Ten years after the first publication of photos from inside the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, we speak to Al Jazeera journalist Salah Hassan about his torture by U.S. forces inside the facility. To date, no high-ranking U.S. official has been held accountable for the torture at Abu Ghraib, but Hassan and other former prisoners are attempting to sue one of the private companies, CACI International, that helped run the prison. “Throughout my detainment in the solitary cells, there was an interrogation every two or three days,” Hassan says. “During these interrogations, we were subjected to many psychological and physical torture methods. One of these methods was that you are kept naked, handcuffed, the hood on your head, then they would bring a big dog. You hear the panting and barking of the dog very close to your face.”
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
AMY GOODMAN: It was 10 years ago last week when CBS News first broadcast photographs of American soldiers and contractors torturing and sexually humiliating prisoners in Iraq. The New Yorker soon published a story on its website called “Torture at Abu Ghraib” by Seymour Hersh. The photos from inside the prison shocked the world. One showed a hooded Iraqi man standing on a box with his electrical wires attached to his outstretched arms. Another showed a U.S. soldier holding a leash attached to the neck of a naked prisoner. Another photograph showed a U.S. soldier giving the thumbs up while posing next to the body of a dead prisoner.
At the time, the Bush administration condemned the abuse as the work of a “few bad apples.” A few low-ranking soldiers were sentenced to prison, but none of the contractors involved with running the prison were prosecuted. No high-ranking military official was held responsible, and reparations were never paid to the Iraqi prisoners.
Today we bring you the story of one former prisoner in his own words. Salah Hassan was detained in November of 2003 while working as a journalist for Al Jazeera in Iraq. He’s now a plaintiff in a lawsuit filed by the Center for Constitutional Rights against the private contractor CACI International, known by many simply as CACI. According to the lawsuit, employees of CACI working at Abu Ghraib allegedly threatened Salah Hassan with dogs, deprived him of food, beat him, and kept him naked in a solitary cell in conditions of sensory deprivation. I spoke to Salah Hassan last week. He was in Doha, Qatar, where he still works for Al Jazeera. I began by asking about when he was first arrested.
SALAH HASSAN: [translated] First, I would like to thank you for giving me the chance to meet with you and discuss an issue that is 10 years old. Of course, the place where I was arrested was the district of Diyala, north of Baghdad, about 10 years ago. This was the first place of arrest. After that, I was moved from one place to another ’til I ended up in Abu Ghraib prison.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you explain, Salah, who arrested you? And then describe what happened to you at Abu Ghraib.
SALAH HASSAN: [translated] Actually, it is assumed that the people who arrested me in the district of Diyala are from the American Army, but I cannot really differentiate if they are truly individuals from the Army or from private security companies, because most people there used to wear military outfits and without military ranking insignia/badges that might have clarified their affiliation to the Army or other institutions.
AMY GOODMAN: Where were you arrested? Can you talk about what you were doing at that time, and even before you made it to Abu Ghraib, where you were taken?
SALAH HASSAN: [translated] Of course. This is the main point of this issue. The issue is that I am a journalist, and I was at my workplace covering the events in the district of Diyala, north of Baghdad. It is my duty to cover events in the field and on the ground, as well as political events. So my arrest happened while I was doing my journalistic duty. There was an explosion in that area. I went to that place to try to take some photographs and gather information about this incident. After I was done with all this work, I was surprised that a man in a military uniform ordered my arrest. After that, I was moved from one station to another. The first of these stations was in the same district, Diyala. Then I was moved to another airport that is used as a military base, also in Diyala district. Then I was moved by helicopter, alone, to another district, which is the district of Salahuddin located north of Diyala district. Of course, I was kept in each of these stations for a day or two. And from the last station, I was moved to Abu Ghraib prison.
AMY GOODMAN: Were you hurt? Were you injured in this time by those who had captured you?
SALAH HASSAN: [translated] The helicopter moved me from Diyala to Salahuddin, then from Salahuddin to Abu Ghraib by military trucks. Of course, I was subjected to a lot of hurt and harm during this period, being moved from station to station. The simplest thing was being very tightly handcuffed and having my legs restrained with metal iron chains. They also left me in tiny rooms with no food or water. They also verbally abused me throughout my detainment in all these stations.
AMY GOODMAN: Did they understand, Salah Hassan, that you were a journalist with Al Jazeera?
SALAH HASSAN: [translated] Of course they know I am a journalist with Al Jazeera. And their knowledge is solid since I could not have worked in the district without getting permission from the American forces that were present in the district. There was a media office, and we provided this media office with all the names of the crew, and the office gave us special permit cards for media coverage. So they do know me well. Also, I have previously worked with them, and I have previously gone to this media office more than once. There was an officer in the American forces, who was the liaison for the journalists who worked in this district. So, consequently, I was not at all a stranger to them.
AMY GOODMAN: Salah Hassan, describe what happened when you first came to Abu Ghraib.
SALAH HASSAN: [translated] The details are many, in reality. I cannot summarize it or limit it to a few short minutes. But for me as a journalist, this was a huge shock. I did not expect it at all that a journalist would be treated in this manner. I have many friends from America, and I know that the American society does not allow or accept these kinds of behavior and that this behavior would be coming from people who do not believe in democracy or who have a lot of problems. Consequently, what happened in Abu Ghraib was very difficult, an extremely big shock.
As soon as I arrived to the prison, they ordered me to strip off all my clothes. And as you know, we, in an Oriental, Eastern society, and taking off all of our clothes in the culture is a very difficult issue, which the people of this area cannot bear. This is an issue related to honor and to family and community values. This was the first issue that I was subjected to in Abu Ghraib prison. I remained without clothes, I remember, from 5:00 p.m. to 5:00 a.m. of the following day.
AMY GOODMAN: Was a hood placed or a plastic bag placed over your head?
SALAH HASSAN: [translated] Yes, I had a black hood on my head, and my hands were tied upward, and I remained in this state for long hours. I had medical issues in my stomach. Some excretion was going out of my mouth involuntarily and falling to the ground. But all of this was of no consequences to the guards in the prison. On the contrary, they were laughing. And even at midnight or after midnight, I heard some people singing, in English, of course, “Happy Birthday, Al Jazeera.” The message is clear: You are with Al Jazeera, so you will celebrate your birthday here, or something of this kind.
AMY GOODMAN: Were you forced, Salah Hassan, to stand for many hours at a time, hooded, naked?
SALAH HASSAN: [translated] Of course. I was helpless and could not object or not comply because, as military men, they had more power than me. They forced me. At the beginning, when they asked me to take off my clothes, I refused, of course, and told them, “I will not take my clothes off.” They said to me, “You either take them off yourself, or we will take them off for you.” Then I realized they are serious, so I started taking off some pieces like my pants and shirt, but they insisted that I strip completely. I told them it is impossible and I cannot take off all my clothes. They said, “You either take them off, or we will.” So I had to take off all my clothes, timidly, the hood on my head. I put my hand to cover my genitals, very embarrassed. These were very difficult moments. I transformed, in a second, from a journalist on the ground who has a social status and people look at me in a certain way—I have my familial and social values and status—to a humiliated person stripped down forcefully, very naked, helpless. This was a huge shock in these moments. These were the first hours of getting into the Abu Ghraib prison. And, of course, there are more details from the following days.
AMY GOODMAN: The secretary of defense, Donald Rumsfeld, famously said in a memo, when the description of people being held for hours at a time standing, that he stands at his desk for 11 hours, he doesn’t call that torture. Could you respond to this, Salah Hassan?
SALAH HASSAN: [translated] Well, I can stay standing in the street for a whole day on my own volition. There is no problem there. But when I am forced to stand in this humiliating manner, without clothes, hooded and handcuffed, I believe this is a different situation. It is very different.
AMY GOODMAN: That was Salah Hassan, an Al Jazeera journalist who was jailed at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. When we come back, we’ll hear more of Salah talking about how he was psychologically and physically tortured, and we’ll speak with the Center for Constitutional Rights about their lawsuit against the private contractor CACI International, or CACI. This is Democracy Now! We’ll be back in a minute.