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MP says Iraq holds thousands in secret prisons

Still from Al-Dainy's secret prison video used in an award-winning British documentary film

Thousands of Iraqis are being detained illegally in 420 secret government-controlled places of detention, an Iraqi parliamentarian claims.

Sunni opposition MP Mohammad Al-Dainy is in Geneva to meet United Nations and Red Cross officials to request help to investigate "massive human rights violations" in Iraq.

"These centres of detention are completely illegal. No one can visit them. The conditions are much worse than in the official prisons," Al-Dainy told journalists in Geneva on Thursday.

The MP said that since 2006 he had gained access to 13 such prisons, three of which were jointly controlled by the US and the Iraqi government, to document human rights abuses.

He added that he had obtained government reports that proved the existence of a secret network of locations.

His investigations and video footage were used as part of a hard-hitting documentary film, "Iraq: The Death Squads" by director Deborah Davies, which won the prestigious British Royal Television Society Award for International Current Affairs in 2007.

Al-Dainy believes 26,000 people are currently detained in Iraq by US forces. On top of this, 40,000 people are being held in 37 official government-controlled prisons, but the MP believes this is only "one quarter of the total number being held" in Iraq.

"In one secret prison I visited, hundreds of prisoners were crammed into each of the six rooms," he recounted. "There are all kinds of people, men, women and children – in one prison there was 23 minors."

In Al-Dainy's disturbing video footage, several detainees recount their torture at the hands of police commandos: nails ripped out, burns, beatings and rape.

"They forced us to talk by raping us," said one man, who claimed to be an imam.

"The reason he confessed was to save his family who were brought before him. He was told to choose between either confessing to murder or seeing his family raped. Despite the fact he confessed, he himself was raped twice," said Al-Dainy.

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Yassin Hiyat, an Iraqi governmental representative in Geneva responsible for human rights, told swissinfo that this was "the first time" he had heard about secret government-controlled prisons.

According to a United Nations report, some 51,000 people were detained by US forces and the Iraqi government at the end of last year. The report said some abuse had reportedly taken place during initial interrogations when detainees were held at pre-trial detention facilities, including police stations.

In its 2008 annual report, Amnesty International said reports of torture and other ill-treatment of detainees - including minors - by Iraqi security forces, particularly Interior Ministry forces, were common.

It said as in previous years, the government had announced investigations into specific allegations of abuse by Iraqi security forces, but failed to make public the outcome, adding to concerns that impunity was widespread.

"We raised the issue a couple of years ago that we were concerned that security forces under the Ministry of Interior may be responsible for abuses," said Amnesty spokeswoman Nicole Choueiry, adding that it was extremely difficult to confirm Al-Dainy's charges of secret places of detention.

The Swiss-run ICRC presently visits some 19,000 detainees held by US forces and has requested access to government-controlled places of detention in Iraq, but a global visit accord has still not been finalised.

ICRC spokeswoman Dorothea Krimitsas said she was unable to confirm or deny Al-Dainy's allegations of secret places of detention.

"We do not know. We only have access to three places of detention under the control of the Iraqi authorities," she said.

"We receive allegations from people who are arrested and whose whereabouts is unknown," she declared. "For security reasons we cannot access all places of detention."

Investigation failure

Al-Dainy complained that the normal process for investigating rights' abuses "was not working", as officials wanting to visit places of detention were not being granted permission.

"The United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI) has a human rights representative in Iraq but their role is weak and they are nonexistent," he added.

The MP wants the international community to intervene and is calling for the re-appointment of the UN Human Rights Council Special Rapporteur for Iraq to investigate human rights violations.

This week he met representatives of the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and a number of human rights non-governmental organisations.

Al-Dainy is also urging the creation of an ad hoc international tribunal to investigate human rights abuses – both past and present. "The judicial system is ineffective," he added.

The MP said he was risking his life travelling to Geneva to reveal these facts. Eleven members of his family had been killed in 2006 due to the work he carried out uncovering the secret prison, Dyalah.

"I'm an MP and this puts me in danger. I'm going back to Baghdad and it will not stop us. It makes us go forward to discover more," he said. "I am here as a parliamentarian who wants the suffering in Iraq to end and to ensure that the Iraqi people can live in safety."

swissinfo, Simon Bradley in Geneva

In brief

US military officials say violence in Iraq is at a four-year low. Despite the drop, attacks are continuing daily in Iraq.

On Thursday, a car bomb exploded near a market in northern Baghdad, killing one person and wounding five, police said.

The blast occurred about a half hour after a roadside bomb went off near a police patrol in eastern Baghdad, wounding six people, including three policemen, officials said.

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Iraq - what next?

A Security Council mandate, which concludes at the end of this year, forms the basis for the US military presence in Iraq.

US and Iraqi officials are currently negotiating a post-2008 status-of-forces agreement. The current draft, hammered out in months of talks, would have US soldiers leave Iraq by December 31, 2011, unless the two governments agreed to an extension for training and supporting Iraqi security forces.

The agreement appeared to be finalised as late as last week, until Iraqi leaders said they were seeking several changes to the text. Washington is now reviewing the proposals.

The proposed deal comes against a backdrop of growing pressure from Iraqi public opinion and from Iraq's powerful majority-Shia neighbour, Iran, for the departure of US and other foreign forces.

The draft agreement, if implemented, will cover the length of the US troop presence and legal protections for US soldiers in Iraq. It would also prevent the US military from continuing to hold Iraqi suspects without charging them with crimes under Iraqi law. Once a text is finalised, it must be sent to parliament for approval.

The British Defence secretary said on Tuesday that British troops were on track to complete their "mission" in Iraq early next year, hinting that this should allow a substantial withdrawal of Britain's 4,000 troops there.

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