"An increasing number of Iraqi detainees are refusing to leave detention centres despite being eligible for release because they want to complete studies begun behind bars, a US general said on Sunday. In the last three or four months we have begun seeing detainees asking to stay in detention, usually to complete their studies," Major General Douglas Stone told a news conference in Baghdad." -- AFP, March 23, 2008
"U.S. commanders in Iraq have begun releasing thousands of detainees and expect to free more than half of the 23,000 held by American forces, according to senior military commanders. The moves are part of a broad effort to reshape the military's controversial detention policies, in part because the large number of Iraqis in U.S. custody is a source of public anger there." -- Wall Street Journal, April 18, 2008
Must be finals week.
Seriously, I've been consistently skeptical about US claims on behalf of the reformed prisons. The surge and related tactical adjustments included a sizable roundup of young Sunni men (some 23,000 at least), some from insurgency groups and many not. It's sounded like General Stone has tried to improve prison conditions, and education beats sexual humiliation, but that only goes so far. The idea floating around many news stories and press releases that the prisons were actually good for the US hearts and minds campaign has always baffled me. Generally, across cultures, people don't like being arbitrarily arrested and detained and kept from their families for years... even if it's "for their own good" and no matter how good the schooling. Funny, that.
The release of Bilal Hussein shows that the US has wisely decided (at least in one high profile case) to avoid a potential sovereignty challenge buried in the amnesty law, which called on the US to respect Iraqi decisions but couldn't force such agreement. But the focus on Bilal Hussein has actually obscured the far more important issues surrounding the amnesty.
It has been hard to make sense of some of the information coming out about the implementation of the amnesty - which is, of course, what matters most. A few weeks ago, I noted some troubling discrepencies in the reported numbers, suggesting that prisoners in Shia-majority jurisdictions were being released at a far greater rate than were prisoners in Sunni-majority jurisdictions. That was about a third of the way in to the implementation. Since then, as my sharp commenter Thomas S. has been following, the numbers reported out have continued to grow at a remarkable rate: 33121 at last count according to court spokesman Abd al-Sattar al-Belqadar. If those numbers are accurate, then given the high proportion of Sunni prisoners there must be a lot of them being released no matter the sectarian imbalances.
On the other hand, there has been very little reporting in Arabic or English about those amnestied prisoners coming home. I just haven't seen many stories about joyful reunions, accounts positive or negative of prison experiencs, or anything else - which doesn't mean it isn't happening, especially since bad news tends to lead and since there's been so much going on of late, but it's still noticable.
Some of the Sunni insurgency-friendly sites and forums have claimed that released prisoners are being murdered by Awakenings men on their release, but that reporting is sketchy and fragmented. Much more significantly, Tareq al-Hashemi's Islamic Party has publicly questioned the veracity of those numbers, claiming that despite the large reported numbers only a handful of prisoners have actually been released and that those who should be released because they have been in prison more than a year without trial are not being processed. The Islamic Party also continues to complain about the Kurdish region's refusal to implement the amnesty law (they are still thinking about it). Sadrists also complain of being mistreated in the process, charges with Belqadar rejects but which are nonetheless out there in the public realm.
One of the very few English-language reports I've found is this brief account from Ben Hallman in the American Lawyer:
One rule of law topic that I've been meaning to bring up is the Iraqi amnesty law, which was passed in February. This is a big deal here. Any Iraqi-held prisoner, and there are officially about 30,000, qualifies for amnesty unless he is accused of one of a handful of what Americans would call capital crimes, such as murder and rape. Also, if a detainee has been held for six months without seeing an investigative judge, or 12 months without seeing a trial judge, he qualifies. (Many Iraqi detainees have been held for years without seeing a judge.) On my return trip from Rusafa, I sat in the back of an armored vehicle with a U.S. Department of Justice official who is charged with helping the Iraqis implement the law. A few hundred prisoners have been released under the law, he said, but there are challenges. To apply, a prisoner, or a family member, or a lawyer needs to fill out the proper paperwork. An early problem: Police were selling the forms, or simply refusing to distribute them. There are also sectarian concerns -- a Shiite prisoner might receive preferential treatment over a Sunni, or vice versa. An Iraqi review committee is currently looking at thousands of applications and case files to determine who qualifies. Meanwhile, the trial courts have ground to practically a stop.
This is indeed a big deal, and it still could go either way. This amnesty has been a leading demand of the Sunni parties and of the wider Iraqi Sunni community. It is arguably the piece of reconciliation legislation which could have the most tangible and direct effect on the lives of most ordinary Sunnis (in particular). Its equitable implementation could offer a serious boost for national reconciliation and could conceivably rebound in the favor of the current Sunni political parties in provincial elections if they are held. And of course there are risks. It could also put a sizable number of hardened, bitter young men back on the streets to fuel insurgency or sectarian war (as in this Iraqi Hezbollah editorial with the title "Released prisoners return to terrorism") I'm hoping that they get it right, and I'm hoping that we'll see some good reporting on this soon.
* title lyric source (by request): Talib Kweli, "Hostile Gospel Pt 2 (Deliver Us)", Eardrum (2007).