Fort Suse, Iraq, Asharq Al-Awsat- A number of Arab prisoners serving sentences in Fort Suse prison near Sulaymaniyah in Kurdistan, northern Iraq, demanded to be extradited to their native countries arguing that they are not terrorists or individuals who seek to destroy the country and that they came to Iraq for various reasons. Asharq Al Awsat newspaper, the first source of media to enter the prison, met a number of detainees who explained that they entered Iraq for various reasons before they were arrested. The aforementioned prison today holds 1609 prisoners, including over 200 non-Iraqi Arabs, 56 of whom are Saudi prisoners whose sentences range from 7 years to life imprisonment. The majority of detainees argued their innocence and the prison guards explained that most detainees who have been held in relation to terrorist activities denied the accusations.
The fortified walls of Fort Suse, which is located between the city of Sulaymaniyah and Dukan tourist resort in the Kurdistan region of Iraq, are an indication of the kind of prisoners who are kept here surrounded by the towering mountain peaks of Piramagroon.
Ever since it was built in the early 1980s, the strong walls of the fortress symbolized fear and terror. The former regime of Saddam Hussein used the fortress as a military base from which it launched its attacks on nearby Kurdish villages and towns. It was later used during the Iraq-Iran war as a detention camp for Iranian captives and then transformed during and after the Anfal operations into a huge detention camp that housed hundreds of Iraqi Kurds who were annihilated behind its walls from 1988.
In spite of the fact that it is located 5 kilometers away from the main road, the building dominates the whole region and draws the attention of passers-by driving between Sulaymaniyah and the Dukan tourist resort. The building provokes questions and doubts at the same time; it occupies a wide space and is the first architectural building that stands in front of the mountains which, however, conceals a number of small and scattered villages in the green valley, including the village of Suse itself, from which the name of the fort was derived. The way in which the significance of the fort has been highlighted however has allowed the village to be sidelined. The fort extends over a large area; its four corners are circular and resemble somewhat medieval citadels, yet much bigger. These circular corners are linked by wide concrete walls that are reinforced by iron. Behind the building, the snow-covered peaks of Piramagroon Mountain stand. The snow remains on the mountains for most of the year and according to stories of local villagers, no adventurer has braved to risk climbing the mountains.
The regime of the former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein chose the fort following knowledgeable and beneficial research. Danger surrounds whoever tries to approach the fort or escape it. In 2006, five prisoners, who were described by authorities as “dangerous terrorists”, escaped the prison that was under American administration at the time. They had escaped by removing fans in bathrooms. Outside of the fort, the escapees went round in vicious circles as they were unable to go through the mountain or climb it, or flee across the main road as members of the military forces were stationed along it. Four days after the escape, during which the prisoners did not drink water or eat food, a local shepherd informed the authorities about the whereabouts of the prisoners as he, along with the rest of the local population, did not sympathize with terrorists.
American forces had transformed Fort Suse into a large prison in 2004, during which it detained some of the most dangerous terrorists of the Al Qaeda network and other armed groups. The American forces handed the prison to the Iraqi administration less than six months ago, allowing Fort Suse to open a new chapter of its history as a federal prison that harbored criminals who had been sentenced for crimes related to terrorism and other charges.
Fort Suse is surrounded by barbed wire, security guards and vicious guard dogs. On the roof and at the corners are surveillance cameras. Guards point their sniper guns in the direction of the gates in fear of any inmates escaping.
When Fort Suse was under American administration, rumours circulated that there were inhumane practices carried out against detainees. When the notorious prison of Abu Ghraib was shutdown less than a year ago, Dr. Barham Saleh and the Minister of Human Rights, Wijdan Salem, listened to complaints from a number of individuals who were formerly detained in Fort Suse in which they stated that they were subjected to torture at the hands of American forces. Because the fort remained closed in the eyes of the media, an increasing number of stories came out yet with no response, rejection or even confirmation.
Asharq Al Awsat gained permission to access and freely navigate Fort Suse. Under no supervision, Asharq Al Awsat photographed the prison and talked to detainees. The prisoner’s director, Colonel Momen Abu Bakr said, “No Arab or western newspaper, television channel or even radio station has even been allowed to enter Fort Suse.”
We were heartily welcomed at the gates of the prison. The director of the prison and officers had intentionally granted us complete freedom to move between various sections of the prison and talk with inmates freely.
As we entered the prison, we were received by the director in a wide courtyard that was full of various, newly-established workshops. At one workshop, there was a metalworker called Mohammed who had been sentenced for 10 years on charges of resistance against American forces. The director of the prison described Mohammed’s work as proficient and faultless. Only a few prisoners admitted to their crimes, however the majority asserted their innocence and argued that they had been brought to the prison unjustly, as confirmed by a former police officer who was sentenced to 10 years. He is now in charge of the cleaning and ironing department of the prison.
There is a small hospital in the prison that accommodates over 12 people. In this hospital, a doctor, an assistant physician, a pharmacist and a dentist are assigned by the Sulaymaniyah health directorate. The director of the prison is also working on opening a painting studio and a library.
Another blue iron gate led us to an open courtyard that separated two halls, each of which have their own open courtyards where prisoners can stay for many hours to enjoy the sunshine.
According to Colonel Abu Bakr, the prison consists of “37 halls, which are divided into six blocks. Twenty of these halls are large and the others are smaller. According to international specifications, each hall can accommodate between 45 and 50 prisoners. In addition, there are solitary confinement cells that have their own bathrooms and are allocated for those who violate security laws of the prison.”
Colenel Abu Bakr continued, “This federal prison is affiliated to the Ministry of Justice and it holds convicted prisoners from all parts of Iraq and for various reasons. Prisoners are spread out over the different halls according to their sentences. There is a section for short sentences, which holds prisoners sentenced between one and six years. Another section, for prisoners who are given medium sentences, holds detainees who have been sentenced between six years to ten years. The department of severe sentences includes prisoners sentenced anything between 10 years and life imprisonment.”
The prisoners take part in sports; there are 10 open-air courtyards where prisoners play football and other games such as backgammon and chess. In each hall there are television sets that are linked to satellite dishes, which were placed above each hall. Also, there are three refrigerators in each hall. In contrast to the Iraqi cities that are provided with electricity for two hours a day, electricity is available the whole day [in the prison].
Colonel Abu Bakr stated that visiting hours are on Sundays and Mondays. There are allocated areas where prisoners can meet their families and stay with them for over an hour and a half. Colonel Abu Bakr stressed that “phones are banned in prisons according to the laws of the correctional department at the Ministry of Justice. However, when a new group of prisoners arrive at the prison, they ask me to contact their families who, according to the prisoners, do not know anything about them [and their whereabouts]. In this case I comply with their demands and would even call from my own mobile phone so that they would be able to inform their families of where they are.” Prison administration provides three meals for prisoners as well as five cigarettes or more for each prisoner per day.
Asharq Al Awsat questioned a number of prisoners on the nature of their treatment at the hands of the prison guards. They emphasized that the guards and officers were good to them. However, some Saudi prisoners complained that some guards labeled them as terrorists. “We are Mujahideen [strugglers] who came here to help our Sunni brothers,” said one inmate. The director of the prison confirmed that, “There are some problems among prisoners, especially between Sunnis and Shia. For this reason, we had to separate them according to their own request, especially after debates and problems intensified.” Colonel Abu Bakr added, “If any guard beats any of the prisoners and it is proved, he is then liable for punishment. But if the case is the opposite, the prisoner is then placed in solitary confinement and the punishment is decided according to the offense. Some prisoners may stay there a week, two weeks or even a month. But there are no prisoners detained in isolation cells on a long term basis; these cells are made for punishment. Prisoners who get into fights with other prisoners are also punished in this way.”
Colonel Abu Bakr, who obtained a bachelor’s degree in psychology in 1990 admitted that “Some of the prisoners had tried to escape whilst I have been here but we had foiled the attempt out of fear for their lives since guards are ordered to shoot any prisoner who attempts to escape. Besides if they do succeed at escaping, they would be arrested within 24 hours, owing to the fact that the region is blockaded and movement is difficult.” He added, “Prisoners who are sentenced to life imprisonment are totally preoccupied by the idea of escaping the prison; this is why there are continuous attempts of escape that fail before they are carried out.”
We spoke to a few prisoners who were painting the outside walls of the prison. Two of them were Egyptians, Mustapha Mustapha al-Bably and Mustapha Kamel. They were both sentenced to six years on charges of illegally crossing Iraqi borders. Al-Bably asserted that his papers were valid, but “The American forces arrested us while we were on our way to renew our residency papers.” A Yemeni prisoner, who stated that he was in Iraq to sell Qat, asked prison administration to transfer him to another hall where there were other Yemeni prisoners. His request was granted after he directly addressed the director of the prison.
The prison is guarded by approximately 540 individuals, including 34 officers as well as the administration department. The majority of officers had received training with American forces that administered the prison before. According to Abu Bakr, all officers and guards are Kurds who had served as security officers and had been transferred to the Ministry of Justice to help run Fort Suse.
Abu Bakr allowed us to meet Saudi prisoners. According to one of the officers, documents show that the prisoners were involved in security issues. However, most of the prisoners stressed that they are innocent and that they were unjustly brought to this prison.
Prisoners told Asharq Al Awsat that the areas in which they had been arrested such as Mosul, Anbar, Tikrit, Husaybah, which they had crossed without passports or without obtaining visas, are hotspots where armed groups are highly active.
Saudi prisoners reiterated their demand to be transferred to Saudi Arabia, with the exception of one prisoner who requested to be transferred to Guantanamo detention center or anywhere under the administration of American forces because Iraqi guards had offended him by calling him a terrorist. The majority of Saudi prisoners are aged between 20 and 24 years old, except for one prisoner who is 35 years old.
Abdullah Hamoud bin Abdul Aziz, a 22-year-old Saudi from Mecca, said, “I have been here in this prison for two months now and I have been sentenced to 15 years imprisonment on charges of illegally crossing borders,” (as he says this, one of the officers whispered to me that the prisoner was convicted for involvement in terrorist activities but he claims that his crime is just illegally crossing borders). Abdullah added, “I called my family twice from Badush prison in Mosul but only once from this prison. None of my family has visited me as they fear that they would be exposed to the same punishment that I had been subjected to and that the American forces would arrest or imprison them.” Abdullah suggested that he would be transferred to Guantanamo.
As for Marzouk Kamash Hamed al Anzi of Arar, Saudi Arabia, he said, “On the June 26, 2005, I entered Iraq through Jordan in a Mercedes. The American forces arrested me after I had reached 50 kilometers inside Iraqi territories; I was sentenced to six years imprisonment on charges of illegally crossing borders along with my colleague. My colleague came to Iraq for treatment by use of witchcraft, which is banned in Saudi Arabia but available in Iraq.” He pointed out that he was only a taxi driver.
Said Ali Mohamed al-Mautrofi also from Arar, asserts that he had entered Iraqi territory on November 10, 2003, “to sell two cars. I was arrested after three days for illegally crossing borders and I was sentenced to 15 years in prison. When the Americans sent me to court, they hid my passport and my identity papers after two years sine the arrest.” Salem Sayel al Anzi from Riyadh said, “I entered Iraq in 2003 to visit my uncle in Fallujah. I am married to two Iraqi women and I came to the country legally. I was sentenced to 10 years imprisonment. The judge told me that my passport did not contain a visa to enter Iraq, and Saudis as far as I know are not requested to have a visa unless traveling to the United States.” Walid Abdul Ilah Hamza Abdul Jawad of Medina was sentenced to 8 years on charges of illegally crossing borders. He says, “The court of cassation gave permission for me to be released but this was not implemented and American forces transferred me from Badush prison in Mosul to this prison instead of releasing me.”
Fayez Mohamed al Shahry from Riyadh, who is sentenced to 20 years imprisonment said, “I was arrested in Mosul from where I intended to visit Najaf and Karbala as I am Shia.” When I explained to him that Najaf is very far from Mosul, he replied saying that he did not know that. He added, “The court sentenced me to life imprisonment on charges of involvement in terrorism. I am innocent of these charges.” Zaid al-Rikan was convicted of illegally crossing borders and was sentenced to 15 years. He said, “American forces made me confess under duress and I was sentenced to 15 years in prison. This is an unfair ruling since I was given no chance to defend myself.” He explained that “the Fort is not a civilian prison; it is a detention camp, not a prison.” As for Hamad Ali al-Kirbi, a 20-year-old Saudi from Riyadh who has been sentenced to life imprisonment, he said, “I am innocent. I was arrested at the Iraqi-Saudi borders. I came to visit Iraq without having a passport. I demand to be extradited to Saudi Arabia.”
On his part Abdel Majid Fayed al Anzi, who was sentenced to 20 years of imprisonment, says, “I was arrested at the Iraqi-Syrian borders (Husaybah).” He adds, “I am satisfied with the ruling but I wish to be extradited to Saudi Arabia.” Zaher Mohammed al Shahry from Riyadh was arrested in Mosul following a security raid and was sentenced to six years imprisonment on charges of illegally crossing into Iraq. He appealed to the “wise Saudi government to offer its support to its citizens in Iraq and to extradite them to a prison in Saudi Arabia.” He stated, “I had met people who claimed they were members of Saudi intelligence and we explained our cases to them.” As for Bandar Mansour Hamad al-Yahya, a 21-year old Saudi citizen from Riyadh, he says, “I was a student in Syria and was arrested in the area of Salahuddin (Tikrit). I was sentenced to 15 years imprisonment for illegally crossing Iraqi borders.” Prisoner Hadi al Amash, is a 35 years old citizen from Riyadh. He said that he was arrested in Ramadi and is sentenced to 20 years imprisonment. Al Amash, called for extradition to Saudi Arabia as “we do not know our legal status here. We are Mujahideen while Iraqis consider us saboteurs and American forces consider us terrorists. There are others who regard us as prisoners of war; therefore Article 7 of the Geneva Convention should be implemented towards us.” He asked: “Why would they imprison me for 20 years based on the claim that I belong to a terrorist group whereas Iraqi law unofficially punishes those who illegally cross its borders by six months imprisonment only.” Thamer Abdullah Bilhid al Khalidi of Hafr al Batin, is a 24-year-old Saudi who was sentenced to prison for seven years on charges of illegally crossing into Iraq. He was arrested in Nasiriyah, “while I was visiting one of my relatives,” he said. This prisoner deemed himself and his colleagues as, “victims of the Iraqi government and its policies, and the American policy.”