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Newsday (New York) May 6, 2004

Prison with a past

Abu Ghraib, now focus of scandal, became a symbol of terror under Saddam

By Matthew McAllester

LONDON - On March 17, 1970, Abu Ghraib prison opened for business. It was a beautiful, American-designed reformatory prison and one of Iraq's most visible displays of its new modernity.

Teams of architects and engineers from all over the world, coordinated by a partnership that included a Long Island-based company, had worked for a decade to build the prison. When it was ready, it had room for 4,200 inmates and conformed to international standards.

Since its opening 34 years ago, Abu Ghraib has enjoyed little but notoriety. When Saddam Hussein became president in 1979, it rapidly filled with political opponents and became a symbol of terror. "Those who go in are lost," a local saying about the prison went, "and those who come out are reborn."

The prison's grim legend was meant to have come to an end with the demise of Hussein's regime last year, but the revelations of abuse by Americans inside its walls have launched a new chapter in Abu Ghraib's dark history.

It was never meant to be a place of torture. After the 1958 revolution, which brought about an end to the Iraqi monarchy, the new military government quickly decided the country needed a new prison. It chose an American partnership - Litchfield, Whiting, Bowne, Panero, Severud - for the job. With branches in Italy and Iran, the company also had an office in Mineola.

The partnership was disbanded long ago, but Sidney B. Bowne & Son Llp, a civil engineering firm, is still based in Mineola. One of the older partners, Robert Stanton, said in an interview last year that no one could remember much about the project but that the prison had been designed by Litchfield, Whiting, an architectural firm that joined forces for a while with Bowne. The Abu Ghraib project, Stanton recalled, was run from the company's Rome office.

Kevork Toroyan, a young Armenian engineer with the Athens-based Consolidated Contractors Co., one of the largest Arab contractors, worked on the project for two years, first as deputy project manager and then as project manager. Semi-retired and living in New Canaan, Conn., last year Toroyan recalled the prison's construction as a prime example of inefficiency and absurd mismanagement.

"It was a never-ending project," Toroyan said. "It just dragged and dragged and dragged."

By the end, Abu Ghraib cost about 5 million Iraqi dinars, about $15 million, a huge amount of money in Iraq at the time.

Following the revolution, Iraq tripped through a series of unstable military governments until the Baathists seized power in 1968. The Abu Ghraib project staggered along under different presidents.

"It was a typical example of how not to run a country. It was such an experience. It was incredible. At one time they needed American locks urgently so we air-freighted some of the locks from the States. It took us three months to clear it from the airport."

A minor translation problem - the locks were described as hardware - led the customs officials to keep the locks under lock and key. "You know, you could tear your hair off, it was so bad," Toroyan said. "I hate to say that only after Saddam came, things started moving again. He was a terrible man and all that, but he started things moving, no question about it. He stopped all graft. You couldn't bribe anybody anymore."

When the socialist-minded Baathists took over in 1968, the engineers were suddenly forbidden from using Western components. Toroyan once needed to import transformers but was told he could not buy them from Europe or the United States, the very places that made the best ones.

Officials liked to visit to see the progress on this great symbol of Iraq's modernization. Once the new Baathist president, Ahmed Hassan Bakr, took a tour with Toroyan as his guide. It was during the early days of Bakr's presidency at a time when - if recent history was anything to go by - the Baathist leader might not have found himself in power for too long. As they toured the complex, Toroyan explained to Bakr that they were now in the political prisoners section. Bakr and his aides looked alarmed at the isolation cells. "You could see bubbles in their heads," Toroyan said. Bakr then nervously asked if the cells had air-conditioning.

Events went Bakr's way, however, and he never had to sit through a Baghdad summer in the political prisoners section.

After decades of suffering in decaying British-built prisons, nearly all of Iraq's prisoners found themselves housed in the modern reformatories. They would sew uniforms, build furniture, attend academic classes, study mechanics. It was a time when the Baathist government used the massive increase in oil prices to build a country that fast became something of a model state in the Arab world.

By the time Tamim Taher Al-Jader became general director of Abu Ghraib in the 1990s, it was an overcrowded world of torture, execution and injustice.

"You'd get a guy in for 20 years for stealing a sack of onions or a bird," Al-Jader said last year. He lobbied the government at the time to build more space for the huge prison population. "I demanded that they establish new prisons so that this prison could respect the rights of the prisoners. They ignored me."

After the collapse of the regime last April, American soldiers began using the prison. Soon family members were turning up to find out what was happening to their loved ones inside.

"We get a lot of family members coming here, and we let them know that there's nothing going on here," said Lt. Sheri Brunette, a National Guard officer working at the prison last July. She acknowledged that the prison's history caused people to worry. "They assume something is happening to them, but of course we assure them that that's not the case."

The Geneva Convention

As early as the sixth century BC, a Chinese warrior proposed setting down limits on conducting wars, but in modern times, the rules of warfare are set by a group of protocols known as the Geneva Conventions.

The earliest Geneva Convention, signed in 1864, was inspired by Henri Dunant, founder of the Red Cross, to protect the sick and wounded in wartime. The relief organization continues to play a role in enforcement.

In 1907, the international community convened the Hague Convention on the Conduct of War, resulting in the signing of 13 treaties. After World War II, the international community met again to expand and modernize the code. The result was the four Geneva Conventions of 1949, which introduced the concept of individual criminal liability and offered for the first time protections for civilians in wartime.

The conventions call for distinction between military and civilians, requiring that the groups be treated differently by the warring sides and that combatants be clearly distinguishable from civilians.

Soldiers captured in battle must be treated humanely. Specifically, prisoners must not be subject to torture or to medical or scientific experiments of any kind. They must also be protected against violence, intimidation, insults and public curiosity.

Most current Iraqi prisoners are classified as common criminals or civilians who are considered security threats.

Conventions that apply to civilians during wartime:

  • Civilians are not to be subject to attack.
  • Civilians must not be subject to outrages upon personal dignity.
  • Civilians must not be tortured, raped or enslaved.


GRAPHIC: 1) CHICAGO TRIBUNE PHOTO - A looter runs through Abu Ghraib after the fall of Baghdad. 2) GLOBAL SECURITY.ORG - Prison compound, outlined in red on this satellite photo, is on 280 acres west of Baghdad. 3) Newsday Photo / Matthew McAllester - American military police guard the gates of Abu Ghraib prison in July 2003 months before the abuse of prisoners took place. 4) AFP FILE PHOTO - Main entrance to the prison on Sunday. 5) AP PHOTO - A series of tents housing prisoners earlier this week.

Copyright 2004, Newsday, Inc.