Inside Abu Ghraib: Meeting Ali Shallal al-Qaisi

Inside Abu Ghraib: Meeting Ali Shallal al-Qaisi
Feature: The image of Qaisi standing on a cardboard box with electric wires attached to his fingers has come to symbolise the injustice of the invasion of Iraq.
5 min read
27 November, 2015
It has been 12 years since Qaisi's abuse in the US Abu Ghraib prison [alAraby]
The man in the most famous image from the 2003 torture and prisoner abuse scandal at the notorious Abu Ghraib Prison has given a rare interview to al-Araby al-Jadeed's Iraq correspondent, Othman al-Mukhtar, describing his harrowing ordeal during his detention.

Ali Shallal al-Qaisi, who has undergone six surgeries because of the torture he was subjected to, detailed his experience from his arrest until release after the images were leaked to human rights organisations.

"I wasn't a military commander or a government official. I was just a resident of Baghdad, where I grew up, and just like any other Iraqi I was against the US invasion and I spoke out against it," Qaisi said.

He explained that he owned a football pitch in the al-Amiriya district of Baghdad and after the invasion began in March 2003, US soldiers appropriated the pitch and used it to dump "severed body parts and left over waste from fighting".

Qaisi contacted the foreign media and broke the story to them.

"My picture was published in a news article with my complaints. The Americans then raided my home and arrested me," he said.

He was first taken to a detention centre in his neighbourhood for interrogation before he was transferred to Abu Ghraib prison.

"They threw me into a car and put a sack and my shoes on my head,"

At the detention centre, his fingerprints were taken along with a saliva sample and corneal scan. Then the questioning began.

"It was in a filthy traditional toilet overflowing with water and waste. There were two interrogators with a translator, they questioned me thoroughly for around an hour and a half,"

"They asked me to collaborate with them and give them names of people who could pose a threat."
     They asked me to collaborate with them and give them names of people who could pose a threat
- Ali Shallal al-Qaisi

But Qaisi told the interrogators he did not know anyone in his area that was a taking part in the armed resistance against the US occupation.

"They said they did not care and ask me to give them any names - even the names of people I hated. They told me 'just give us any old names and we'll help you out a lot'."

Qaisi refused, and the mood took a turn for the worse.

"They threatened to send me to Guantanamo Bay and to a place 'where dogs would be too disgusted to live'," he said.

He had the sack placed over his head once again and was loaded into a lorry with around 30 other detainees who had been arrested for taking part in the resistance movement in southern Baghdad.

When he was taken out of the lorry and the sack taken off his head he was met with a sign that read in both English and Arabic: "Do not approach the fence, do not look at the face of an American."

His hands were tied behind his back, the sack put back on his head and he was led into Abu Ghraib Prison.

"We walked through a long hallway and I could hear people screaming for help and dogs barking. They stopped me and took the sack off and undid my hands."

The American soldiers then told Qaisi to remove his dishdasha, an ankle-length traditional Iraqi garment similar to a robe.

"I took it off and stood there in my underwear. They then told me to take everything off and I said no, so they took it off by force and tied up my hands and legs again.

"They ushered me along until we got to a staircase but I couldn't make it up the stairs so they started beating with the butts of their rifles, while screaming 'let's go' at me."

He could not make it up the stairs because of his restrained feet, and fell down at the first step.

"They starting kicking me and beating me with their rifles so I had to crawl up the spiral staircase on my hands and knees for what seemed like hours.

"By the time we reached the top they had already begun throwing faeces at me and they were blasting a recording of the words 'execution, execution' in my ears over and over in English and Arabic."
     We could hear them screaming for help. But we were naked in our cells and all we could do was repeat Allahu Akbar
- Ali Sallal al-Qaisi

The soldiers also scrawled on his body, he said, which he could not see because his face was still covered. In his cell they stood him up and tied his hands above his head.

This is when Qaisi lost complete track of time.

"Possibly in the morning, an interrogator came into my cell and introduced himself to me, he spoke Arabic with a Levantine accent, and told me that he had questioned detainees in Palestine and Guantanamo Bay."

After the interrogation his head was once again covered, and he had one hand tied above his head in a stress position.

"They were constantly writing on my body, dowsing me in cold water as well as sticking the barrels of their guns and broomsticks into extremely sensitive places, which was very painful and had a severe psychological impact on me," he told al-Araby.

"For three days I was not given food and had cold water thrown at me - it was the end of December and the weather was freezing - and had loud recordings blasted into my ears. I reached the point of exhaustion that I could have fallen asleep while I was standing but they wouldn't let me."

Qaisi said that the women's section of the prison was opposite to the men's, and that the women prisoners were subjected to the same treatment from the soldiers.

"We could hear them screaming for help. But we were naked in our cells and all we could do was repeat Allahu Akbar."

Qaisi said he was eventually released after the images of the abuse were published in the media.

"They didn't want the world to see what was really going on there. The pictures only show five percent of what happened to us.

"The buzzing sound of the electric wires is still stuck in my head," Qaisi said.