Of the package of three laws which finally made it through the Iraqi Parliament last month, the amnesty law was the one most important to the Sunni leadership. It emerged in its final form after months of haggling, and serious questions about its scope and applicability. When it was passed, I warned that we wouldn't know its real significance until we saw how it was implemented: in a spirit of national reconciliation, or in a spirit of sectarianism. The first official figures on the prisoner release have now been released, and they make for some potentially troubling news.
The good news: Supreme Judicial Council spokesman Abd al-Sattar al-Birqadar today announced that in less than a month the number of prisoners released under the amnesty law has now reached 13,860, with about 5354 prisoners judged to not merit release under the terms of the amnesty. This is approaching a respectable proportion of the total prisoners in Iraqi jails, usually estimated between 20-40,000 (nobody seems to know for sure) - many of whom have never been charged or tried, and who complain of all kinds of abuses. It does not include the 23,000 prisoners which the United States maintains in its own prisons (which is itself 45% higher than a year ago as a little-noticed component of the surge strategy).
The bad news: according to the breakdown by province published on this Iraqi website, the Shia appear to be benefitting disproportionately from the amnesty. Because the chart does not identify the sectarian affiliation of those released, I am using majority-Sunni provinces and majority-Shia provinces as a proxy, which is not perfect but seems reasonable (let me know if you don't think this is a reasonable proxy, of course). I left out the two Baghdad jurisdictions, as too mixed to offer any useful proxy, and Kirkuk for the same reason. The Kurdish provinces have refused to participate in the amnesty despite the objections of Tareq al-Hashemi and are not included in the chart.
According to the chart, Shia-majority provinces have seen 7,058 prisoners released and 1,163 rejected. Sunni-majority provinces have seen 923 prisoners released and 862 rejected. That means that 88% of the prisoners released have come from Shia-majority provinces, and that 86% of the files reviewed in Shia-majority provinces result in release compared to 52% in Sunni-majority provinces. Considering that it is generally assumed that Sunnis make up a large majority of the population of these prisons, the disparity becomes even more glaring. If these figures are accurate, then it appears that the implementation of the amnesty is going to stoke rather than assuage sectarian tensions.
Again, a few warnings. These numbers do not include the two Baghdad courts, which might follow a different pattern, or might not. The chart itself might be a fabrication, even though it comes out at the same time as the official announcement - the website does not offer a source, and someone could be spreading disinformation to fan sectarian resentment. The identities of those in prison might not neatly map on to the provincial court which reviewed the files. Some provincial courts might move more quickly and efficiently than others, and the Sunni-majority provinces might catch up. But for now, if the numbers are accurate and the proxy is reasonable, then the amnesty does not appear to be shaping up the way that the advocates of national reconciliation had hoped.
PS - sorry nothing on Basra right now - soon, hopefully. But Reidar Visser is always a good source for all things Basra, and he has some thoughts.