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Iraq’s al-Maliki accused of detaining hundreds of political opponents

By Roy Gutman, Sahar Issa and Laith Hammoudi, McClatchy Newspapers –

BAGHDAD — Iraq Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s security services have locked up more than 1,000 members of other political parties over the past several months, detaining many of them in secret locations with no access to legal counsel and using “brutal torture” to extract confessions, his chief political rival has charged.

Ayad Allawi, the secular Shiite Muslim leader of the mainly Sunni Muslim Iraqiya bloc in parliament, who served as prime minister of the first Iraqi government after the Americans toppled Saddam Hussein, has laid out his allegations in written submissions to Iraq’s supreme judicial council. Allawi, whose bloc is part of al-Maliki’s coalition government, demanded Wednesday that the prime minister grant the detainees legal counsel and due process.

Some of the confessions obtained under duress were intended to implicate Allawi in a supposed plot to foment violent unrest around the country, Allawi charged in a formal complaint to President Jalal Talabani earlier this month.

“Information has reached us that is beyond doubt regarding the brutal torture of our detainees in an attempt to extract false confessions from them, confessions referring to the general secretary himself,” Allawi wrote Talabani. “They are being made to confess that he has ordered armed demonstrators onto the streets to carry out violence.”

In a recent interview in Irbil, the capital of Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish region, Allawi said that Iraqiya leaders knew “from our own sources that they are being tortured in prisons and detention camps — one of them had his legs broken — and they’ve been denied access to their families, access to their lawyers.”

He said that 42 members of his political party, the Iraqi National Accord, had been detained: “Their wives, brothers and sisters have been flooding our offices. They want to know what has happened to their relatives, why they have been arrested, and they don’t know where they are.”

Allawi’s allegations were the second major broadside last week against detention practices under al-Maliki, who’s been the prime minister since May 2006.

London’s Guardian newspaper reported Monday on an extortion racket involving Iraqi state security officials who systematically arrest people on trumped-up charges, torture them and then extort bribes from their families for their release.

The wave of arrests of al-Maliki political opponents began in October, around the time it was becoming clear that talks on a continued U.S. presence in Iraq would fail.

The arrests targeted 600 supposed sympathizers of Saddam Hussein’s Baath party. But they continued through the end of the year, expanding to members of other political groups.

Al-Maliki’s official spokesman, Ali al-Dabbagh, didn’t respond to an emailed request for comment. His telephones went unanswered Thursday.

Western diplomats scoff at the idea that the arrests were aimed at thwarting a coup.

“This is just paranoia,” said one diplomat, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject. “It’s fantasy land.”

Salim al-Juburi, a member of the Iraqiya bloc who heads the Human Rights Committee in parliament, also disputed the government’s claim of a conspiracy against it. “That’s just an illusion. It’s just an excuse to carry out arrests nationwide as the Americans are withdrawing, and was a real attempt to target some politicians,” he said.

There’s little doubt that al-Maliki ordered the roundup, diplomats and analysts here say. Security forces that answer directly to the prime minister made the arrests.

Al-Juburi also said he had no doubt that those arrested since October had been tortured. “So many detainees have given false confessions under torture,” he told McClatchy Newspapers. “So many have been convicted of crimes they didn’t commit.”

Al-Juburi said he couldn’t provide a number for those arrested since October. He said many were being held in buildings that are under the Ministry of Interior, outside Iraq’s prison system.

Others said the number was much higher than 1,000, with Allawi putting the figure at “thousands.”

Another Iraqiya member and al-Maliki critic, Deputy Prime Minister Saleh al-Mutlaq, estimated that 1,500 people have been detained, while Sattar al-Bayar, who deals with human rights issues for Iraqiya, put the number at 1,800.

In a submission last week to Iraq’s supreme judicial council, Iraqiya listed 89 detainees by name, all of whom had been arrested late last year, and asked the council’s “assistance to know the location of their detention so that we may meet them and become their counsels according to the law.”

Those on the list were members of Allawi’s Iraqi National Accord, as well as of political parties headed by some of Iraq’s most prominent Sunni politicians, including Mutlaq and Vice President Tareq al-Hashemi, whom al-Maliki has accused of running an assassination squad and who’s sought refuge in the Kurdish region.

Bayar, Iraqiya’s human rights coordinator, told McClatchy on Wednesday that all of those on the list had been charged with terrorism under the country’s counterterrorism law. He denied that any of them were involved in terrorism.

In a letter to President Talabani earlier this month, Allawi charged that the detainees “have been stripped of all their legal rights in obtaining counsel and meeting their families.”

In earlier submissions, Allawi gave the names of another 36 people who’d been arrested and whose locations were unknown. The lists, all of which McClatchy has seen, were compiled using information from the families of the detained, al-Bayar and Allawi said.

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