Citing security concerns, on April 15, the Iraqi government reported the closure of the notorious torture prison, Abu Ghraib. In the week prior to closure, 2,400 inmates were reported to have been moved to other prisons in Baghdad or Jamjamal Prison in the Kurdistan Region, where conditions are reported to be better, if not compliant with human rights standards.
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Shawki Ahmed Omar, an American-Jordanian prisoner, held without due process in Iraq for almost 10 years, “disappeared” around the time the others were transferred. Repeat requests for information on his whereabouts by his family have fallen on the deaf ears of the Iraqi authorities; the US authorities claim to know nothing as well.
Omar was arrested by the US military in Baghdad with his Iraqi wife in 2004 as part of counterinsurgency operations. Held and tortured at a number of US torture prisons across the country, including Abu Ghraib at the height of the prisoner abuse scandal there, his wife was also tortured into making false confessions. The US accused him of terrorism-related offenses and recruiting for al Qaeda, but it took many years for his case to be referred for trial. Brought before an Iraqi court in 2010, in a trial for which no charges were listed, and without legal representation, due to miscommunication between the court and his counsel, he was instead convicted of illegal entry to the country. He maintains he entered the country lawfully, but could not contest the claims as his passport had been confiscated when he was arrested by the US military. He was sentenced to 15 years in jail, mitigated to 7 years upon appeal in 2011 by the Iraqi Supreme Court.
In February 2013, days before Guantánamo Bay prisoners commenced similar mass action, Omar went on hunger strike, an action he maintained until August 2013 to the detriment of his own medical and physical condition. He was protesting his ongoing incarceration in spite of having served his sentence; having been held for 9 years by that point; and the harsh conditions of detention, such as torture, overcrowding and lack of due process in Iraq’s jails.
His family was told by the Iraqi authorities that they had not taken the years he spent in US custody into account and that he still has 3 years of his sentence left to serve. They were also informed that the authorities do not intend to release him after that, as he will then face fresh prosecution for the terrorism-related claims made in 2005.
The hunger strike has had a considerable impact on the health of the 54-year-old and left him weakened and suffering new illnesses. He was not seen by a doctor throughout and has never been seen by an independent doctor to check or verify his claims of torture.
Held at the maximum-security Al-Karkh Prison in Baghdad (formerly Camp Cropper), he “disappeared” weeks after ending his hunger strike in September 2013. In November, the family were contacted by the Red Cross to inform them that he was in Baghdad Central Prison, as Abu Ghraib had been renamed by the Iraqi government. Used as a torture facility for dissidents under Saddam Hussein and insurgents under US occupation, with a new name and cosmetic refit, the Iraqi government reportedly kept up the tradition of torturing prisoners there.
Omar was held in solitary confinement during his first two months at Abu Ghraib, where he was when the Red Cross visited him in November 2013. Inmates at Abu Ghraib were not allowed to see doctors or to have medication, even if they supplied their own. Omar had his taken away from him. Prisoners held at Abu Ghraib were also not allowed to have any family visits or make telephone calls. Previously, Omar was allowed at least one call a month to his family.
Following a raid last summer, in which gunmen freed over 500 prisoners and others were killed, conditions for prisoners became even harsher. Other prisoners’ families have reported that their family members have been tortured without interrogation, denied medication, given food unfit for human consumption and forced to remain in their cells.
Omar was moved to a cell shared by 18 men with adequate room for seven only. Cells are reportedly windowless, and since last July, prisoners have not been allowed to leave them even to exercise for fear of further attacks from outside. Cell inspections were also carried out, on average, 7 to 8 times each day during both the day and night, and more frequently in some cases.
In addition to notice by the Red Cross in November 2013 that Shawki Ahmed Omar was still alive, the only other correspondence the family has had is a letter he wrote in October 2013, which was delivered by the Red Cross in February 2014. In it, he tells his family that he is unwell: “My health is really bad, [been] throwing [up] blood for the last 3 months; my blood pressure is very high, and they took all the medication from me.”
Throughout his 8 months at Abu Ghraib, the Iraqi authorities have refused to comment on his situation, and the US authorities have failed to adequately monitor it. In November 2013, Amnesty International launched an urgent action for Shawki Ahmed Omar, stating, “He should be released immediately, as he has served his sentence.” The group also demanded his legal status be clarified by the Iraqi authorities.
Desperate for any information about his situation, earlier this year his family launched a petition to the Iraqi ambassador to the United Kingdom asking for information about his well-being and demanding his release. With reports of other Abu Ghraib prisoners having been transferred and seen at other prisons, including another American-Jordanian national detained in similar circumstances, but no news – official or otherwise – on Omar’s whereabouts, that desperation has gone one step beyond.
Rather than admit to its mistakes and those of its US predecessor, the Iraqi authorities are instead punishing prisoners, like Omar, for an arbitrary situation they have allowed to spiral out of control. In the ever-precarious and volatile situation in Iraq, his family fears the worst. The Iraqi authorities must at a minimum disclose his whereabouts to his family and the US authorities, and the US authorities must step up their half-hearted quest for answers.