Appalling conditions of women prisoners disputed

Conflicting opinions exist within the Iraqi government on how female prisoners are treated. According to the Iraqi Minister of Women’s Affairs and local NGOs, female prisoners in Iraq are held in appalling conditions, often without charge, and are sometimes raped and tortured.

“We don’t know the exact number of female prisoners but there are many being held in different prisons - even though the [other ministries in the] government and US forces deny it. They are afraid of a counterattack from the country’s conservative society,” Faten Abdul Rahman Mahmoud, Minister of Women’s Affairs, said.

Sarah Abdel Yassin, spokeswoman for the Baghdad-based Organisation for Women's Freedom (OWF), said she agreed with the minister and had met many women who had been tortured in Iraqi jails.

“The Ministry of Interior, [Ministry of] Defence and US forces are denying that there are female prisoners in Iraq but we have enough proof that they are there and that they suffer daily humiliation,” said Yassin.

However, other government ministries either deny the existence of women in Iraq’s jails altogether or say that there are very few and that they are held in humane conditions in special prisons.

“It is true that sometimes women are taken for some questioning in our departments, to help us, but they are always released after the inquiry and never held in prisons,” Muhammad Fareed, information officer at the Ministry of Interior, said.

“However, women charged in criminal cases, which are very few, are held in special prisons with all their human rights guaranteed,” he added.

Emily Greene, a spokeswoman for the US military in Iraq, told IRIN that they had no information about women being held in Iraqi prisons. The ones that had been held for investigation by them had all been released months ago and no torture had occurred, she said.

“Detainees in multi-national forces’ custody are treated humanely and in accordance with international standards and the principles of the Fourth Geneva Convention,” said Greene.

Women’s affairs minister Faten rejected these and the interior ministry’s assertions and said she was urging the judiciary to carry out an extensive investigation into the conditions in which women are being held in Iraq’s jails.

She added that the problem is countrywide though most women in prison were arrested during raids in the Anbar and Baghdad governorates on suspicion of assisting insurgents.

Terrifying experience in jail

Samira Abdallah, 38, was released from an Iraqi prison a month ago after being held for four months. As she was hooded when she was brought to the prison and hooded when she was released, she has no idea where the prison was. After a terrifying experience in jail, she fears for the other women who are still there.

“We were around 20 women, most of them from Fallujah or Ramadi like me, in one cell. I was praying all the time and thank God I wasn’t raped, but the guards hit me many times, trying to get information about insurgents in Anbar,” Samira said.

“I am a woman who never goes out from my home. My life was to cook and clean for my husband and children and they were accusing me of being a terrorist,” she said, as tears rolled down her cheeks.

When she was released without charge, she found out that her husband had been killed by the Iraqi army and she said that her eldest daughter had been raped by a soldier.

“Hania [Samira’s 16-year-old daughter] was so ashamed of what happened that she committed suicide. Now, after being held without any proper investigation or reason, I only have my seven-year-old son and no husband and daughter,” she said.

Yassin from OWF said she has spoken to many women who turned to her organisation for help after torment in Iraqi prisons.

“There were different stories but all of these women were sad and humiliated. Cases of beatings and rape were the most common,” she said.

Hadija Zeidan, 36, was one such woman who sought out the OWF. She said she and other women were tortured while in prison.

“Every day I was taken for interrogation by soldiers. Sometimes they were Iraqis and sometimes Americans. Some of them tried to sexually abuse me but God protected me because each time they tried someone superior to them came and forced them to take me back to the cell,” Zeidan said.

"But I was tortured. The most common thing they did was to beat me with their belts all over my body and hit me in my face. They knew I had nothing to do with the insurgency but they were just angry with me because I come from Anbar [a Sunni-dominated area where insurgency is believed to be stronger than anywhere else in Iraq]. I still have pain in my abdomen caused by the kicks to it with their boots,” she said.

Zeidan went to the OWF because she could not find her family in Baghdad when she was released two months ago, as sectarian violence had driven them from their home. “My life is totally destroyed and for sure my husband will think that I was raped in prison and might even try to kill me or divorce me for honour,” Zeidan said.