The scandal over abuse at a U.S. military prison in Iraq is unfolding in a region where governments routinely employ torture, psychological abuse and secret detentions of common prisoners and political detainees, according to numerous U.S., U.N. and private surveys.
Human rights activists say the long history of prisoner abuse and torture in the region makes the images of American troops at Abu Ghraib prison physically and sexually humiliating Iraqi prisoners all the more devastating to the campaign to improve civil liberties and government accountability across the Middle East.
“People in the Middle East relied on the United States to be the lead nation opposed to this kind of treatment,” said Tom Malinowski, advocacy director for the Washington office of Human Rights Watch.
“The people who are feeling the most fear about [Abu Ghraib] are the people sitting in prison cells in Saudi Arabia and Egypt,” he said.
Abderrahim Sabir, U.S. spokesman for the Paris-based Arab Commission for Human Rights, said the revelations coming out of Abu Ghraib prison will have “tremendous negative effects” on efforts to combat much larger systematic abuses in other countries in the region.
“Just in terms of lobbying other countries over prisoner treatment, torture and fair trials, the United States is simply not going to be able to do that for now,” said Mr. Sabir, formerly head of North African affairs for Amnesty International.
Human rights activists have long chronicled examples of judicial abuse and prisoner torture in the region.
In Egypt, torture of detainees “in recent years had become epidemic,” according to a lengthy Human Rights Watch investigation published in February.
Methods of torture include “beatings with fists, feet, and leather straps, sticks and electric cables; suspension in contorted and painful positions accompanied by beatings; the application of electric shocks; and sexual intimidation and violence,” the report noted.
State Department human rights reports track credible charges of torture, intimidation and prison overcrowding in numerous Middle East regimes, including Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Algeria, Syria and Yemen.
While Saudi Arabia’s Islamic-based law prohibits the use of torture to obtain confessions, the U.S. report charged that Interior Ministry personnel were abusing prisoners, “including beatings, whippings and sleep deprivation.”
“In addition, there were allegations of beatings with sticks and suspension from bars by handcuffs,” according to State Department investigators.
Some in the Arab news media have remarked on the “paradox” that the Abu Ghraib facility outside Baghdad, where the pictures of U.S. soldiers abusing Iraqi detainees were taken, was formerly one of the most brutal and notorious prisons run by the regime of Saddam Hussein.
Musa Keilani wrote in the Jordan Times: “We in the Arab world did know what was going on in Abu Ghraib when Saddam was in power: summary executions, dismemberment and torture of the worst kind we ever heard of in modern times. It is true that few in the Arab world talked about it and scant attention was given to international organizations’ criticism of the gross violations of human rights in Iraq while Saddam was in power.”
Many authoritarian Middle East regimes have long resisted U.S. and U.N. criticism of their treatment of prisoners, “but the pictures we’re seeing out of Abu Ghraib have been a real shock to the populations of the region,” Mr. Sabir said.
Physical and mental abuse of detainees has long been common practice for many of Iraq’s neighbors, according to U.S. and independent observers:
In Egypt, “everyone taken into detention is at risk of torture,” according to Amnesty International, citing “overwhelming evidence that torture is widespread and practiced systematically.”
The Egyptian Organization for Human Rights, in a 2003 report titled “Torture Must Be Stopped,” said it could document five cases of death from torture in detention centers in 2002 and another 31 cases of torture in prison, “nine of which are expected to end in death.”
Torture of prisoners in Algeria remains “widespread,” Amnesty International found. Reported cases “were believed to represent only the tip of the iceberg since many victims, particularly in common-law cases, chose not to complain, fearing this would only exacerbate their predicament or expose family members to reprisals from the authorities.”
The most recent State Department human rights survey credits Yemen with taking steps to curb prisoner abuse, but noted there remained “numerous allegations and credible evidence that authorities tortured and abused suspects and detainees to attempt to coerce confessions before or during trial.”
In Tunisia, Amnesty International reported last year on numerous hunger strikes by prison inmates “to protest overcrowding, poor hygiene, medical neglect, the assignment of prisoners to facilities far from their families and other abuses.”
“Strikers were sometimes beaten, denied family visits or placed in isolation” by authorities, the organization reported.