With New Name and Mission, the Infamous Abu Ghraib Prison Is to Reopen

February 21, 2009By SAM DAGHER

BAGHDAD — The Iraqi government has renamed and partly renovated the infamous Abu Ghraib prison on the outskirts of Baghdad, and it plans to transfer about 3,000 convicts there shortly, the first to occupy the facility in any numbers since it was handed over by the Americans in 2006.

The government says it sorely needs Abu Ghraib — now Baghdad Central Prison — and other detention centers around the country being refurbished with American money because of overcrowding at prisons and continued threats to security, said Safaa el-Deen al-Safi, who was the acting justice minister for almost two years, until Thursday.

A former judge, Dara Noureddin, who was imprisoned in Abu Ghraib in 2002, was named the new justice minister. Mr. Noureddin, a Kurd, was freed in October of that year after Saddam Husseinemptied the prison ahead of the American invasion. Although Abu Ghraib was notorious under Mr. Hussein’s government as a place for torture and executions, it may forever be defined around the world by the images made public in 2004 of Iraqi detainees being abused and sexually humiliated by American soldiers and interrogators.

Some of the victims, who are now suing the American contractors that supplied interrogators and translators to Abu Ghraib when it was under American control, are opposed to its reopening as a prison and want instead to turn it into a museum to immortalize Iraqis’ suffering. Others say it should simply be razed.

But the Iraqi government is determined to operate it as a prison. “It’s not so easy for us to waste a state resource,” said Mr. Safi, who is also minister of state for parliamentary affairs and a confidant of Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki. “Yes, this prison has a bad reputation, but this is not an excuse in itself to demolish this prison, given that we need it.”

Mr. Safi said that renaming Abu Ghraib as the Baghdad Central Prison and changing its mission to rehabilitation would help remove some of the stigma.

Mr. Safi said that he personally oversaw the renovation of the cellblocks where the worst of the abuses were committed by American soldiers and contractors, and that the prison now had classrooms, a library, plots of land for gardening and hothouse farming, and workshops where inmates would be taught sewing, hairdressing and computer skills.

Abu Ghraib, designed by an American architect, Edmund Whiting, and built by British contractors in the late 1960s, occupies a site of nearly 280 acres about 15 miles west of Baghdad.

Mr. Safi spoke with pride about the Iraqi government’s ability to complete the limited renovation of Abu Ghraib for about $1 million, as opposed to the millions of dollars being spent by American government agencies on similar projects around the country.

Reading from a document on his desk, Mr. Safi listed American-financed prison renovations and projects in Basra, the Kurdistan region, Nasiriya and Ramadi at a total cost of about $100 million.

Mr. Safi said there were about 17,000 inmates in prisons under the administration of the Ministry of Justice, adding that this figure did not include those being held by the Ministry of Interior and other security organs of the government.

The American military is holding about 14,500 inmates as what it calls “security detainees.” Mr. Safi said their cases were being examined in batches of 1,500 for release or referral to Iraq’s judicial system, as called for in the security agreement signed between Baghdad and Washington in the fall.

Mr. Safi estimated that 5,000 of those in American custody would ultimately be convicted in Iraqi courts and sent to prison. That influx, in light of the already overcrowded Iraqi prison system, makes reopening Abu Ghraib all the more pressing, Mr. Safi said.

But the reopening is stirring unease among many Iraqis, who associate the prison not only with American abuses but also with a long history of government brutality and repression.

In a report issued in December that underscored those concerns, Human Rights Watch warned that long pretrial detentions and the prevalence of abuse in Iraqi prisons — including the coercion of confessions and arrests made based on testimony by secret informants — “show disturbing continuity” with the abuses of Mr. Hussein’s era.

Hassan al-Azzawi, who spent seven months in the prison in 2004 when it was under American control, said the reopening showed the government’s lack of commitment to reconciliation, or perhaps betrayed an intention to stuff the prison with its opponents.

Mr. Azzawi, 50, is among more than 300 former inmates suing two American contractors, CACI International and the Titan Corporation, for torture and abuse in American courts. The companies supplied the military with interrogators and translators.

Another plaintiff, who wished to be identified only by his first name, Asaad, because his case is pending, described in detail the tactics used by the interrogation teams.

He said he was made to stand for hours under a freezing cold shower until he collapsed. He was then dragged to the cellblock’s hallway, where he said he had to crawl naked on the hard floor as he was punched by guards and threatened with rape. Asaad, 36, said he was once shackled to his bed for more than a day.

“I am an average citizen, I have no say, but it is better to turn it into a museum,” Asaad said. “Horrible things happened in Abu Ghraib.”

Balkis Sharara cringes when she recalls how her husband, Rifat Chadirji, one of Iraq’s most prominent architects, was incarcerated there 30 years ago after being sentenced to life in prison for “economic sabotage” and “grand treason” after declining to work on a government-financed project.

“These were the darkest days of our lives,” she said by telephone from the couple’s home in Lebanon.

Mr. Chadirji, now 83, recalled hearing torture sessions nearly every night, and the execution in one day of 180 fellow inmates in the cellblock for political detainees. He was pardoned in late 1981 by Mr. Hussein, and the couple left Iraq for good the next year.