BAGHDAD Dec 15 Iraq is failing to give criminal suspects fair trials and abuse of prisoners appears common ahead of the transfer of thousands of detainees from U.S. prison camps to Iraqi control, a human rights group said on Monday.
Human Rights Watch said prisoners had to wait months and in some cases years before being brought before a judge.
They also received ineffectual legal counsel and judges frequently relied on testimony from secret informants or confessions likely to have been extracted under torture or duress, the New York-based group said in a report. Impartial administration of justice for all Iraqis was supposed to be a hallmark of the country's break with the abuses of the Saddam Hussein era and help heal sectarian divides after years of horrific violence, it said.
"Regrettably, some of the failings in the court's proceedings show disturbing continuity with that period."
The report was on Iraq's Central Criminal Court, the main criminal justice institute established by the U.S.-run Coalition Provisional Authority after the 2003 invasion and the ousting of Saddam.
Human Rights Watch monitored several court proceedings earlier this year, including those involving suspects detained by Iraqi authorities and some detained by U.S. forces.
Many faced terrorism or murder charges from the height of the insurgency and sectarian violence between majority Shi'ites and minority Sunni Arabs unleashed by the invasion.
The rights investigators found that many detainees alleged they had been tortured and forced to confess while being detained for long periods by Iraqi police or troops.
Judges appeared sensitive to the allegations of abuse and torture and often dismissed cases as a result, but the sheer number of such allegations meant serious miscarriages of justice were likely to be frequent, the report said.
Most defendants met their court-appointed legal counsel for the first time during hearings, and as a result were defended poorly, while a heavy reliance on secret testimony made it difficult for defendants to challenge accusations, it added.
Another failing of the system was the refusal of the U.S. military to pay any heed to orders issued by the Iraqi court.
"The refusal in particular of U.S. military officials ... to honour hundreds of decisions by the court to release detainees in U.S. military custody has further undermined respect for the Iraqi judicial system," the report said.
Around 17,000 Iraqis held in U.S. military camps will have to be transferred to the Iraqi authorities next year under a U.S.-Iraqi security pact that paves the way for U.S. troops to withdraw by the end of 2011.
Those against whom Iraqi authorities have arrest warrants will end up in Iraqi jails and the rest gradually will be set free.
While the days when Iraqi detainees complained of serious abuse by U.S. troops appear to be in the past, prisoners held by the U.S. military have little opportunity to appeal their detention or even find out what the evidence is against them.
"The (U.S. military) detention is the worst possible example for a criminal justice system," Human Rights Watch researcher Joe Logan, one of the authors of the report, said. (Reporting by Michael Christie; Editing by Michael Roddy)