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Looking back on shocking revelations: U.S. forces tortured Iraqis at Abu Ghraib

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Some of the ugliest images of the American invasion of Iraq 20 years ago came in 2004 in photos taken at the Abu Ghraib prison. And a warning to our listeners, this story contains graphic descriptions of the torture of prisoners in U.S. incarceration. The photos were shocking. And what happened haunts former detainees. American troops stripped Iraqi prisoners naked. They leashed them and forced them into contorted or sexual positions. NPR's Ruth Sherlock has this report from Baghdad.

(CROSSTALK)

RUTH SHERLOCK, BYLINE: It's been almost two decades since Talib al-Majli (ph) came out of Abu Ghraib prison, but it could have been yesterday. Desperately thin still, with dark circles around his eyes, Majli bites at the skin of his wrist, a nervous tic he developed in the prison.

TALIB AL-MAJLI: (Speaking Arabic).

SHERLOCK: "The time I spent in Abu Ghraib, it ended my life. I'm only half a human now," Majli says.

Is it OK to take a picture?

He shows me his prison card and other documents. He was detained on the 31st of October, 2003, and became Prisoner 152516 in Abu Ghraib. Through an interpreter, he tells me about some of the abuse.

MAJLI: (Through interpreter) They torturing us. They making us naked. Sometimes they throw that sound grenades on our cells. And sometimes they use the shotguns. And they killed two of prisoners. And they used these dogs to terrifying us. They flooded our cells with water.

SHERLOCK: One photo that shocked people around the world when it was published in 2004 shows naked detainees with bags over their heads piled on top of each other in a grotesque human pyramid. One American soldier grins, another gives a thumbs up. Majli says he believes he is one of the men in that photo.

MAJLI: (Speaking Arabic).

SHERLOCK: Does he remember what he was thinking and what he felt when he was in that pile?

MAJLI: (Speaking Arabic).

SHERLOCK: I wished for death, Majli tells me. I would rather have been dead than to be in that position. There was other demeaning treatment, too, like being poked with a stick in his genitals. One day, Majli tried to appeal to a soldier, to say he was innocent and that he should be let go. They put him in solitary confinement for a week.

MAJLI: (Speaking Arabic).

SHERLOCK: Majli says he was detained when he was simply visiting an uncle. He swears he never took part in the insurgency against the U.S. He was eventually released after one year and four months with no charges against him. U.S. military intelligence officers later told the International Committee for the Red Cross that as many as 90% of Iraqis detained were actually arrested by mistake.

MAJLI: (Speaking Arabic).

SHERLOCK: Majli says when the U.S. invasion began, he wanted to thank George Bush from the bottom of his heart for removing Saddam Hussein from power. But he says, this good deed became my curse.

(CROSSTALK)

SHERLOCK: Now in his 50s, Majli lives with his two adult sons in a home made of two rooms with an outside toilet in a slum in Baghdad. On the day we visited, water from the rain pooled on the mud street outside.

MAJLI: (Speaking Arabic).

SHERLOCK: Majli has moved many times since his release from Abu Ghraib, sometimes in search of work, but also because of the stigma he says he felt from his neighbors when they learned of the degrading treatment he suffered.

MAJLI: (Speaking Arabic).

SHERLOCK: But it's not his fault. It was something that was done to him.

MAJLI: (Speaking Arabic).

SHERLOCK: Majli acknowledges this but says other people didn't see it this way. His boys quit their school because they were so badly bullied. And he says his wife left him because she was embarrassed. Since his release, he says he suffered from depression he self-harms.

MAJLI: (Speaking Arabic).

SHERLOCK: Bite marks up and down his arms.

MAJLI: (Speaking Arabic).

SHERLOCK: He works odd jobs, hanging signs for companies, sometimes earning around $30 per week.

If he had to summarize what the experience and this imprisonment did to his life, what would he say?

MAJLI: (Through interpreter) I lost my family, destroyed my health situation, destroyed my living situation, destroyed everything for me. And I always feel I was humiliated.

SHERLOCK: Majli tried for years to find ways to get compensation from the U.S.

MAJLI: (Speaking Arabic).

SHERLOCK: But he had no money to hire a lawyer. And when he went to the Iraqi Bar Association, they told him they didn't deal with these kinds of cases. The Iraqi Ministry for Human Rights confirmed he'd been a prisoner in Abu Ghraib, but that was all. A U.S. military official now, who didn't want to be named because he wasn't approved to speak, speculated that Majli should have been able to apply to the U.S. military for condolence payments sometimes made in conflict. It was difficult for Iraqis to apply for compensation in those years. Baher Azmy, a lawyer with the Center for Constitutional Rights in New York, says the U.S. hasn't been making payments to victims of torture and that this violates international law. Instead, it's been...

BAHER AZMY: Denying compensation for victims of torture in Abu Ghraib and in CIA black sites, denying compensation to those who the United States quite literally kidnapped and spirited away under the extraordinary rendition program to third countries.

SHERLOCK: Eleven soldiers were convicted of crimes in Abu Ghraib. And Azmy did manage to secure some compensation for some other Abu Ghraib victims, but only from a private security firm whose translators operated in the prison and not from the U.S. military. Azmy didn't know about Majli but says the case sounds consistent with others. But he probably can't get compensation now.

AZMY: It's heartbreaking, but I think it's too late.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOG BARKING)

MAJLI: (Speaking Arabic).

SHERLOCK: Majli says not a day goes by without him thinking about what happened to him. It's as if his life is frozen in time by his need for justice or some kind of recognition. He says this is why he's talking to me.

MAJLI: (Speaking Arabic).

SHERLOCK: I want to make this a matter of public opinion, to ask for my rights, even, he says, just for an apology.

Ruth Sherlock, NPR News, Baghdad.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ruth Sherlock is an International Correspondent with National Public Radio. She's based in Beirut and reports on Syria and other countries around the Middle East. She was previously the United States Editor for the Daily Telegraph, covering the 2016 US election. Before moving to the US in the spring of 2015, she was the Telegraph's Middle East correspondent.