Red Cross Denied Access to POWs
By Ed Vulliamy
Sunday 25 May 2003
Up to 3,000 Iraqis - some of them civilians - believed to be gagged, bound, hooded and beaten at US camps close to Baghdad airport
The United States is illegally holding thousands of Iraqi prisoners of war and other captives without access to human rights officials at compounds close to Baghdad airport, The Observer has learnt.
There have also been reports of a mutiny last week by prisoners at an airport compound, in protest against conditions. The uprising was 'dealt with' by the Americans, according to a US military source.
The International Committee of the Red Cross so far has been denied access to what the organisation believes could be as many as 3,000 prisoners held in searing heat. All other requests to inspect conditions under which prisoners are being held have been met with silence or been turned down.
There is circumstantial evidence that prisoners are being gagged and hooded, in the manner of the Afghans and other captives held at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba - treatment in itself questionable under international law.
Unlike the Afghans in Cuba, there is no doubt about the status of these captives, whether PoWs or civilians arrested for looting or other crimes under military occupation: all have the right, under the laws of war, to be visited and documented by the International Red Cross. 'There is no argument about the situation with regard to the Iraqi armed forces and even the Fedayeen Saddam,' said the ICRC's spokeswoman in Baghdad, Nada Doumani.
'They are prisoners of war because they have been captured during a clear conflict between two states. If they served in the armed forces or in a militia with distinctive clothing which came under the chain of command of one of the warring states, they are protected under article 143 of the Geneva Convention.'
The ICRC has gained access to prisoners held in camps at Umm Qasr in the south. But with regard to the larger numbers reportedly held in Baghdad, said Doumani, 'we are still waiting for the green light, more than a month after the end of the conflict. This is in breach of the third Geneva Convention.' She said the laws of war should give the ICRC access 'as quickly as possible'.
The airport camps are also said to contain many hundreds of civilians detained for looting, who, Doumani said, 'do not fit into the category of prisoners of war, according to the Americans'.
Civilians held, she said, have similar rights because they have been detained by an occupying power, which the ICRC insists the Americans to be, even if they do not use those words of themselves.
'Civilian prisoners under a military occupation have the right to be visited and documented,' she said, 'and for their next-of-kin to be informed. Hundreds of families are looking around Baghdad for members of their families who have gone missing and are believed to have been arrested. They are being taken somewhere, but no one knows where.'
A US military source said a mutiny occurred at the beginning of last week at one compound at the airport zone - for the most part a sealed-off area and the site of some of the heaviest civilian casualties as the Americans surged into the Iraqi capital.
The rebellion was 'dealt with' by the US authorities, said the source, with no confirmation or denial of deaths.
Witnesses to the camps are few, since no Iraqi prisoners taken to them have been released. But a cameraman for the France 3 television channel, arrested at the Palestine Hotel, did manage a glimpse. Leo Nicolian has documentation signed by a Lieutenant Brad Fisher saying he was wrongly arrested (and beaten, with a black eye to prove it) for the alleged theft of a bag from an American reporter.
He was held at the tennis court compound along with, he said, about 50 other prisoners, and told he was detained 'for investiga tion'. On his way out, Nicolian said he passed a bigger encampment in which he saw 'hundreds of men' hooded, with their arms tied behind their backs.
A worker for a non-governmental aid organisation, who asked not to be named, told The Observer that he saw men in a similar state aboard a truck, apparently in transit from one place to another. The aid worker said he managed to video the scene.
Doumani said there was no specific wording in the Geneva Convention on the American practice of hooding and gagging, but that the law did specify that prisoners be treated humanely. 'We have to assess what is humane,' she said.