Fresh paint and flowers at Abu Ghraib,the Iraqi House of Horrors

Iraq’s Ministry of Justice on Saturday allowed reporters rare access to the Abu Ghraib prison,which has been partly renovated and now holds about 400 prisoners....

Written by New York Times | Baghdad | Published: February 23, 2009 1:33:52 am

Iraq’s Ministry of Justice on Saturday allowed reporters rare access to the Abu Ghraib prison,which has been partly renovated and now holds about 400 prisoners after a new influx on Friday.

The Iraqi government has forged ahead in reopening the prison despite the stigma from years of torture and abuse there,both under American control and during Saddam Hussein’s rule. The government has said it needs Abu Ghraib,which can hold up to 15,000 prisoners,to ease severe overcrowding at other detention centres. Officials plan to bring the total here up to about 3,000 as a first step.

Officials were eager to highlight a different face of Abu Ghraib,one they emphasized was more focused on reforming prisoners. The prison’s outer walls were painted a bright cream colour,and Iraqi flags fluttered at the entrance. The driveway to the main gate was spruced up and lined with colorful lampposts,flowers and other plants.

Billboards identified the prison compound by its new name,the Baghdad Central Prison. Jailers were dressed in their finest navy uniforms and made to stand frozen along a red carpet. It led into the cellblocks.

Inside,the hallways reeked of fresh paint: lavender,cream and light blue. Glittering party decorations hung on the walls,and pots of plastic flowers lined the corridors. Slogans in ornate Arabic calligraphy filled the walls. “Respecting the dignity of the internees is one of the noble goals of the Iraqi correctional services,” proclaimed one.

There were no prisoners to be seen. All 400 of them were moved to a section beyond the sight of reporters.

The cellblocks that were once the scene of prisoner torture,abuse and humiliation by American soldiers and contractors in 2003 and 2004 were newly painted. Posters with the words “No to torture” above close-up photos of bodies battered with bruises were hung on the wall.

“It was damp; you really felt the horror,” said Saad Sultan,an official at the Ministry of Human Rights,as he walked through the same cellblocks that he visited numerous times starting in May 2004 after the American abuse scandal at Abu Ghraib became public. “Now there is more light,much more light.”

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