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Prisoners Released Amid Fear of Mass Re-Arrests
Issue Looms Large at Ceremony, Releasing 85 Prisoners from US-Run Prisons
By DANIEL W. SMITH 04/18/2009 3:51 PM ET
Photo: Yousif al-Timimi

BAGHDAD - On Thursday morning, 85 detainees were released from US detention facilities, at a ceremony held in western Baghdad’s Adel neighborhood. Before they arrived at the site of the Um Qura mosque, waiting families and the press were given strict guidelines by event security to keep behind a certain line, away from the ex-prisoners until an appointed time. As they filed in, though, loved ones rushed at them, and a chaos of tears and tight embraces ruled for a short time. Security forces did not intervene immediately, and it was an emotional scene.

The comments from the ex-prisoners started out as would be expected. One, named Yassir Talib Jassim, said, “After two years and nine months in Jail, I just hope that my little daughter will remember me.”

Another, named Muhammed Hussein spoke of his treatment in a US-run prison. "In general,” he said, the treatment was good, but we are detainees, after all. We were exposed to psychological warfare. As you know, Americans are the giants of that kind of war,” and would be no more specific.

Detainees getting off a bus
Photo: Yousif al-Timimi
Detainees getting off a bus
A third, Haron Tashid Nofal, said, Two years and four months I have been in jail, without knowing the reason. I was arrested when my house was raided by the American forces. I worked as a bus driver, and I was accused that I placed IEDs".

What he said next was surprising. “There are a lot other detainees who are at the airport right now. Their release orders were already issued, but still there for two months, waiting, because there are Iraqi warrants that demand to re arrest them, for some reason. The American army keeps them there, because as we learned, the Americans don't want them to be re-arrested.”

The United States military is in the process of releasing its some 20,000 remaining detainees in US-run prisons like Camp Bucca, near Basra, per the security agreement with Iraq. A topic which has often dominated Iraqi television and newspapers in the past two weeks is the re-arresting of many of these detainees by Iraqi forces, after they are transferred to the areas from which they came. In Mosul, many families have claimed their loved ones are being held by local police until large sums of money were paid to them, a simple case of extortion. In other provinces, it is more complex. Unknown numbers of detainees have been re-arrested, the “outstanding charges” often unclear. Iraqi media has reported individuals or groups of them being found dead afterward.

Photo: Yousif al-Timimi
The recent rash of bombings and other violence in Baghdad and other parts of Iraq has heightened fears that huge influx of prisoners into Iraq’s cities will reinvigorate the ranks of both insurgent groups like al-Qaeda in Iraq and also militias, namely the Mahdi Army. Thousands of prisoners rounded up by US forces in the past six years, whether originally guilty of crimes or not, could prove a challenge on many fronts, as they try to reintegrate into society. As US forces increasingly pull back, security forces led by the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki are seeming to act in an increasingly heavy-handed way, as in the case of recent crackdowns the Sahwa, also known as the Sons of Iraq. At least with these prisoners, returning to a Sunni neighborhood, the element of a Shi’a government hostile to members of a Sunni minority seemed similar to the public debate in Iraq over the Sahwa.

Sheik Ahmed Abdel Ghafour al-Samarraie, head of the Sunni Endowment, a powerful organization governing Sunni mosques and religious issues, told Iraqslogger, “We told the government that we will never allow them to re-arrest those who are released here.”

The concern that the prisoners might fall in with insurgent recruiters was evident in a speech he gave. "My sons, we love you. We want to find you job opportunities, and return to your families and brothers. However, I have the right to advise my sons, to avoid bad friends, and leave alone those who whisper, and want to shed blood by car bombs - those who kill the children and widow the women.”

Sheik Ahmed Abdel Ghafour al-Samarraie
Photo: Yousif al-Timimi
Sheik Ahmed Abdel Ghafour al-Samarraie
Major Kone Faulkner, a US military public affairs officer was present at the event. When asked about the re-arrests, he first switched topics, answering instead an unasked question concerning comments last week about the arrests by security spokesman Gen. Qassim Atta, which Atta has said were misquotes. (Atta later threatened to shut down Baghdad bureaus of two media outlets because of the quotes - one television station claimed he even threatened the lives of their staff, even though government sponsored newspaper al-Sabah printed them as well). When asked again, Faulkner said, of the re-arrests, “We fully support, if individuals are released and they have outstanding warrants, then they should - ,” then paused and began another sentence before he said the final word, presumably “arrested”. As with the Sahwa, American forces look to be walking a tightrope between the Iraqi government and other members of Iraqi society who might be targeted by them.

It was pointed out more than once at the ceremony that none of these detainees were being arrested again. In that fashion, the whole thing seemed at least partially a media event of damage control, in the wake of the controversy about the re-arrests. As the Iraqi public talks of prisoners being re-arrested and of others being found dead, now there is a fresh infusion of photos showing ex-detainees joyously returning to families (such as we have included). Still, these are real prisoners, returning to real families, and none we have spoken to have been detained or even questioned since.

Before they went home with their loved-ones, Samarraie finished his speech by saying, “We will keep working to release those who are still behind bars."


Ex-Prisoners Rejoicing
Photo: Yousif al-Timimi
Ex-Prisoners Rejoicing

Photo: Yousif al-Timimi

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