Image: Prisoner hands via Shutterstock)
Sunday, 06 October 2013 By Aisha Maniar,
It is almost a decade since stories and images started to emerge of the torture and abuse of prisoners by the US military and the CIA at the Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad, Iraq, in 2003 and 2004. Photographic and video images showed the physical and sexual torture of prisoners. As with many other episodes of prisoner abuse in Iraq by the United States and its allies, there have been few prosecutions over the past decade. For some prisoners involved, the persecution continues.
One such prisoner is Shawki Ahmed Omar, who marks his ninth year of detention in Iraq in October. Shawki Omar and his wife were arrested in October 2004 amid the growing insurgency, US counter-insurgency and spiraling violence across the country, leading to the arbitrary detention of many. The couple was taken to the Camp Nama detention facility near Baghdad Airport, where they were held and tortured. His wife, who was pregnant at the time, was released after 16 days. Camp Nama was, according to The New York Times, “the first stop for many insurgents on their way to the Abu Ghraib prison a few miles away,” where he was also held. Later, he was held at Camp Bucca and Camp Cropper, also torture facilities where he may have been subject to the forms of abuse shown in the notorious prison photographs.
In many ways, his story is similar to that of thousands of other prisoners of the multinational coalition force in Iraq (MNF-I). The difference is that Shawki Omar, 53, is an American-Jordanian dual national. Married to an Iraqi national, he claims he moved to Iraq to look for work in the reconstruction industry; the US military accused him of being an associate of Abu Musab Al Zarqawi, the alleged leader of Al Qaeda and the insurgency in Iraq, and of “harboring foreign fighters intent on engaging in jihad.” One such foreign recruit, upon his release to his native Jordan, signed a court-certified statement retracting statements he had made against Mr. Omar, stating he had been tortured into doing so.
Omar was never charged by the United States, which instead sought to have his case transferred to the Iraqi courts. Given the very real risk of torture if he was handed over to the Iraqi authorities, his family filed a successful motion to have his transfer suspended by the US courts. In 2008, in a case combined with that of another prisoner, he won an important ruling when the US Supreme Court ruled that American citizens held abroad by a multinational force could challenge their detention in US courts through a writ of habeas corpus. US courts, however, cannot prevent their handover to a foreign jurisdiction. In July 2011, he lost his habeas case in the US Court of Appeals, as the court accepted US government assurances that he would not be “likely to be tortured if transferred to Iraqi custody.” A week later, on July 15, 2011, he was handed over to the Iraqi authorities, under whose control he remains.
Classified an “enemy combatant” and accused of involvement in terrorism by the MNF-I in 2005, it was years before Shawki Omar’s case was even referred for trial. In 2010, he was served notice of a court appearance without any charges listed; the hearing scheduled for July was then changed to June without his lawyer being informed. He thus appeared in court without legal representation or any paperwork. Once there, he discovered that the charges against him, for which he was given a 15-year conviction, were related to illegal entry to the country. This was the first time he had heard about this; his identity documents were confiscated when he was arrested in 2004 and have never been returned. Following an appeal by his lawyers, in February 2011, the Iraqi Supreme Court reduced the sentence to 7 years. Throughout this period, he continued to be held in US custody.
Shawki Omar was handed over to the Iraqi authorities exactly five months before the US withdrew its military forces from Iraq at the end of 2011. Camp Cropper, where he was held by the United States, is where he remains under its new name of the maximum-security Al Karkh Prison. The conditions of his detention under Iraqi authority are no better. The Human Rights Watch 2013 World Report cites ongoing torture, abuse and prolonged arbitrary detention in Iraqi prisons. This summer’s jail breaks, allegedly by Al Qaeda freeing more than 500 prisoners in a serious of coordinated attacks, have made already harsh conditions even worse for inmates. Being an American citizen is also a disadvantage.
In view of increasing harassment, growing abuse of prisoners at Al Karkh and the fact that he had completed his 7-year sentence two years earlier, Shawki Omar went on hunger strike on February 4, 2013, just days before prisoners at Guantánamo Bay started their mass protest. He ended his protest at the beginning of August. The effects of the hunger strike have been devastating to his health, which has steadily deteriorated since. He has not been able to eat normally and is often unable to hold food down. He has also been considerably weakened, and existing medical conditions have been exacerbated as a result. In spite of this, he has not been seen by a doctor at all; as far as the prison authorities are concerned, he chose to go on hunger strike and must suffer the consequences. Throughout his detention, Mr. Omar has never been seen by an independent doctor to verify or check his claims of torture.
His wife, Narmeen Saleh, would like to see the US authorities take responsibility for his case, stating the country has a duty to care for “the well-being of its citizens held in foreign prisons.” Every month since he started his hunger strike, she and her 8-year old daughter, hold a lonely, poignant vigil outside the US Embassy in London. The little girl has never met her father. Support from the US Embassy in Iraq has been noncommittal throughout. Mr. Omar last met embassy officials in May, although the prison authorities have also tried to restrict communication. The Iraqi authorities have not taken the years he spent in US custody into account; earlier this year, they informed his family that he still had 4 years left to run of his sentence. They were also informed that authorities do not intend to release him after that, as they will then prosecute him for the original terrorism-related accusations made in 2005.
Over the past 9 years, Mr. Omar has been deprived of anything with the least semblance of due process. Torture, inadequate legal and medical representation, and indefinite arbitrary detention are fairly standard procedure in Iraq. The question has been posed: How would the US respond if another state were to treat one of its citizens the way it treats foreign prisoners at Guantánamo Bay? For the past nine years, Shawki Ahmed Omar, and his treatment by both the US and the Iraqi authorities, has given us a shocking answer to that question.