Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Jailbirds Fly Free in Iraq ; Tens of Thousands of Iraqi Prisoners Were Released from Custody This Week by the Regime of Saddam Hussein

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Jailbirds Fly Free in Iraq ; Tens of Thousands of Iraqi Prisoners Were Released from Custody This Week by the Regime of Saddam Hussein

Article excerpt

Without even a single one of its nearly 500 prisoners in residence, Section 5 seems impossibly overcrowded. Sweat-stained mattresses, spilled food, and upended metal chests clutter the scant floorspace. Bunk beds line every room and the section's central corridor.

The prisoners of this cellblock, in the serious crimes prison at the Abu Ghareb penal complex outside Baghdad, left in haste Sunday after President Saddam Hussein decreed a general amnesty for Iraq's incarcerated. Left behind are the wardens. "We'll stay here and prepare for new prisoners," deputy warden Ahmed Ibrahim said late Sunday night. "We will clean it."

The amnesty seemed sure to bolster Hussein's political standing - never mind that a recent referendum indicated 100 percent support - as he faces the possibility of having to rally his people to war against the US.

The gesture also demonstrated how the rule of law in Iraq is subject to official caprice. But several guards and wardens at Abu Ghareb say nothing is amiss with releasing thousands of convicted murderers, rapists, thieves and other criminals.

"We've fixed their behavior," says Mr. Ibrahim, citing the prison's rehabilitation programs.

Ibrahim, slightly paunchy in his dark green uniform, beams with pride at being part of such a joyous event. "The works of our president are very great indeed, and this [amnesty] is not the only one," he says. Ibrahim calls the amnesty "a great reward" following the Oct. 15 presidential referendum, in which the entire electorate, according to the government, voted to extend Mr. Hussein's rule by seven years.

The amnesty was slightly short of absolute. A government statement said murderers unforgiven by the families of their victims and those who owed money to the state would be kept in jail. Political prisoners were also being released, the government said, except for those convicted of spying for the US or Israel.

At Abu Ghareb, a massive compound that could easily contain an airport, Ibrahim said the political prison had been emptied, but the unit for non-Iraqi prisoners had not. …

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