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Kindler, gentler Abu Ghraib back in action

Infamous prison reopens; Iraqis pledge reforms

Guards stood at a cellblock yesterday at the renovated Abu Ghraib prison, now called Baghdad Central Prison. Guards stood at a cellblock yesterday at the renovated Abu Ghraib prison, now called Baghdad Central Prison. (Karim Kadim/ Associated Press)
By Kim Gamel
Associated Press / February 22, 2009
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BAGHDAD - A gym, barbershop, and planters of plastic flowers: Welcome to the gentler face of the infamous Abu Ghraib prison.

The lockup where US military guards tortured and humiliated Iraqi prisoners west of Baghdad has reopened with fresh paint and a new name in a bid to shed its notorious reputation.

Mohammed al-Zeidi, the assistant director of the Iraqi Rehabilitation Department, insisted that the new prison would be operated in accordance with international standards.

"All kinds of human rights violations took place in this prison. So we felt that it was our duty to rehabilitate the prison," he said yesterday during a press tour of the grounds. "We turned it into something like a resort not prison. The first step was to change the name."

Iraqi officials defended their decision to reopen the facility - now called the Baghdad Central Prison - saying they need the space as the US military has begun handing over the thousands of detainees in its custody under a new security agreement that took effect on Jan. 1.

"We have decided to reopen and renovate the prison because building a new one would take a long time and we already have crowded prisons," Deputy Justice Minister Busho Ibrahim said, adding that authorities also planned to build a larger prison north of Baghdad.

The Iraqis also promised to treat prisoners in accordance with international standards as they face concerns by the United Nations and human rights groups about overcrowding and violations against inmates already in Iraqi custody.

The compound west of Baghdad became the center of a global scandal in 2004 after photos were released showing US soldiers sexually humiliating inmates. Outrage over the pictures fueled support for the insurgency as well as anti-American sentiment among Iraqis.

The 280-acre Abu Ghraib prison, which was already notorious as a torture center under Saddam Hussein, closed in 2006 after the US handed it over to the Iraqis.

But the photos brought the prison to the world's attention, adding another serious stain to America's reputation after worldwide protests against the March 2003 invasion. They also discredited Washington's claims that it was trying to build a country based on rule of law and respect for human rights on the wreckage of dictatorship.

In all, 11 US soldiers were convicted of breaking military laws and five others were disciplined.

American authorities implemented a series of policy changes in the aftermath of the Abu Ghraib scandal. More recently, concern has been raised about the Iraqis' ability to care for inmates.

The New York-based group Human Rights Watch warned in a December report that defendants in Iraqi custody often are detained for long periods without judicial review and abuse in detention appeared common.

Iraqi officials said that would not be the case at Abu Ghraib, with each cell to hold eight prisoners, as opposed to 30 per cell under Hussein.

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