|Iraq is holding an estimated 30,000 prisoners without charge or trial, in contravention of international standards [EPA]
On a dull December day in 2009, Rabiha al Qassab, a 63-year-old Iraqi refugee living in a quiet residential area of north London, received a telephone call that marked the beginning of a new nightmare for a family already torn apart by Iraq's political upheavals.
Her 68-year-old husband, Ramze Shihab Ahmed, had been arrested while on a visit to Iraq, and no-one knew where he was being held or what, if anything, he had been charged with.
Nine months later, Ramze is still languishing in legal limbo in a Baghdad prison. His story lays bare the horrific abuses and lack of legal process that characterise post-Saddam Iraq's detention system, which human rights groups say has scarcely improved since the darkest days of the dictator's rule.
Up until his arrest, Ramze had been living with Rabiha in the UK, leading a quiet life of trips to the park, the local mosque and making ends meet on modest benefits provided by the British government.
But even in London, events in Iraq caught up with the couple. In September 2009, Ramze heard that his son, Omar, had been arrested by government security forces and several weeks later he travelled to Iraq to try to help. Within a month, he too had been arrested.
"Ramze was very worried about Omar. We didn't know why he had been arrested, and he said he must go to Iraq to help him," Rabiha says. "He didn't think he would be in any danger at all."
When the former Iraqi army general, who had fled the country after attempting to organise a coup against Saddam, arrived back in Iraq, he quickly found himself pitted against the shadowy forces of the country's security apparatus. His inquiries into the fate of his son attracted their attention; before long they were actively seeking to arrest him.
"He heard that the soldiers were coming to arrest him, but he didn't think it would be a problem," Rabiha explains. "His family told him to leave, to go to the north, but he said he had done nothing wrong. He stayed at his brother's house and waited for them to come. He was going to tell them it was a mistake."
The day they came was the last time Ramze's family saw him. For months, they had no idea where he had been taken. When she heard about Ramze's arrest, a panicked Rabiha contacted her local MP, who alerted the British foreign office. Their inquiries were met with silence from the Iraqi authorities.
"As soon as we heard of Mr Ahmed's arrest, we made repeated efforts to access him," a foreign office spokesperson told Al Jazeera. But it took months before Iraqi authorities allowed them to see him.
"When the embassy asked about him, the Iraqi government said he had Iraqi nationality first and British second, so they had no right to information," Rabiha says. Then, on March 25 this year, Rabiha's telephone rang. It was Ramze.
"The guards had given him a phone. He said I had to pay $50,000 dollars and they would release him. Then he told me he was in a prison in Muthanna, and I should tell the embassy. Then they cut the phone."
Torture and abuse
Rabiha called the embassy, and by April, a consular official had been allowed to meet with Ramze. Rabiha's initial relief at having found her husband quickly turned to horror as she learned he had been subjected to brutal torture to make him confess to involvement in terrorism.
| Ramze Ahmad says he has been viciously tortured in an Iraqi jail
"They beat him. They put a plastic bag on his head until he lost consciousness, and then they woke him with electric shocks. They told him that if he didn't confess, they would make his son rape him. They put a wooden stick into his anus," she says. "They have abused him in every way."
After days of torture, Ramze signed a confession admitting to being a member of al- Qaeda in Iraq, a claim Rabiha says is absurd. "He would see the bombings on television and say 'what sort of Islam is this?'" she says. "He was very sorry for all the people who died."
Human rights experts say that Ramze's story is far from unique. In a new report on mistreatment in the Iraqi prison system, entitled New Order, Same Abuses, Amnesty International estimates that around 30,000 people are currently being held without charge or trial in Iraq. Many are being tortured with impunity, the group says.
"The problem for people who have been held incommunicado and tortured a long time before they appear in court is how to prove those allegations," says Malcolm Smart, Amnesty's Middle East and North Africa director.
Prisoners who have not been charged with any crime are left with no means to challenge the accusations being laid against them. "There is nothing in the law or in practice that allows them to challenge their detention. It's a very, very, difficult situation," Smart says.
Part of the problem has been the lack of international oversight of Iraqi detention facilities since the US-led invasion of the country toppled Saddam's regime in 2003. Amnesty's report contains accounts of prisoners being handed over to the Iraqis after being arrested by US troops, and subsequently being tortured.
"The over-riding concern is that the US must be aware that torture at the hands of the Iraqi security forces is endemic," Smart says. "There may be individual cases of officers following up, but there doesn't seem to be any policy on ... welfare. The systemic approach has been to just hand prisoners over to the Iraqis."
Once in the limbo of Iraqi detention without charge, prisoners are often tortured into making confessions that will help secure convictions when their cases make it to court. Iraq's human rights institutions are deliberately kept in the dark about the fate of prisoners, meaning there is no accountability for the abuse taking place.
"We are not aware of any cases of torturers being brought to justice"
Malcolm Smart, Amnesty International's Middle East and North Africa programme director
"The problem is the lack of access to the secret prisons, which have been discovered from time to time. We are not aware of any cases of torturers being brought to justice," Smart says.
For Ramze, hope may lie in his British nationality. Amnesty want the British government to increase pressure on Iraq to charge him with a crime and investigate his allegations of torture. "They have been taking some action, but they have not been getting the answers they want," Smart says. "At a political level, they should put pressure on the Iraqi authorities to either charge him with a crime or release him."
British authorities say they share Amnesty's concerns over unlawful detentions and torture in Iraq, and have "repeatedly" raised Ramze's case with the Iraqi government.
"We are very concerned by Mr Ahmed's allegations of mistreatment, and raised them with the Iraqi authorities at a senior level as soon as we were aware of them," a foreign office spokesperson told Al Jazeera. "We have repeatedly made clear to the Iraqi authorities how seriously we take such allegations, and have requested that they be investigated."
Meanwhile, Rabiha can only wait and hope that her husband will be reunited with his legal rights soon. "You can't believe how I miss him," she says. "My heart is broken. I feel like I am in prison with him. What they have done to him is not human."