Iraqi abuse known to world long before U.S. public, says international law expert

Civilians victims of international human rights violations

Leila N. Sadat, an expert on international law and international war crimes tribunals and a professor of law at Washington University in St. Louis, is closely following the growing Abu Ghraib prison abuse scandal. Sadat says that unlike most people in the U.S., she heard about the abuse while working with Iraqi lawyers in Dubai in February. Sadat is vice-president and co-director of Studies of the American branch of the International Law Association and is the author of the leading treatise on the international criminal court, “The International Criminal Court and the Transformation of International Law: Justice for the New Millennium,” as well as a co-author of a casebook on international criminal law. Her comments on the Abu Ghraib abuse follow:

“The story of abuse at Abu Ghraib prison is shocking, and certainly requires a full investigation, and perhaps the criminal prosecution of some of those either directly or indirectly responsible,” says Sadat. “However, one thing the story is not, is new.

Leila Sadat
Leila Sadat

“While leading an International Bar Association training program for Iraqi lawyers, judges and prosecutors in Dubai in February, I saw a story on CNN International which reported that 17 soldiers had been relieved of command due to allegations of torture and abuse. Moreover, the Iraqi lawyers, judges and prosecutors with whom I was working, told me personally that Occupation authorities (it wasn’t clear who in particular) were detaining individuals without charging them, were torturing individuals held in the prisons, and were causing people to “disappear” without leaving any trace of their whereabouts. Most of those detained, according to Iraqi sources, were ordinary civilians, not soldiers or insurgents. These stories have now been confirmed by the report recently released by the International Red Cross, which states that certain Coalition Forces military intelligence officers told the ICRC that in their estimate between 70% and 90% of the persons deprived of their liberty in Iraq had been estimated by mistake.”

Sadat notes that several of the Iraqi lawyers stated that they tried to obtain access to the prisons in order to represent those held there, but had been refused.

“These are clear violations of both international humanitarian law and international human rights law, says Sadat. “Just as the United States argued last spring that the Geneva Conventions of 1949 forbade Iraqis from feigning surrender, or parading U.S. soldiers on television, those same international treaties impose binding obligations on the United States of America to treat prisoners of war with dignity and respect. In particular, they forbid the use of cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment, as well as torture, rape, and murder. Particularly as most of those detained by coalition authorities appear to be civilians, to the extent that the crimes are either systematic or widespread, they may even constitute crimes against humanity, in addition to grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions.”