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Prison Cells Tell of Saddam's Repressive Regime

Prison Cells Tell of Saddam's Repressive Regime

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BASRA, Iraq (AP) -- The evidence is in the scars, stories and memories of the maimed. The proof is in the cattle prods, branding irons, meat hooks and manacles made purely for pain, which was often a prelude to death.

In cities and towns across Iraq, U.S.-led military forces and local Iraqis are looking at the hard, cold, bloodstained evidence of what human rights organizations have been saying for years: Iraq had the world's most sadistic system of state-sponsored torture.

In Basra, a putty-colored compound once run by Iraq's internal security police has become, like other such torture chambers, an unholy shrine for people who survived a stay here, and to those who didn't.

"I am very happy today, like I have been reborn," Karim Kadem, a 27-year-old man who returned on Thursday to see the place where he was imprisoned for two years. "I thought I would die here."

Human rights groups have criticized Pentagon plans to use Iraqi jurists for tribunals on Iraqi human rights crimes precisely because of places such as this one. Iraqi courts have been "instruments of repression rather than impartial judicial institutions," said the New York-based Human Rights Watch.

"The U.S. government can't solve this problem by offering some technical assistance to the Iraqi judicial system," said Richard Dicker, director of the group's International Justice Program.

"That system needs to be rebuilt from the ground up."

Of course, many prisoners never made it to court before they were imprisoned, tortured, or summarily executed, often for such small infractions as failure to join Saddam Hussein's Baath Party.

In Nasiriyah on Wednesday, U.S. Marines cleared out a security complex equipped with wooden stocks -- contraptions to restrain the head and hands -- and a crude electric chair powered by a hand-cranked generator.

Other objects, like a long steel rod, made the Marines' imaginations run wild. They also found photos of badly burned bodies.

Numerous photos of women and children were found in torture chambers. Rape was a principal form of torture, human rights groups say, with prisoners sometimes being forced to hear tape recordings of their screaming wives being assaulted.

The British military on Monday took Basra, Iraq's second-largest city, and uncovered the sort of chambers of horror troops are finding elsewhere. The victims of such treatment were mainly, though not exclusively, Kurds or Shiite Muslims suspected of having taken part in the 1991 uprisings against Saddam that followed the first Persian Gulf War.

The seven-story compound here, known as "White Lion," was shelled by British forces and local Iraqis have been combing through the crumbled compound ever since, looking at files, fingerprints and other documents for evidence of people who went into custody, but never came out.

Other visitors included those who made it out alive, telling tales of eyes gouged out, acid baths and agonizing, midair suspensions by leather straps -- the latter evidenced by the rusty rings stuck in the ceilings.

"It was a place of evil," resident Hamed Fattil said.

"They used to strap a leather cord around our head, hands and shoulders and hoist us two feet off the ground. Then they would beat us as we hung there," he said. "They did unthinkable things -- electrocution, immersion in a bath of chemicals and ripping off people's finger and toenails."

Kadem said he was accused of opposing Saddam and the party. Five other friends arrested with him were either killed or blinded. He has permanent injuries to his arms; he can no longer lift them fully.

Kadem said he returned to the prison to exorcise his fears.

"I wanted to see the place. I wanted to relieve my heart of the bad memories," he said.

Fluttering in the debris were hundreds of handwritten documents about inmates who had been imprisoned or executed. Many former prisoners who came to the site were combing through the rubble for their dossiers.

In one set of documents found on the grounds, authorities detailed the capture and subsequent execution of one Habib Ali Hassan, a 20-year-old student accused of "frequent visits from suspicious people." His picture, clipped to the file, showed a young clean-cut man in a white shirt and tie. He was killed in 1983.

One older man, who identified himself only as Ali, lifted his shirt to reveal the scars on his back -- from jailhouse beatings, he said. He was arrested in 1991 for participating in Shiite ceremonies.

Asked if he was happy Baghdad had fallen, he nodded his head, then stopped to whisper: "Saddam may kill me."

(Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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