The cameras were rolling and the reporters were ready inside the auditorium, so the Iraqi police officer gave the signal: Bring in the prisoners. In they shuffled, 21 men accused of terrorism and murder, hands shackled, eyes tracing the floor. This was no day in court. Today, they were lined up to meet the press.
“Lift up your faces,” a police officer ordered, as photographers swarmed.Over the objections of Western diplomats and human rights workers, Iraq’s security forces are increasingly taking to the airwaves with dramatic demonstrations of how they are cracking down on terrorism, using detainees — mostly Sunni men — as backdrops for speeches and broadcasting confessions on state-run television.
To Iraqi officials, the prisoner displays are a kind of victory lap, providing a sharp rebuttal to accusations that the police and the army are failing to stifle a still-deadly insurgency.But to many Westerners, the rituals are inflammatory and even illegal, symptoms of a politically tainted justice system that still relies on confessions, many coerced, as much as physical evidence despite millions in American aid and legal training programs.
The prisoner displays are also sharpening the political and sectarian tensions that plunged Iraq’s government into disarray immediately after the American military withdrawal in December. When officials from the country’s Shiite-led government announced an arrest warrant against the Sunni vice president, Tariq al-Hashimi, they played videotaped confessions from three bodyguards who accused Mr. Hashimi of personally running a death squad against police officers and political rivals.
Iraqi authorities said the confessions were proof of Mr. Hashimi’s guilt. But Sunni politicians saw them as an attack using the state-run media to discredit and oust a leading Sunni politician. American officials and Western diplomats in Baghdad cringed as they watched the confessions play on national television.
“Parading persons accused of crimes on television or broadcasting confessions is a violation of due process,” said a Western expert in international law who has raised these concerns with Iraqi officials. “It also undermines basic human dignity and respect for the process of justice.”Legal experts said the government’s media strategies could violate international treaties Iraq had signed, which lay out basic rights for criminal suspects.
“It puts them in breach of their international obligations and in violation of rights protected by the Constitution,” said the Western expert, who asked for anonymity to avoid antagonizing the Iraqi government.Even some supporters of Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki criticized the decision to play the videotaped confessions of Mr. Hashimi’s bodyguards.
Iraqi judicial officials pulled out of a news conference the security forces called to announce the arrest warrant because the officials wanted to keep the confessions off the air. Ibrahim al-Sumaidaie, a political analyst close to Mr. Maliki, said broadcasting the confessions shredded due-process rules in Iraq’s Constitution and was reminiscent of how Saddam Hussein manipulated the news media to cow his enemies and expose endless plots against his government.
“It is a crime to put this on television,” Mr. Sumaidaie said. “It is a shame, and it is a legacy of the former dictator. The one who plays these confessions succeeds to divide the people between Shia and Sunni again. What is the benefit?”But Iraqi officials have largely brushed off the criticism. In a country where conspiracy theories are the currency of daily life, the confessions and images of shackled prisoners offer convincing evidence that Iraqi officials are hunting down criminals.
“If we say we caught the leader of Al Qaeda, who will believe it?” said Maj. Gen. Adel Daham, an Interior Ministry official. “This is to show credibility. We are sure we are doing the right thing.”Iraq is hardly the only country to make public spectacles of suspects accused of criminal activity. Mexican officials call regular news conferences in which uniformed federal police officers stand guard over apprehended members of drug cartels and death squads.
In the United States, the “perp walk” is common enough to merit its own Wikipedia page. The practice came under fresh scrutiny in June after Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the former managing director of the International Monetary Fund, was arrested in New York on sexual assault charges that were later dropped. Many of his compatriots in France were outraged by images of Mr. Strauss-Kahn, unshaven and frowning, being led in handcuffs before a gantlet of photographers. Some called it a lynching in the press.
By Iraqi standards, that was light treatment. Last summer, Iraqi security officials took two criminal defendants to the scene of a massacre in the marshes north of Baghdad and told the men to recount how, several years earlier, they had lined up Shiites along a river and shot them. Their accounts of the killings were broadcast on the state-run Iraqiya television channel.
In September 2010, the Interior Ministry, which runs Iraq’s 600,000-member police force, called a news conference to announce that its agents had broken up a robbery ring that was using its profits to finance terrorism. On a tablecloth of white lace, officials laid guns, silencers and stolen gold jewelry.
Shackled detainees were lined up against a wall, gazing downward as officials outlined their crimes. At one point in a video of the news conference, a police officer poked a suspect in the chest to get him to face the cameras.And in one memorable news conference this November, Iraqi authorities marched two dozen terrorism suspects into an auditorium with dozens of weeping widows and orphans. Adnan al-Asadi, the acting interior minister, detailed the killings attributed to the men, but the scene quickly devolved into screams.
As cameras rolled, black-clad women, holding photographs of slain husbands, brothers and sons, called for the suspects to be executed. Children screamed and cried. Some people threw shoes and shouted aspersions. The defendants sat silent.Iraqi officials later admitted that things had gotten away from them that day, but Mr. Asadi said it was important for the public to see the faces and hear the confessions of the militants and criminals who had attacked Iraqis.
Human rights groups have chronicled manifold problems with Iraq’s murky legal system. Suspects are held for weeks and months, sometimes in secret, often without formal charges. Verdicts are announced before relatives learn that a trial took place. Ultimately, the televised confessions and lineups may be the only time Iraqis see or hear from these defendants.“We want to show the Iraqi people how they’ve committed these crimes, how dangerous they are and how they affect the political process,” Mr. Asadi said. “So the world will see.”
By JACK HEALY, The New York Times