Frustrated Iraqi teenagers rue long detentions

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BAGHDAD, Oct 1 (Reuters) Teenager Ali Mohammed has been in an overcrowded Iraqi youth detention facility for five months.

He says he has no idea what led him to be considered a security threat and struggles with a speech impediment as he tells his story.

''They told me they would only question me for five minutes and I have been here since the 25th of April,'' the lightly-moustached and bare-footed Mohammed stuttered.

''I suffer from epilepsy, a weak spine and a speech defect.'' Mohammed's case is just one of thousands of prolonged detentions that underline the Iraqi judicial system's struggle to sift through the large number of detainees held in Iraq.

Tareq al-Hashemi, Iraq's Sunni vice president, visited western Baghdad's Ahdath youth detention centre last week in an effort to highlight the woeful state of detainees.

Expressing surprise at Mohammed's detention, he asked what information he was likely to provide under questioning given his speech defect.

''How are they going to interrogate him?'' he told a group of journalists as he toured Ahdath where alleged security detainees are kept with all the others.

Cases of lengthy detention without charge are an embarrassment to a government that says it promotes human rights and whose members, exiled or persecuted under Saddam Hussein's rule, criticised abuses carried out by his security forces.

GOVERNMENT PROMISE OF ACTION One boy, an orphan barely in his teens from the city of Falluja, was detained after he stole a mobile phone in a busy area of central Baghdad where he collected scrap aluminium cans.

''I've been here for three months and I don't know why I am here,'' the young boy said.

Midhat al-Mahmoud, head of the Supreme Judicial Council, said the system was working hard to reduce the long delays for some detainees to receive a trial.

''We had a problem with (detainees in) Baghdad, but now we have 44 investigative judges and five criminal courts who are all working beyond their hours,'' Mahmoud said.

Deputy Prime Minister Barham Salih told a news conference on Saturday after holding a meeting to tackle the detainee issue that the government is serious in speeding up legal procedures to ensure innocent people are released soon after detention.

Government figures show 2,661 detainees have been sent to court since a security crackdown in the capital began in February. The figures also show that more than 4,000 have been released from Iraqi prisons in the same period, though it was not clear if those releases were all in Baghdad.

''We want to cooperate with this humanitarian and legal issue through legal procedures only. We don't want this issue to be politicised because it would oppress the citizens who for one reason or another ended up in these prisons,'' Salih said.

''There is a problem in Iraqi prisons. It's not shameful to acknowledge a problem, it's shameful to ignore it.'' REUTERS SKB AS1731

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