Iraq: transferred prisoners have reason to fear new jailers

Barely noticed amid the fanfare surrounding the announcement of an end to US combat operations in Iraq, in July the US also handed the last of some 10,000 prisoners held on security grounds to the Iraqi authorities – though the US will continue to hold about 200 detainees deemed to be "high-risk".

Remarkably, however, this mass transfer came with no formal guarantees over humane treatment or due process. Given recent instances of the discovery – including by US forces – of horrific abuse being meted out to inmates by Iraq guards, this is extremely regrettable.

The torture and sexual humiliation of prisoners by US forces at Abu Ghraib made the US notorious when the scandal came to light in 2004. However, the sadistic mistreatment of prisoners supposedly in Iraqi official care has been a feature of the entire post-Saddam period, and in many ways the savagery of the abuse has rivalled that of the dictatorial Saddam years.

A new report from Amnesty International details some of this abuse. Methods include: rape or the threat of rape; beatings with cables and hosepipes; prolonged suspension by various limbs; removal of toenails with pliers; electric shocks to the genitals; piercing of the body with electric drills; asphyxiation with plastic bags; being forced to sit on broken bottles. Add to this vicious beatings and imprisonment for months or years – sometimes in secret prisons, generally without access for family or lawyers and invariably without formal charges being brought – and you get some idea of the degraded nature of Iraq's response to the security threats it faces.

The US's 10,000-strong handover has now swollen the numbers of security detainees held without trial to a staggering 30,000. The majority are Sunni Arabs, suspected of involvement in or supporting armed groups opposed to the Iraqi government and international forces. One of these is Ramze Shihab Ahmed, a 68-year-old dual Iraqi-UK national who was arrested on 7 December 2009. He was taken to a secret prison at the site of the old Muthanna airport in Baghdad where he was kept in incommunicado detention until late March. Finally it seems he was handed a phone and told to call his wife Rabiha in London to demand a fee of around $50,000 (£32,000) to secure his release. Instead he implored his wife to seek help from the UK authorities. Then, abruptly, the line went dead.

Shihab Ahmed is now in a different prison and has even been visited by UK consular officials. But he has told his wife of suffering torture at Muthanna, including with electric shocks to his genitals and suffocation by plastic bags. His claims are consistent with many other cases known to Amnesty. He remains in prison in Baghdad, still uncharged and still without his torture allegations investigated. (Amnesty's appeal for him is here).

Shihab Ahmed is a refugee from Saddam's Iraq and has lived in Britain since the early 2000s. Ironically he only risked travelling to Iraq last year to try to secure the release of his son Omar who himself had been detained last September. Now both have been tortured and both have been forced to sign confessions admitting to involvement in terrorism. Coerced confessions, indeed, are another hallmark of the new model Iraqi justice system.

When the Americans handed over control of its last major prison at Camp Cropper in an official ceremony in July, the Iraqi justice minister Dara Nureddine Dara was quoted as saying: "We must ensure we make this prison a model for all others in Iraq. The days of mistreatment and abuse of prisoners are gone." Except they haven't.

Kate Allen, the director of Amnesty International UK.