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Former prisoners recount stories of abuse

Jails and PrisonsWars and InterventionsPrisoners and DetaineesDefenseArmed ForcesDeath

BAGHDAD, Iraq - When American soldiers released him from Abu Ghraib prison in December, Hashem Mohsen Lazim chose to stay silent about what had happened to him there.

He didn't tell his wife about standing naked and simulating sex acts with another inmate while a female American soldier laughed and sang songs. He didn't tell his mother about crawling on his hands and knees, also naked, while a male soldier rode him like a horse.

And he didn't tell his friends about being stacked into a pyramid with six other detainees, and forced to do it over and over again until their bodies stopped tumbling into a heap on the concrete floor.

"Who on earth would believe me?" Lazim said yesterday at his ramshackle house on the edge of Sadr City, the enormous slum on the eastern edge of Baghdad.

After photographs of the abuse were broadcast worldwide, Lazim broke his silence. He says he is one of the prisoners seen in the photos wearing a hood and forced to perform acts now acknowledged by American officials as degrading and sadistic.

Lazim's story of mistreatment cannot be verified in every detail. But his release papers show he was imprisoned at Abu Ghraib when the documented abuses occurred, October to December of last year, and his story closely matches that of another inmate, Hayder Sabbar Abd, who has also spoken publicly about his ordeal and has recognized soldiers in the photos.

"I was the first to welcome the Americans when they arrived," said Lazim, who is 34 and sold used tires on the street before the war. Since his release, he has joined the Iraqi police. "What they did to me is not human. The people who did this cannot be Americans."

Other former prisoners tell stories that are no less harrowing. A 28-year-old man who asked that he be identified only as Abu Anmar said he was pulled from his bed in the village of Baquba, an hour's drive northeast of Baghdad, on Jan. 5, stripped naked and hauled off to a nearby jail. He was accused of being a member of Saddam Hussein's militia, the Fedayeen.

Abu Anmar showed a reporter his release papers from Abu Ghraib and his prison identification bracelet, which also had his photo. Army officials confirmed that Abu Anmar had been imprisoned at Abu Ghraib.

The abuse that Abu Anmar said he suffered began long before he reached Abu Ghraib. He was hooded and shoved into a concrete wall after his arrest, he said, and then was whipped on his bare back. He said he had to be hospitalized when he was brought to a detention facility at Baghdad's airport.

Abu Anmar and Lazim offer a glimpse into the mostly hidden conditions that at least some Iraqi prisoners have endured since the United States toppled Saddam Hussein's regime.

Abu Anmar wasn't subjected to the same abuse that Lazim said he experienced. The two men were held at Abu Ghraib at different times, but each man tells of living in tents policed by guards who punished people harshly for slight infractions.

Lazim and Abu Anmar said the American-run detention camp at Baghdad's airport gave prisoners clean linens, fresh food and prompt medical attention. Both men condemned Abu Ghraib for what they said were assaults on human dignity.

Humiliation

Abu Anmar said the humiliation began the night of his arrest, when a soldier ripped off his underpants in front of his wife. He said that the soldiers mispronounced the word fedayeen and that it wasn't until months later that he realized he was being accused of participating in the outlawed militia.

He was put into a Humvee and driven to an old Iraqi military camp called Saad. There, he said, he was handcuffed from behind and repeatedly shoved into walls as soldiers laughed. Someone whipped him, he said.

The next day, he was transferred to the detention center at Baghdad's airport, where he said he arrived bloodied and bruised. "A soldier there asked what had happened to me and said that it wasn't right," said Abu Anmar, the father of a 1-year-old boy. "He told me it wasn't acceptable, and he put me in the hospital."

After 21 days, Abu Anmar said, he was taken to a facility in Tikrit, in northern Iraq, where he said a soldier threw him facedown to the ground, pressed his boot to the back of his neck and hit him in the back.

He said he was in one of three large cells, each holding up to eight inmates. He said he was forced to sleep handcuffed. "We weren't allowed to talk to anyone," he said. "The guards said we attacked Americans and that we were going to die."

After four days, he said, he was moved again, to Abu Ghraib. He was assigned to Camp 8 in a tent city. Each of the eight camps held 400 to 450 prisoners.

Abu Anmar said that he carried a sick friend to guards every day for a week seeking medical attention. "They told me he was just faking," he said. "Then my friend just collapsed and died. The guard waited for a while, and when it was obvious the guy was dead, simply dragged him away and threw him into a car."

The army has confirmed that it is investigating at least two deaths, one of them at the hands of interrogators, at Abu Ghraib.

Abu Anmar said the guard of his camp provided extra blankets, prayer books and food. But he said he never saw a magistrate or judge, and never learned the charges against him beyond the two words written on his identification bracelet: "weapons possession." He blames his arrest on an informant with whom he had argued and said no guns were found inside his home.

Harsh punishments

Abu Anmar said inmates paid a heavy price for minor infractions. He said he was caught wrapping a note around a stone and throwing it to a neighboring camp - a common way of communicating - and was handcuffed and forced to stand at attention for three hours.

He said prisoners who protested stale rice served for a Muslim feast were met with rubber-coated bullets. (An Army investigative report criticizes guards for using lethal and nonlethal rounds to quell unrest.)

When inmates were caught setting trash on fire to heat what he described as nearly inedible food, the prisoners were forced out of their tents and confined to a barbed-wire pen in the hot sun for hours.

"The experience was humiliating beyond what you could imagine," said Abu Anmar, who was released Wednesday. "It was as if the soldiers' job was just to punish us. They treated us like animals."

Lazim's encounter with the American detention system began on a hot August night when, he says, he was with some friends eating ice cream and sipping sodas on the street. He said he was carrying a small Iraqi-made pistol for protection.

The taxi he and a friend flagged down to take them home broke down, and a passing military convoy stopped and questioned them. Soldiers searched the car and found the gun, which Lazim had hidden under a seat. The cab driver said it was his; all three were arrested.

Lazim said soldiers accused him of being a member of the Fedayeen and checked his right arm for a tattoo of an eagle, the militia's symbol. Lazim has a tattoo on his right forearm - a heart and the word mother in Arabic.

He was taken to a local jail and then to the airport camp, where he spent 28 days, before being transferred to Abu Ghraib and assigned to tent Camp 4. A month later, he said, soldiers passed out two forms, a copy of the Geneva Conventions and blank paper for statements.

American guards chose an Iraqi prisoner from each camp to act as its monitor. Camp 4 was run by a man whom Lazim knew only as Raghib, who enjoyed showing off for soldiers in return for extra privileges. One time, Lazim said, Raghib slapped another prisoner in front of a soldier.

"The soldier walked up to Raghib and patted him on the shoulder and said, 'You're a good guy,'" Lazim said. "The man who was hit then rushed Raghib, and a fight broke out."

It took extra troops to quell the ensuing riot, Lazim said. Soldiers then forced each of the 400 inmates in the tent to slowly parade by them, he said. He said Raghib identified seven people as instigators of the fight, including Lazim, an accusation he denies.

The seven were herded into a single cell, handcuffed and then run into walls until their heads were bleeding, Lazim said. Still clothed and unhooded, they were piled on top of one another and kicked. Then they were forced to lie facedown while soldiers walked over them and stepped on their necks, Lazim said.

At one point, Lazim said, he stared too long at a guard - shown in photos wearing glasses - who then covered Lazim's mouth as if to suffocate him.

'It felt like years'

Then, Lazim said, the seven inmates were forced to stand in a line. Soldiers put black hoods over their faces and removed their handcuffs. He said he felt a knife slice through the collar of his blue prison jumpsuit and then felt the rest of his clothes being torn off. He said the soldiers wrote on their backs with markers.

"I felt a male soldier's hand touch my right hand and move it to my penis," Lazim said. "He did this three times. The last time, he moved my hand around and I felt that he wanted me to masturbate. It was a short time, but it felt like years."

One photo that has been printed shows a female soldier, a cigarette dangling from her lips, forming her hands in the shape of a gun and pointing to the genitals of one of three naked inmates. Lazim said he is one of them but cannot tell from the photo which one.

Next, Lazim said, the inmates were forced to stand in a small circle. Soldiers removed their hoods, one at a time, to give them a view of what was happening. Lazim said that he and two others were standing and that three other inmates were sitting between their legs, their heads pressed against the other's groins, simulating oral sex. He said the seventh inmate was masturbating against a wall.

While his hood was off, Lazim said, he saw a female soldier snapping photographs with a digital camera as others sang.

Next, Lazim said, the soldiers forced the seven to form a human pyramid. Four inmates were the base, two in the middle and one on top. Lazim said he was in the middle. The naked, sweaty bodies kept slipping, he said, sending the group crashing to the ground in a heap. He said the soldiers tried several variations before it worked.

Then, each inmate was ordered to crawl on the ground, still blindfolded. "If we stopped, we got kicked," Lazim said.

Finally, Lazim said, a male soldier straddled his back and forced Lazim to give him a ride like a horse. "He kicked me in the legs and let me crash into the walls," he said. He said each inmate was kept in solitary confinement and forced to remain naked for three days, sometimes handcuffed standing next to a bunk bed for hours at a time.

Lazim said that they were then returned to the tent camps - each assigned to a different area - and that he was released after a few weeks.

As a member of the Iraqi police force, he now carries a 9 mm Glock, issued by the Americans.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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Jails and PrisonsWars and InterventionsPrisoners and DetaineesDefenseArmed ForcesDeath
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