency -- a group of American soldiers burst into Selwa’s villa near the banks of the Tigris River in Samarra, Iraq. Samarra, at the time, was under siege; after the team burst in, one of the soldiers pointed his riﬂe at Selwa (she asked me to use a pseudonym), a 55-year-old wife and mother, and her daughters and grandchildren began screaming. She, and everyone in the villa, was terriﬁed -- and with good reason. The soldiers had raided their house exactly four months earlier, and she remembered vividly what had happened that night.
On May 24, 2003, three weeks after George W. Bush had declared that major combat operations in Iraq were over, the soldiers stormed across the villa’s marble ﬂoors, riﬂed through family photographs, and searched inside a French cabinet. They conﬁscated the family’s life savings -- $315,000 in U.S. dollars and $12,000 in Iraqi dinar -- and then seized Selwa’s husband, Saddan, who had been trained as a mechanic and, under Saddam Hussein, had risen through the Ministry of Commerce ranks until he became a director. Ever since his arrest, Selwa had lived in fear that the soldiers would come back to interrogate her or search the house again. But she never suspected they’d take her away, too. “My daughter started shouting and screaming, ‘Why are you taking my mother? You took my father!’” Selwa remembers.
On a recent December evening, 14 months after she was arrested, she sits in a room in Le Royal Hotel in Amman, Jordan. Warm and outgoing, she quickly puts me at ease. Wearing a stylish black jacket and dripping with gold and jewels, she looks like the kind of woman you might see in a specialty food store on New York’s Upper West Side, bustling around the place and ﬁlling her basket with spicy sausages and boxes of tea. She has creamy skin and hazel eyes, and she appears rested despite the fact that, two days earlier, she had embarked on a risky journey through war-torn Iraq to meet me in Amman. She tried to come to Jordan directly, but she found the Jordanian border closed in the wake of a recent explosion. So she drove to the Syrian border, which was also closed, and spent the night. The next day, she made it here.
“The soldiers put me in a Hummer and took me to a police station,” she continues, recalling the events of September 2003. “An American and an Egyptian translator interrogated me. They asked, ‘Do you know any insurgents?’ I said, ‘No.’ They said, ‘Where did you get your money?’ I said, ‘We have chicken and sheep farms and property.’ They said, ‘You have something to hide. You are giving money to the resistance. Tell us the truth.’”
Several days later, she was taken in “ﬂexicuffs,” or plastic handcuffs, to a detention facility in Tikrit, 100 miles northwest of Baghdad, where approximately 700 male Iraqi prisoners were living in desert tents. After she arrived, she says, soldiers and guards forced her and other prisoners to crouch on the ground with their arms above their heads in 100-degree weather: “They told us, ‘You are cowards. You are Saddam’s children. You are ﬁghting against the Americans.’ If we complained, they said, ‘Shut up. Put your face against the wall.’”
The next day, a stocky American ofﬁcer in boots and a T-shirt told Selwa she was responsible for the disposal of waste. As a former detainee told Human Rights First senior associate Ken Hurwitz during an interview last August, this is a ritual that serves purposes both utilitarian and penal: Human waste is dumped in metal containers, mixed with lighter ﬂuid, and set on ﬁre. Detainees are forced to stir the mixture to speed its dissipation. It’s a wretched job, done in shifts by young men and boys, and the stench is overwhelming.
That afternoon, the American ofﬁcer lit a mixture of human feces and urine in a metal container and gave Selwa a heavy club to stir it. She recalls, “The ﬁre from the pot felt very strong on my face.” She leans forward and sweeps her hands through the air to show how she stirred the excrement. “I became very tired,” she says. “I told the sergeant I couldn’t do it.”
“There was another man close to us. The sergeant came up to me and whispered in my ear, ‘If you don’t, I will tell one of the soldiers to fuck you.’”
She looks down at the ﬂoor.
“It is a shame on them,” says Riva Khoshaba, a 28-year-old Assyrian American lawyer who was born in Iraq. She is sitting across the table in the Amman hotel and looking sympathetically at Selwa. “Not on you.”
Selwa closes her eyes and nods her head, trying to show that she is listening. But it’s almost as though she is sitting at a table far away and can hear Khoshaba’s words but can’t make out their meaning. Selwa nods again and sinks back into her chair.
“I said, ‘I will go on.’ I stirred for two hours,” Selwa says. “Then I fainted.”
For Selwa, it was only the beginning of a nightmarish journey. In early October of 2003, she was strip-searched and given an ID bracelet and a prisoner number. She had arrived at Abu Ghraib.
* * *
In the barrels of newsprint that have been devoted to Abu Ghraib since 60 Minutes II released the now-infamous photos on April 28, 2004, one aspect of the story has received scant attention in the American media: the detention of women. The liberation of women in Iraq and (especially) Afghanistan has been, at times, a major talking point for Bush administration ofﬁcials as they have touted the successes of their war on terrorism in the Middle East. Yet in Iraq, the beneﬁts of a free society have eluded at least part of the female population.
Forty-two women have been held at Abu Ghraib, according to a U.S. Department of Defense statement provided at the request of a U.S. senator and forwarded to me, though none are interned there now. (Many of the women were released in May, shortly after the scandal broke, and the last woman was let go in July.) Overall, 90 women have been held in various detention facilities in Iraq since August 2003, says Barry Johnson, a public-affairs ofﬁcer for detainee operations for the Multi-National Force, the ofﬁcial name of the U.S.–led forces in Iraq, speaking on a cell phone from Baghdad. Two “high-value” female detainees are now being held, he says. More women may be in captivity, he adds, explaining that “units can capture and keep them up to 14 days.” In addition, approximately 60 children, or “juveniles,” are being held.
Some women and children are picked up because they’re a “security threat,” Johnson says. And some women are detained because they’re the sisters, wives, or girlfriends of suspected insurgents -- that is, because the military thinks these women might provide information on the insurgency. But this practice, like the instances of torture exposed last year, violates the Geneva Conventions, which stipulate that no one can “be punished for an offense he or she has not personally committed.” In one such incident, a 28-year-old mother of three, including the 6-month-old baby she was nursing, was captured on May 9, 2004. The American Civil Liberties Union obtained a memo in which a former Defense Intelligence Agency ofﬁcer described her detainment as a violation of the Geneva Conventions.
The treatment of civilian women by American forces is a charged issue for Iraqis -- and especially for those who oppose the American presence. The terrorists who kidnapped CARE International Director Margaret Hassan, for example, demanded the release of women held by U.S. and coalition forces. Hassan is now believed to be dead. Women and children have been reluctant to speak to American journalists, which is one reason their internment has received little attention in the U.S. media. Recently, though, some have begun to step forward.
* * *
Let people know what happened to us,” says Victoria, a 54-year-old former bank director, on the phone from her home in the al-Dora section of Baghdad. She and Selwa, and about a dozen other women, were held together in close quarters at Abu Ghraib and other detention facilities. During my trip to Amman in early December 2004, and in later telephone conversations, I spoke with four of these women. I also spoke with six men who were held at Abu Ghraib and elsewhere and had witnessed, overheard, or claimed they knew about instances of women being abused.
Seven of the people I interviewed are plaintiffs in a pair of class-action lawsuits brought by a group of American attorneys, including Khoshaba, working with the left-leaning, New York–based Center for Constitutional Rights, against two private companies, the San Diego–based Titan Corporation, which hired translators who worked at Abu Ghraib, and the Virginia-based CACI International Inc., which provided interrogators. Three of the people I interviewed are not part of the lawsuits. (The suits seek redress for all detainees, not just women.)
Relying on the Alien Tort Claims Act of 1789 and the Racketeer Inﬂuenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) of 1970, the suits, one aimed at each company, seek damages on behalf of detainees. The Alien Tort Claims Act has been used by human-rights groups seeking to hold U.S. corporations accountable for activity in countries with lax judicial systems. The RICO claim is novel -- the suits’ detractors would use a less charitable adjective -- and asserts that the abuses allegedly committed by employees constitute a pattern of racketeering activity. In February or March, a California federal court judge will decide whether or not he will hear the case. The contractors were, of course, “under the operational control and direction of the U.S. military,” according to a July 29 statement by CACI (pronounced “khaki”). A classiﬁed report by U.S. Navy Vice Admiral Albert Church on interrogation techniques has reportedly been completed and is supposed to be released in the next few weeks.
Titan’s vice president of corporate communications, Ralph “Wil” Williams, told me he would not speak publicly about the lawsuit, as did CACI International’s lead counsel, Steptoe & Johnson partner J. William Koegel Jr. In the past, Williams has said, “We believe the lawsuit to be frivolous, and we will defend ourselves against it vigorously.” And last July 27, the day the suit against CACI was ﬁled in federal court in Washington, the company issued a statement reading, “CACI rejects and denies the allegations of the suit as being a malicious and farcical recitation of false statements and intentional distortions.” According to the statement, “Neither the company nor any of its employees has been charged with any wrongdoing or illegal acts relating to any work in Iraq.”
Susan L. Burke, a partner in the Philadelphia law ﬁrm Montgomery, McCracken, Walker & Rhoads and one of the lead lawyers in the case, says she ﬁrst heard about prisoner abuse on December 26, 2002, in a Washington Post article. “There was a quote from an ofﬁcial who said, ‘If you don’t violate someone’s human rights some of the time, you probably aren’t doing your job,’” says Burke, a blond, 42-year-old Catholic University of America law-school graduate, as she sits in a bar at Le Royal Hotel. “I thought, ‘This is my country. I can’t let this pass.’”
* * *
A door to the balcony outside the hotel room is open a few inches, and, as dusk falls, you can hear the sound of prayers being chanted at mosques around the city. Selwa, leaning back in her chair, says she met Saddan, her husband-to-be, when she was a teenager. He was 34. She wasn’t exactly thrilled: “I thought he was too old,” she says. But, eventually, he won her heart. “He used to sing for me and recite poems he had memorized,” she says. She quotes from Bedouin verse: “Your sweat is like pearls that sparkle.”
In the late 1990s, Saddan received an award from Saddam Hussein for a water-management system he’d devised. He had his picture taken with the then-dictator. But, Selwa insists, her husband wasn’t close to Hussein. “He worked for the government, and we supported [the regime]. But my husband was not important at all,” she says.
Frank “Greg” Ford, 50, a former California National Guard sergeant who was in Samarra from April through June 2003 and is now a corrections ofﬁcer at Folsom State Prison in Represa, California, remembers Selwa’s husband differently.
“He was considered Saddam Hussein’s right-hand man,” says Ford, who served in the military for 30 years and has worked as a Coast Guard medical corpsman. “I saw photos of him shaking hands with Saddam Hussein.” Ford says an “in-house” source -- as well as an Iraqi who had known the family for decades -- told them about Saddan.
Speaking on background, a military ofﬁcial says Saddan “was listed as a Baath Party member.” And Selwa, says the ofﬁcial, “was believed to be involved with ﬁnancing and organizing insurgent activities.”
Selwa says she believes that a tenant in a property she and her husband owned “snitched on us.” “We have a saying in Samarra, she says. “Everything is forgiven except if you have money.”
Ford led the raid on their villa. He says that he knew Selwa didn’t have any useful information; his informants had told him that Saddan was the prize. That’s why Ford took her husband to the police station that night. Yet Ford was appalled by the brutal way the American soldiers treated Saddan. He told them to back off.
“My team leader started beating on this old man,” Ford says. “They’d ask him questions, and every time they got a wrong answer -- pow! -- they’d hit him again. He was about to [have a] stroke.” (Ford, who sees himself as a whistle-blower, claims soldiers abused other prisoners at the police station, too; his company commander says Ford was suffering from “combat stress,” according to the Los Angeles Times. Ford’s “allegations are under investigation by the [Army’s criminal-investigation unit],” says Lieutenant Colonel Doug Hart, public-affairs chief with the California National Guard.)
“[Saddan] was extremely high-value -- a reservoir of information. I said he was not to be harmed in any way,” says Ford. “But I had a bad feeling about it.”
I tell Ford that Saddan was killed in a mortar attack on April 6, 2004, at Abu Ghraib. “Christ,” he says. “I knew they would screw it up.” I also tell him that Selwa was taken to Abu Ghraib, and he is shocked. “I never told them to take her,” he says. “She didn’t know anything.”
When Selwa talks about Abu Ghraib and the detention facilities, her voice is soft.
“Whenever I remember, it’s like a ﬁre goes out,” she says. “Once I saw the guards hit a woman, probably 30 years old. They put her in an open area and said, ‘Come out so you can see her.’ They pulled her by the hair and poured ice water on her. She was screaming and shouting and crying as they poured water into her mouth. They left her there all night. There was another girl; the soldiers said she wasn’t honest with them. They said she gave them wrong information. When I saw her, she had electric burns all over her body.”
Selwa says she and a group of women lived in a wing of the prison that was separate from the male unit. Like the other women, she had a small room with a toilet and access to a sink. “There were a lot of maggots,” she says. She explains how she would wash her slip and her robe and then put the damp clothes on and let them dry as she was wearing them.
I ask her if she was sexually assaulted.
“No,” she says. “They respected me.” She pushes her chair away from the table.
Asked if she was ever forced to take her clothes off, she leans back and pulls her jacket over her chest and covers part of her face with her hand. She looks downward and bites her thumb. Her eyes are half-closed, and her shoulders are slumped.
“I don’t remember,” she says. She folds her arms across her chest and her eyes ﬁll with tears. She stares at the ground. A few minutes later, she excuses herself and leaves the room.
* * *
Another woman held in Abu Ghraib was Mithal, a 55-year-old supervisor at an electrical company. Arrested on February 26, 2004, she was taken to Al-Sijood Palace, in Baghdad’s “Green Zone,” and asked about her neighbor, a retired government worker. “I think they were confusing him with some big, important person,” she says.
“When they didn’t get the answer they wanted, they would put the hood on my head and yank it and make me run across a yard,” she says. “I was barefoot, and the yard was ﬁlled with sharp stones. The American soldier said if I didn’t cooperate, they’d put me in prison for 30 years. He said if I were his mother, he would kill me. This lasted for eight hours. Then they put me in a wooden room and sat me on a chair. They said bad words -- hurtful words. They covered me in blankets, one after another until I couldn’t breathe. Eight blankets. I pounded my feet against the ﬂoor because I was suffocating.
“After that, they took me to [a detention center near Baghdad International Airport]. There, I heard a young woman crying out from her cell, telling an American soldier to leave her alone. She said, ‘I am a Muslim woman.’ Her voice was high-pitched and shaky. Her husband, who was in a cell down the hall, called out, ‘She is my wife. She has nothing to do with this.’ He hit the bars of his cell with his ﬁsts until he fainted. The Americans poured water over his face and made him wake up. When her screams became louder, the soldiers played music over the speakers. Finally, they took her to another room. I couldn’t hear anything more.”
Afterward, Mithal says, she was taken to Abu Ghraib. “They stripped me and searched me,” she remembers. “Then they gave me blankets and put me in solitary conﬁnement in a room 2 meters by 1 and a half meters. There was no light in the room. I was there for three months.”
* * *
The third woman I interviewed is Khadeja Yassen, a 51-year-old former school principal. She is the sister of former Vice President Taha Yasin Ramadan al-Jizrawi. A high-ranking ofﬁcial of the Hussein government, he was the “Ten of Diamonds” in the Pentagon’s “most-wanted” playing cards. She was arrested at home on August 11, 2003, and interrogated about her brother’s whereabouts. She was held at various detention facilities, including Abu Ghraib, for ﬁve months, until she was released on January 11, 2004.
“After I got there,” she told me, “they took me to a room with a dog. It was a huge black dog, and it barked so loudly. It was on a leash, and it was standing two meters from me. I was terriﬁed -- I felt as if I would go mad. My legs buckled, and I collapsed. An American soldier -- a woman -- was standing behind me, and she held me up. I was kept in the room for two or three minutes, and then I was taken to another place for the interrogation. They asked me about my brother. I said, ‘I don’t know where he is.’ They said, ‘You have seen the dog. Now tell us the truth.’”
I ask her if they touched her during the interrogation.
“I won’t answer this question,” she says. “I promised them I would not say anything about this.”
* * *
Were Iraqi women raped or sexually assaulted by Americans at Abu Ghraib and other detention facilities? None of the women I interviewed would talk about it. “You’re asking this question in a culture that kills you for being raped,” explains Khoshaba, referring to so-called honor killings, in which women are slain for behaving “dishonorably,” which can mean they’ve had the bad luck to be sexually assaulted.
There are no reliable statistics on honor killings in Iraq. But Yanar Mohamed, 43, president of the Baghdad-based group Organization of Women’s Freedom in Iraq, has opened shelters in Baghdad and Tikrit for women who are afraid of family members. About 10 women, including a 24-year-old former soldier, Liqwa, who claims an American soldier raped her, have stayed in the shelters.
Under such circumstances, rape is difﬁcult to prove. Yet reports of sexual abuse and exploitation have crept into government documents. On October 7, 2003, American soldiers held a female detainee’s hands behind her back, forced her to her knees, “kissed [her] on the mouth,” and removed her blouse, according to a Commander’s Report of Disciplinary or Administrative Action. Major General Antonio Taguba reported on the “videotaping and photographing [of] naked male and female detainees” in his May 2004 report on detainee abuse. In their August 25, 2004, report examining the role of military intelligence, Major General George R. Fay and Lieutenant General Anthony R. Jones describe “Incident No. 38,” in which “a criminal detainee housed in the Hard Site was shown lifting her shirt with both her breasts exposed. There is no evidence to conﬁrm if [this was] consensual or coerced; however in either case sexual exploitation of a person in U.S. custody constitutes abuse.”
And an image shown to members of Congress on May 12, 2004, seems to depict a female detainee exposing her breasts, apparently against her will, according to a high-level Senate staffer. “She just looked like she’d died inside,” the staffer says.
Rape has become a potent symbol in Iraq, and propaganda about sexual assault has been used to foment anti-American sentiment and recruit new members for the resistance. But for some, rape has more than a symbolic meaning. A 35-year-old woman named Sundus (she asked that I use only her ﬁrst name) was hired by Burke’s legal team last summer to meet with former detainees and ﬁnd out about their experiences. A graduate of Iraq’s Al-Mamoun University College, where she studied English poetry and Shakespeare, she works to promote civil society in Iraq and is involved in election monitoring. “She’s among the new generation who’s trying to build Iraq through [nongovernmental organizations] and civil society,” says Salah Aziz, president of the Tallahassee, Florida-based organization American Society for Kurds, who met Sundus in Iraq last summer when she attended his National Endowment for Democracy–funded workshop on NGOs. “She’s a strong lady.” Between August and December 2004, Sundus says, she interviewed 54 former detainees.
“I think many women who were held at Abu Ghraib were raped by Americans,” says Sundus. She wears a lilac hajib, which she ﬁddles with during interviews. She has received death threats because she works with Americans, and she says one Iraqi man told her that if she spoke negatively about the resistance, “‘We will put you in the back seat of the car like Margaret Hassan.’”
Sundus explains how Selwa and Selwa’s sister came to her ofﬁce last August. Selwa said she wanted to speak about her detention privately. Her sister left the room. Then Selwa sat down with Sundus. “They did everything bad to me, and may God take them all to hell,” Selwa told her. “She began to weep bitterly,” recalls Sundus. “She didn’t tell the truth to her family.”
Male detainees, too, have described the abuse of women. A 42-year-old car broker, Saleh, who was held at Abu Ghraib from October to December of 2003, spoke with Huntington Woods, Michigan-based attorney Shereef Akeel, a member of Burke’s legal team, in March 2004. “He said he saw a woman being raped: ‘She was on all fours in a hallway outside my cell, and a soldier was raping her. She was looking at me, and I couldn’t do anything to help her. Her eyes looked dead,’” says Akeel.
Mahal, a 70-year-old tribal sheik who wears a charcoal tunic and has a gray-speckled mustache, told me he met a female detainee on May 4, 2004, the day they were both released from Abu Ghraib, on a bus ride home. “She sat two rows away from me,” he says. “She was wearing a hajib, and her face was completely dried up. It looked as though she hadn’t seen the sun in a very long time. ‘I’ve seen terrible things,’ she said. ‘We went through hell.’ She was crying and saying women had been tortured and raped.”
Nabil is a 37-year-old human-rights lawyer married to Selwa’s oldest daughter. He is a tall man with a high forehead, and he is dressed in a white shirt, cufﬂinks, a wool vest, and wire-rimmed glasses. (He asked me not to use his real name “so I can sleep soundly at night.”) He was arrested on September 28, 2003, and held at various detention facilities, including Abu Ghraib, until May 28, 2004. A military ofﬁcial conﬁrms that Nabil was released from Abu Ghraib on that date.
“In November or December, I really can’t remember, I was in a room and could hear sounds coming from outside,” he says, drinking tea in an Amman hotel room. “The windows were broken, and they were covered with wooden panels. Sometimes I could hear screams and shouts. Women were calling for mercy. There were also children between the ages of 10 and 12. The children became hysterical. I was told the women were tortured in front of their children. One day, a sheik came back from a medical clinic where he’d been treated. He was in tears. ‘What happened?’ we asked. He told us he had seen a young girl, 15 years old, with internal bleeding. She had been raped over and over again by the soldiers, and she could no longer talk. He is a deeply religious man. But that night, he shouted at Allah. ‘How is it possible that you are there and these things are happening?!’ he said.”
A former diplomat who attended the UN General Assembly in New York in December 2001 (“I had an administrative job,” he says), Nabil says he was forced to hear the cries of women during his own interrogations. “I feel this was part of the psychological warfare on me,” he says. “They told me, ‘You are a diplomat. You once visited countries as a VIP and had diplomatic immunity. This means nothing to us. And we will prove it to you. Everything you have heard about the concepts of democracy, liberty, religious tolerance, and human rights -- you can throw them away,’” he says. He grabs a handful of air and pretends to toss something over his shoulder. “They said, ‘We are above the law. We have no limits. They call us the special ops. No one has power over us -- not even President Bush. If someone dies during interrogation, that is normal.’”
Nabil sits on a luggage rack in the hotel room and describes how soldiers kicked him, beat him, stepped on his ﬁngers, and doused him with ice water. His spine, he says, is now “crooked and twisted.” He lifts up a neatly pressed pant leg to show a red hole in his knee where an electrical wire had been inserted.
Today, he says, he still feels ashamed -- and tells no one -- that his mother-in-law was detained. “The ﬁrst thing that will come to their minds is that she was sexually assaulted,” he says. “As a man, I feel I should have defended her till my death.”
* * *
Many experts would say that such interrogations violate the Geneva Conventions. Nevertheless, a senior U.S. military ofﬁcial told reporters in a background brieﬁng on May 14, 2004, that the interrogations have reaped beneﬁts. “We have gotten some great information on additional terrorist threats in Iraq, on radical Sunni Islamists working with former regime elements and how that working relationship takes place,” he said. “And we’ve also gotten some key information on terrorists.” But Anthony H. Cordesman, author of a December 2004 Center for Strategic for International Studies paper, “The Developing Iraqi Insurgency,” says it hasn’t been enough. The military has stumbled in its efforts to gather even basic facts about the insurgency, Cordesman says, explaining that it has “failed to honestly assess the facts on the ground in a manner reminiscent of Vietnam.” According to information provided in a February 2004 International Committee of the Red Cross report, 70 percent to 90 percent of the detainees at Abu Ghraib had little or no intelligence value.
In some cases, the interrogators may have been asking the wrong questions. Victoria, the former bank director who was seized on August 11, 2003, says, “They asked me if I knew where the weapons of mass destruction are.” Like many of the former detainees I spoke with, she says someone -- an employee at her bank, she believes -- tipped off the U.S. forces about her.
“There was always pressure to get information, and some [U.S.] agents didn’t have much patience,” says David DeBatto, a 50-year-old former Army National Guard counterintelligence agent who was in Iraq from March through October of 2003. He is now a guest commentator on National Public Radio, FOX News, and MSNBC. “As soon as they got information,” he says, “they thought it was good. They wouldn’t verify it. Maybe they even embellished it a little.”
After I returned from Jordan last December, I received an e-mail from Tony Miller, a U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Command (CID) public-affairs specialist, in response to my questions about prisoner abuse. “CID is looking into the allegations of detainee abuses,” he wrote. “[But] we will not get into numbers and types of investigations.” When I ask Multi-National Force spokesman Barry Johnson about the sexual abuse of women at Abu Ghraib, he says, “There are no allegations of rape by any female detainees.”
I mention the stories I’ve heard and ask whether or not military investigators have tried to contact the women who have been released. “Well, we don’t really have a mechanism for reaching out and ﬁnding former detainees,” he says. “If we have allegations and they’re brought to us, we would open the case.”
I point out that it’s hard for them to talk about this.
“Certainly, there is a stigmatism in this culture when a female is detained or put in prison,” he says. “It has been an education for us to understand this. And when I know there is someone who is talking to people like you, I try to remind you that there are people at the [Iraqi] Ministry of Human Rights -- there are females there -- and they deal with detainees on a daily basis.”
What kinds of things have you heard from them? I ask.
“Well, frankly, I just don’t think there have been too many former detainees who have gone to them,” he says.
A high-level Senate staffer says the Department of Defense has “stonewalled” senators when they’ve asked about the sexual abuse of women at Abu Ghraib. “Most, if not all, of the female detainees have never been questioned about whether or not they were sexually assaulted or raped at Abu Ghraib,” she writes in an e-mail. “Therefore, as the [Defense Department] spins it, no allegations ‘surfaced’ so no corrective measures are needed.”
* * *
Are these former detainees exaggerating their abuse? Are they remembering things wrong? Worst, are they lying? They have a reason to hate Americans. Further, there might be ﬁnancial rewards for those who are plaintiffs in the lawsuit. As I was introduced to various “torture victims,” as members of their legal team describe them, and at other times during my trip to Jordan and since, I’ve wondered if I was being duped.
“How do you know they’re not lying?” I ask Sundus in an airy café as Alanis Morissette plays over the loudspeakers. At a nearby table, a tribal sheik eats pistachios and spits shells into a saucer. “When I sit in front of you, you don’t know if I’m telling the truth,” Sundus says. “But when you look into my eyes, you ﬁnd out. Of course, sometimes you get confused. It’s natural. But when you depend upon your feeling, you can tell.”
On my fourth day in Amman, I hired Ranya Kadri, a reporter and “ﬁxer” who works for the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, and The Washington Post, to translate my interview with Selwa. Kadri, a kickboxing aﬁcionado, has a reputation for being tough with customs ofﬁcials, nosy hotel butlers, and journalists (“John Burns is afraid of me,” she told me, speaking of The New York Times correspondent who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1997 for reporting on the Taliban).
Before the interview, she pulls me aside. “Are you sure she’s not trying to trick you?” she asks. “I’ve seen it happen before. They use fake death certiﬁcates and everything.” I sit with Kadri across a table from Selwa. After speaking for nearly two hours, Selwa steps out of the meeting room for a break. Kadri turns to me and says, “I believe her. She says she likes Saddam Hussein and things she knows she shouldn’t. She’s the real thing.”
Perhaps, eventually, an American court will decide. The more I thought about the lawsuit, the more it became apparent to me that a legal effort like this can serve as a magnet for people who might have hidden agendas. The members of the legal team have ventured into a treacherous environment: an occupied country at war with itself, where hatred of America runs deep and where the level of intrigue makes Casablanca look like a middle-school debating society. Burke et al. have had to assemble their team of investigators and their evidence as quickly as they could, amid danger and chaos, and without long expertise in the area. The pressure on them is not so unlike the pressure that was on the military contractors to generate quick and unambiguous results. It’s a possibility that in this sprawling coalition of trial lawyers, activists, and victims thousands of miles away, some uncomfortable truths could be revealed -- for example, that some of the women I spoke with actually might have known things that would have been of value to the U.S. military. And it’s a possibility that some of the actors in this drama, whether they’re working in Baghdad or in the United States, nurture visions of a future Iraq -- fundamentalist, or perhaps re-Baathiﬁed -- that would be repugnant to any liberal sense of justice and the rule of law.
But as long as the government fails to act on evidence that private contractors may have committed torture -- or, indeed, fails to come clean on how the policy that condoned torture was devised in the ﬁrst place -- the private lawsuit, however ﬂawed, may be the best legal recourse. A Democratic staffer on a Senate committee studying the issue says, “We don’t usually question tactics. But part of me thinks maybe we should. One of the big problems in Iraq was how we conducted the war. They were just nabbing everybody and then sending them to Abu Ghraib. It’s not surprising you have these results.” Human Rights First’s Hurwitz says, “We think the proliferation of reports -- from Taguba, Fay and Jones, and others -- has actually clouded the issue. Each of the authors has a tiny mandate. In the end, you don’t see the truth, which is how cruel and pointless the treatment of detainees has been.”
* * *
It’s a Saturday afternoon in Washington, and I’m on the phone with Mithal, who was held at Abu Ghraib. As Mithal says, she never had anything against Americans before they arrived. Now she does.
Her voice sounds scratchy, and I’m almost out of minutes on my prepaid calling card. I ask if there’s anything else she wants to tell me. “I am an Iraqi woman, and I refuse to allow an American or anyone else to occupy my land,” she says. “They told us they are going to give us liberty, and we have found something totally different.”
Tara McKelvey is a Prospect senior editor.
Copyright © 2005 by The American Prospect, Inc.
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