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UN: Thousands Detained Illegally in Iraq

A senior United Nations official says thousands of people are being detained illegally in Iraqi prisons. Speaking in Geneva, the chief of the U.N.'s Human Rights office in Iraq urged that their cases be resolved quickly.

The head of the United Nations Human Rights office in Iraq, Gianni Magazzeni, says the situation in Iraq has deteriorated significantly since the bombing of a major Shi'ite mosque in Samarra on February 22.

He says fighting between the Shi'ite and Sunni communities has escalated since the bombing and this has led to an increase in human rights violations.

He says torture, disappearances, arbitrary arrests and summary executions are an every day occurrence in Baghdad and in other areas of central Iraq.

"I think we have seen an increase in the instances of allegations of action by such militias or death squads, some that are identified or similar in terms even of appearances to a police forces or forces that are within state entities in Iraq," he said.

Magazzeni says thousands of detainees have been held for long periods without any recourse to the law courts. He says almost 30,000 people currently are detained, about half of them by coalition forces. He says the rest are in the custody of the Iraqi ministries of Justice, Interior and Defense.

"Only the ministry of justice is competent to hold people for more than 72 hours," he added. "So most of the others in detention in the ministry of interior, the ministry of defense -- and those are still in the thousands -- would be [not] in a situation that is in line with the Iraqi law itself."

According to a Security Council resolution, the coalition forces are allowed to detain individuals for so-called imperative reasons of security. But Magazzeni says the number of prisoners in coalition custody is far too high and that number should be substantially reduced. He says many of the 15,000 internees have been held for a long time without charge.

Magazzeni says the United Nations wants the judicial process speeded up. He says U.N. human rights monitors have not been able to visit detainees held by either the coalition or Iraqi forces. He says he is negotiating for visitation rights.

The Pentagon has made no comment on the UN official's remarks.