RUBIN: Innocence no defense in Iraq

BAGHDAD — I came to Iraq to find my driver Salam, who has been unjustly imprisoned for the last 16 months. I found him in a grimy police station jail, a shadow of the ebullient man I knew, with marks of torture on his legs. His suffering reflects the trauma so many Iraqis still endure in a country trying to recover from decades of dictatorship and botched U.S. occupation.

But what makes Salam's case so scary is that he's being punished for opposing the sectarian slaughter that nearly drove Iraq over the edge.

Salam is a Shiite whose uncle was hung by Saddam Hussein, but he couldn't stand watching innocent Sunnis slaughtered. He tipped U.S. and Iraqi forces about a family of Shiite Mahdi Army militia who were killing his Sunni neighbors in 2007. Two members of the militia family were jailed and one went into hiding.

Once U.S. troops left Salam's neighborhood, the Mahdi Army family took its revenge. Members used personal connections with senior army and intelligence officers to get Salam arrested. The practice of bringing malicious charges — known in Arabic as kaydia — has become so widespread here that Iraq's Supreme Judicial Council has urged judges and prosecutors not to issue warrants unless there is sufficient evidence. The judges aren't listening.

Every Iraqi to whom I've told Salam's story knew of similar cases of arrests on bogus charges for reasons of revenge or personal vendettas. I'm told it's possible to rent fake witnesses who wait outside the courthouse.

In Salam's case, the miscarriage of justice reveals a rot that threatens every tenuous advance this country has made in the last couple of years.

I could feel a chill as I approached the Baghdad police station where Salam is being held. Officials were extremely nervous about Salam's case, and didn't want to let a journalist near him. Only calls to Iraqi officials I knew well finally got me permission to meet Salam.

I was brought to the police chief's office and watched as Salam was led toward me. "You cannot write anything," the police chief told me. Wearing blue sweatpants and a white T-shirt, Salam looked 50 pounds thinner than when I last saw him. Here is the story he told: The initial charges against him, of murder, were brought by a member of the Jaish Mahdi family named Leila Tha'ad, the mother and aunt of the men who were arrested in the U.S. bust. Judge Abdullah al-Alousi acquitted Salam of these charges on Jan. 14, 2010, after he had already spent one year in jail.

As he walked out of the prison, two Iraqi army Humvees pulled up; men jumped out and seized him. He was taken first to a notorious prison, and then to an army base at Muthanna airport, where, he says, Leila Tha'ad has close contacts with senior military and intelligence officials. "They tortured me, they used electric," he said, showing the burn marks and scabs on his legs. "They did it in other places, too. They accused me of being an American spy."

So here we have it. An Iraqi who helped U.S. troops catch militia killers is tortured by Iraqis for his efforts. I asked knowledgeable Iraqi security sources whether they thought Salam was innocent and being treated wrongly, and they answered yes.

The story gets worse. Salam was thrown back in jail, and now faces a host of new charges — brought by friends of Tha'ad's family — including a charge of terrorism. Salam's two sons were also arrested and remain imprisoned.

Salam handed me a letter he had written to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in which he recalled that Maliki asked Iraqis to help in the fight against terrorism. "Instead of being rewarded by respect and pride," he wrote, "some of those who have weak souls and are working in government have thrown me in jail along with my sons. ..."

As Iraqi politicians struggle to form a new government, Maliki, who's seeking a second term, talks constantly of moving beyond the sectarianism that nearly tore Iraq apart. Yet so long as Salam and others like him remain imprisoned, such pledges ring hollow.