There Are a Lot More Abu Ghraibs Out There

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April 16 2014 4:35 PM

There Are a Lot More Abu Ghraibs Out There

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A suspected member of an insurgent group sits with his wrists bound along with other detainees at Abu Ghraib on May 18, 2010.

Photo by Ali al-Saadi/AFP/Getty Images

The Iraqi Ministry of Justice announced yesterday that it has shuttered the Baghdad Central Prison, the facility formerly known as Abu Ghraib. According to the ministry’s website, authorities have relocated the prison’s 2,400 inmates—including convicted terrorists—to other facilities in central and northern Iraq.

Justice Minister Hassan Shammari cited security concerns, noting that Anbar province (where the prison is located) has become a “hot spot” of Sunni insurgent activity. Last July militants attacked the prison and freed hundreds of inmates, among them al-Qaida-affiliated detainees. The Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant—which has also emerged as a key militant group in Syria—claimed credit for the breakout.

The prison, built by Western contractors in the 1960s, was a notorious torture center under Saddam Hussein. One journalist called it “a square kilometer of hell,” noting that the Baathist regime used it to hold and execute “undesirables” as well as criminals. An estimated 4,000 detainees died there during Hussein’s rule.

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The site is most infamous, of course, for the abuse that occurred there at the hands of U.S. occupying forces. The disturbing photos and videos that surfaced in 2004 revealed that U.S. Army and CIA personnel tortured, raped, sodomized, and killed prisoners.

The Department of Defense removed 17 soldiers from duty in response to the scandal. Eleven were charged with dereliction of duty, maltreatment, aggravated assault and battery, and were 11 convicted in courts-martial and sentenced to military prison. Not a single officer or civilian leader was held criminally responsible for the prisoner abuse, and five officers received administrative, non-criminal, punishment.

Closing Abu Ghraib is an important step for improving Iraqi security. It also brings a sense of finality to a dark tale of “recreational cruelties,” as Christopher Hitchens described the offenses. But it hardly eliminates prison abuse problems in Iraq.

As Amnesty International has reported, ill treatment is rife throughout the country’s prison system, at the hands of Iraqi forces. That 2010 report reads:

Even in the context of ongoing violence, there is no justification for keeping thousands of people in prisons and detention facilities without charge or trial, let alone keeping them like this for years. Many of the detainees have suffered torture and other ill-treatment by Iraqi security forces, and remain at risk of such abuses. Because of government complicity, tolerance or inaction in relation to such abuses, a culture of impunity prevails.

Moreover, closing Abu Ghraib ends but one chapter in a long, ongoing story of U.S.-managed “black sites” around the world. The detention facility at Guantanamo Bay which President Obama promised  to close in one of the first acts of his presidency, is the best known example. But under Obama, the CIA has maintained a secret facility in Somalia and has been known to interrogate people on U.S. naval vessels to avoid accountability. Although Obama ordered an end to his predecessor’s torture policies, his administration has not closed all of the facilities in question and continues to use the controversial practice rendition to deal with some suspected terrorists.

It is right to praise the Abu Ghraib shutdown as a step in the right direction, and Iraqis are undoubtedly glad to wash their hands of the site. But although it may be an opportunity to declare one case closed, what that closure should really highlight is the sea of similar cases yet to be fully documented.

Anna Newby is a Slate intern.