BAGHDAD -- Sad, tired eyes peer out from behind the bars of Kadhimiya Prison. The pleas are desperate:
"I swear I am innocent."
"The criminal investigators raped us."
"I have been here eight months, and I have not seen a judge."
Nearly 200 women, some with their toddlers and infants living with them in their cells, are imprisoned in Baghdad's only detention facility for females. Murder suspects bunk with women charged with petty crimes. Some don't know why they were arrested.
"We consider all of them innocent - innocent until proven guilty," said Abdul Qadir, legal adviser to Iraqi Vice President Tariq Hashimi. "They have constitutional rights that should uphold their treatment."
But in a country mired in corruption, the protection of constitutional rights is elusive. Some women report that their lawyers have been killed en route to the prison. Others claim that judges have been bribed.
A Los Angeles Times review of nearly three hours of video footage - shot inside the prison and provided by Hashimi, who is leading a call for protecting prisoners' rights and establishing a credible justice system - suggests the problems are deep-rooted and systemic.
The ministries of Justice, Information and Human Rights denied repeated requests by the Times to visit the prison.
"It will cause contradiction and controversy," said Ibrahim Bhussho, deputy minister of Justice, who oversees prisons.
"People will start questioning the human rights and whether they're guilty or not. ... I can guarantee you there are no human-rights violations. We had four or five accusations, but after investigating they turned out not to be true."
But tales of injustice and inhumane treatment are plentiful in letters from female inmates, and evidence gathered by members of parliament and human-rights activists indicates that the problems begin the moment a woman is detained.
"This is not acceptable in any war in any time," says inmate Suad Aziz Abbas, a former elementary school principal with 30 years of government service, in one of the videos.
She and her daughter, a college student and newlywed, were charged with murder and sentenced to life in prison. Their arrests came as Abbas was searching for her only son, an oil engineer, who went missing in 2004. She had sought help from the Ministry of Human Rights and elsewhere, she said, to no avail.
When intelligence officers from the Ministry of Information called to say they had her son, she immediately went to see him - only to be arrested. Whom Abbas and her daughter were convicted of killing is unclear; prison officials did not respond to questions about her case.
"They told me to sit down and shut up and don't ask any questions," Abbas said as tears rolled down her face. "They looted my house. They stole everything. They sentenced me to life in prison without any eyewitness, without any evidence. I don't know the killer or the victim."
Her son had been dead for a year, a fact she learned only after receiving a report from the morgue. He had been tortured and his body burned.
In a confidential memo to Midhat Mahmoud, head of the Iraqi Supreme Judicial Council, Hashimi's chief of staff asked that Abbas' case and several others be reviewed. Mahmoud did not respond to the Times' questions about the Abbas case or other allegations from women who said they were raped, beaten or otherwise abused.
One woman told Hashimi she confessed to murder because she was tortured by investigators.
"They threatened to rape me," she said. "They stripped me naked, and they tortured me with electricity and other devices. I admitted it after all this torture."
The women's allegations are rarely investigated.
Wijdan Salim, minister of human rights, said the women often come forward after too much time has passed. In other cases, their injuries are not documented properly - a problem she is trying to remedy by hiring a female doctor to work at the prison.
"We are pushing the judicial council; we are pushing the Ministry of Information," Salim said. "We are trying to have crime documents to work in a better way. Everything will be better step by step."
But more often than not, the women have little recourse, said Hania Mufti of the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq.
"There are numerous complaints and little action," she said. "There still remains very little political will to hold people criminally liable on torture."
In the rare cases where action is taken, Mufti said, the punishment is administrative, not criminal, such as a suspension or termination of police officials or prison guards.
Bhussho denied any problems, saying he could "count on my fingers" the claims of torture and abuse: "If the prisoner has any complaints, she has rights, and we will send it to an investigator."
The only problem Bhussho acknowledged: the delays within the judicial system, an issue he said he does not control. Under Iraq's constitution, detainees must see a judge within 24 hours of arrest. During that hearing, a judge determines whether to move forward with the charges, and the investigation process begins. But it is routinely months or longer before a woman faces a judge to learn her charges, and there are no consequences for missing the 24-hour window.
After the buildup of U.S. troops in Iraq in 2007 and the bolstering of security around Baghdad, the delays have gotten even worse, Bhussho said, adding that he has urged the judicial council to speed up the process and hire more judges.
Qadir said the delays were not limited to the initial court appearance. Investigations take months, as does the process of releasing detainees who have been cleared.
Kimi Yoshino writes for the Los Angeles Times.