The Horrors of Abu Ghraib

Robert Alt

May 10, 2004

Baghdad, Iraq—The nine men were arrested on flimsy charges and sent to Abu Ghraib prison, where they were tortured and filmed for their captors’ sadistic amusement. The scars they bear will be with them for the rest of their lives—a term which turned out to be short for two of the captives. Their story is particularly shameful because it was the government that should have been protecting them that inflicted the injuries. Theirs is not a story ripped from the headlines, because their story made no headlines. These are just a few of the victims of Saddam Hussein’s Abu Ghraib.

In 1996, Saddam arrested and tortured nine men on suspicion of trading in foreign currency. At the time of their arrest, trading in money other than Iraqi dinars was a crime—or more precisely, it was a line of work Saddam reserved for his cronies. But like many things in Saddam’s Iraq, the law was not exactly black-and-white. As one Iraqi familiar with the case described the chaotic nature of regulation under Saddam, “a law would be passed one day, then another would amend it the next.” As a result of unclear law and the open operation of other currency exchanges, the nine men believed they were conducting a legal business.

Although Saddam was insufficiently public in his promulgation of the law, he made sure that his enforcement overcorrected for that error. In addition to detaining and torturing the men for eight months, he ordered their right hands cut off at Abu Ghraib, and demanded that a videotape of the mutilation be sent for him to view at his palace. Aside from providing Saddam with sadistic amusement, their mutilation was to stand as a living testament of what happens to those who dare compete against Saddam’s friends. This is the Abu Ghraib of Saddam Hussein, a prison that is rumored to have held as many as 400,000 people; a place where Iraqis were detained for crimes redounding to displeasing the dictator; a place where torture was the rule and not the exception; and a place that Iraqis feared worse than death itself. As Abu Ghraib survivor Ala’a Abdul Hussien Hassan explained, “I don’t believe that anybody can imagine what we’ve been through. We’ve been oppressed on all levels.”

In post-Saddam Iraq, however, the seven survivors have been given new lives, or at least new hands. Thanks to a public-private venture between the Coalition and American businesses, the men are currently at the University of Houston Medical Center, where they are scheduled to receive state-of-the-art prosthetics to replace that which Saddam took from them. When I met six of the survivors at a press conference last month in Baghdad, Mr. Hassan stood with his left hand grasping his right arm, and thanked all those involved for “returning a part of what we lost.”

But for fellow survivor Basim S. Ameer, there was greater importance in meeting with the press that day: he wanted the whole world to know about the injustice committed against him and his colleagues by Saddam. Yet the systematic torture of these and countless other men in Abu Ghraib and the 300,000 Iraqis in mass graves have proven less newsworthy than the ultra vires acts of a few American soldiers who abused Iraqi detainees. Perhaps this is because the world holds America to a higher standard—to a standard we proclaimed at our inception. America was founded upon the idea that men of every country retain certain fundamental rights not because of international conventions or the laws of particular nations, but because of their status as human beings. While this right to individual liberty does not permit, oh, say, planting IEDs, we are guided by the principle that the government and its military are responsible to its people and to the people’s laws even in responding to such licentiousness. We have not always achieved the perfection of these ideas, but for more than 200 years, this country and its founding ideas have been looked to as an example by the world. And so, those who hate us take glee in those moments when we fall short of our founding principles, while those who admire and emulate us look on in shock and disappointment.

The acts of the guards were horrible and newsworthy because they were contrary to our principles and our laws. We must therefore respond to the abuse in a serious manner, and not succumb to the requests for partisan insobriety. But in our rush for expiation, we must not lose sight of what it is we have done and are still doing in Iraq. In the regime we removed, atrocities were consistent with the governing principles. In the regime we removed, the whims of a tyrant were the law used to commit these atrocities. And in the regime we removed, cries of injustice from men like Basim S. Ameer never made headlines.

Robert D. Alt is a Fellow in Legal and International Affairs at The John M. Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs at Ashland University currently reporting from Iraq. You can follow his daily progress at No Left Turns.