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'That hooded prisoner is me'

Ian Fisher interviews Hayder Sabbar Abd, who is at the centre of an explosive scandal over American mistreatment of Iraqi prisoners.
'The Americans told us about democracy and freedom ... then they did this to us'

Ian Fisher in Baghdad
Thursday May 6, 2004
The Guardian

The shame is so deep that Hayder Sabbar Abd feels he cannot move back to his old neighbourhood. He would prefer not even to stay in Iraq. But now the entire world has seen the pictures, which Mr Abd looked at yet again on Tuesday, pointing out the key figures, starting with three American soldiers wearing big smiles for the camera.

"That is Joiner," he said, pointing at one male soldier in glasses, a black hat and bright blue rubber gloves. His arms were crossed over a stack of naked and hooded Iraqi prisoners.

"That is Miss Maya," he said, pointing to a young woman's fresh face poking up over the same pile.

He gazed down at another picture. In it, a second female soldier flashed a toothy "thumbs up" and pointed with her other hand at the genitals of a man wearing nothing but a black hood, his fingers laced on top of his head. He did not know her name. But the small scars on the torso left little doubt about the identity of the naked prisoner.

"That is me," he said, and he tapped his own hooded, slightly hunched image.

Mr Abd, 34, is at the centre of an explosive scandal over American mistreatment of Iraqi prisoners but he remained calm in a detailed, two-hour account of his time at the fearsome Abu Ghraib prison. He claimed he was never interrogated and never charged with a crime. Officials at the prison said they could not comment on his case.

In November, when the abuse took place, few Shia Muslims like Mr Abd were carrying out attacks against US forces. Nearly all the attacks were blamed on forces loyal to Saddam Hussein, mostly Sunni Muslims, and fighters from other Muslim countries.

"The truth is we were not terrorists," he said. "We were not insurgents. We were just ordinary people. And American intelligence knew this."

Mr Abd spoke with no particular anger at the US occupation, though he has seen it closer than most Iraqis. In six months in prisons run by US soldiers, he said, most of them treated him well and with respect.

That changed in November when punishment for a prisoner fight at Abu Ghraib degenerated into torture. That night, he said, he and six other inmates were beaten, stripped naked (a particularly deep humiliation in the Arab world), forced to pile on top of each other, to straddle each others' backs naked, to simulate oral sex. American guards wrote words such as "rapist" on their skin in marker pen.

The curiosity, through much of the ordeal, was the camera. It was a detail he mentioned repeatedly as he recalled being forced against a wall and ordered by the Arabic translator to masturbate as he looked at one of the female guards.

"She was laughing, and she put her hands on her breasts," Mr Abd said. "Of course, I couldn't do it. I told them that I couldn't, so they beat me in the stomach and I fell to the ground. The translator said, 'Do it! Do it! It's better than being beaten.' I said, 'How can I do it?' So I put my hand on my penis, just pretending."

All the while, he said, the flash of the camera kept illuminating the dim room that once held prisoners of Saddam, recording images that have infuriated the Arab world and sullied Amer ica's image in a country more willing these days to think the worst of their occupiers.

"It was humiliating," Mr Abd said in Arabic through an interpreter. "We did not think that we would survive. All of us believed we would be killed and not get out alive."

Though the pictures tell their own story, the details of Mr Abd's account could not be verified. But a military official said the prisoner number that Mr Abd gave, 13077, matched that of a former prisoner who submitted a sworn statement alleging abuse by US soldiers. He also said that the man's account was consistent with those verified by a military investigator. Several episodes Mr Abd recounted also matched, in some detail, testimony given by other US soldiers horrified by what they saw.

But Mr Abd's account differed in one crucial way from the substance of a report by Major General Antonio Taguba. While the report says military police inside the prison often mistreated prisoners in order to help military intelligence officers gain information during interrogations, Mr Abd said his case appeared to be punishment for bad behaviour, in this case a prison fight.

Mr Abd is a slight, bearded man, the father of five children, a Shia from the southern city of Nassiriya. He said he served 18 years in the Iraqi military, for a time in the Republican Guard, Saddam's elite troops. But he said he deserted several times and was demoted to the regular army, where he was serving when US troops invaded Iraq in March 2003.

He was arrested last June at a military checkpoint, when he tried to leave the taxi he was riding in. He was taken to a detention centre at Baghdad airport, he said, and shortly after was transferred to another big military prison in Umm Qasr, near the Kuwaiti border. He said he stayed for three months and four days.

The treatment in Umm Qasr, he said, was very good. "There was no problem. The American guards were nice and good people."

After the three months, he said, he was transferred back to Abu Ghraib, a sprawling prison complex 20 miles west of Baghdad, where Saddam incarcerated and executed thousands of enemies of his regime.

But after the prison fight, Mr Abd and six others were pointed out by the victim to US guards, and at that moment his time in prison turned.

Mr Abd said that he and the other men were handcuffed and taken inside the prison to a cell block called "the hard site", which was reserved for the most dangerous prisoners. There he saw, for the first time, an American soldier called "Joiner or something". (Mr Abd does not speak English. The man he pointed out in the picture as Joiner has been identified in other reports as Specialist Charles Graner, of the 372nd Military Police Company.)

"In my pocket, I had three cigarettes," Mr Abd said. "Joiner said to me, 'Put them in your mouth and smoke all of them. If one falls out of your mouth, I will crush you with my boot'."

The command came through the translator, an Egyptian known by the prisoners as Abu Hamid. In an area in front of the cells, he said, were "Joiner", the translator and two other male soldiers, one bald and one with reddish hair and complexion. He said there were two women: the one whose name he did not know, and the one with the camera, whom he knew as Miss Maya.

"I had no choice," Mr Abd said. "I smoked all of them."

The seven men were all placed in hoods, he said, and the beating began. "They beat our heads on the walls and the doors," he said. "I don't really know: I couldn't see."

He said his jaw was broken, badly enough that he still has trouble eating. In all, he said, he believed he received about 50 blows over the course of about two hours.

"Then the interpreter told us to strip," he said. "We told him, 'You are Egyptian and you are a Muslim. You know that as Muslims we can't do that.' "When we refused to take off our clothes, they beat us and tore our clothes off with a blade."

It was at this moment in the interview that several pages of the photographs made public last week were produced - photographs that Mr Abd first saw when a military investigator came to visit him in January, and which are now broadcast every few minutes on Arab news channels as proof of American brutality in Iraq. He had been through this before, and he quickly and unemotionally pointed out all his friends - Hussein, Ahmed, Hashim - naked, hooded, twisted around each other.

He also saw himself, as degraded as possible: naked, his hand on his genitals, a female soldier, identified in another report as Private Lynndie England, pointing and smiling with a cigarette in her mouth. In the prison, Mr Abd said, one of the soldiers removed his hood, and the translator ordered him to masturbate while looking at Pte England. He refused, was beaten, then did what he could.

Then, he said, his friend Hussein was pushed up toward Mr Abd's genitals.

"They made him sit next to me," he said, adding that he had been rehooded. "My penis was very close to his mouth. I did not know it was my friend because of the hood."

One of the photographs shows what appears to be this exact scene. In testimony in April, Specialist Matthew Carl Wisdom, a military police officer who witnessed part of the incident, remembered that the naked prisoner on the floor did not have his hood on. Spec Wisdom's testimony, like Mr Abd's account, cited seven detainees in the room. He was clearly shocked at what he saw.

"I thought I should just get out of there," Spec Wisdom said, according to documents from an April 2 military court hearing. "I didn't think it was right."

Mr Abd said it was then that the soldiers began piling the men on top of each other, and taking lots of pictures. Three or four times, he said, the soldiers made them pile up in pyramids. Twice, he said, the soldiers made some prisoners kneel on the ground as others straddled their backs. (Spec Wisdom's testimony put the body piles before the forced masturbation.) At one point near the end, Mr Abd said, "Joiner" grabbed the prisoners' hoods as if they were leashes. "He said, 'When I whistle, you bark like dog'," Mr Abd said.

Finally, after an ordeal of what Mr Abd believed to be about four hours, it was over.

The soldiers removed the beds from their cells, he said, and threw cold water on the floor. The prisoners were forced to sleep on the ground with their hoods still on.

"I was so exhausted, I fell asleep," Mr Abd said. "These were the same walls where Saddam Hussein used to interrogate people. We thought we would be executed."

But the next morning, he said, doctors and dentists arrived on the ward to care for their injuries. Beds and pillows were brought back in. They were fed. Everyone was nice, Mr Abd said. Then at night, the same crew with "Joiner" would return and strip them and handcuff them to the walls.

About 10 days after it started the nightly abuse ended, for no explained reason. "Joiner" just stopped coming to the cell block, and about a month later, Mr Abd and two others among the seven were transferred to a civilian Iraqi prison in Baghdad.

Two weeks or so after that, a US military investigator came to visit him. He showed Mr Abd the pictures and said he needed him to make a statement against the military police who had mistreated him. Mr Abd trusted him.

"He said, 'Don't be afraid. Tell us what happened. We are on your side'," Mr Abd remembered.

Mr Abd was finally released in mid-April.

"I can't tell you my feelings," he said. "The Americans got rid of Saddam Hussein. They told us about democracy and freedom. We are happy about that."

But then he tapped the photographs again.

"Then this man did this to the seven of us. I am asking: Is that democracy? Is that freedom?"

homepage: homepage: http://www.guardian.co.uk/Iraq/Story/0,2763,1210507,00.html