Shawki Omar, U.S. citizen held in Iraq prison, abused and discriminated against, wife claims

2004 photo released by the Omar family showing 51-year-old Shawki Omar in the United Arab Emirates.

BAGHDADIn Baghdad's maximum-security Karkh prison, Shawki Omar is triply damned, his supporters say.

He's a Sunni prisoner in a Shiite-dominated jail. A foreigner in a country where outsiders are blamed for fueling an insurgency. And to top it off, an American in a nation struggling with the bloody legacy of the U.S.-led invasion.

"He is discriminated against on three different levels there," Omar's wife, Sandra, said in an interview. She said Shawki — a naturalized American citizen of Jordanian-Palestinian descent who was apprehended by U.S.-led forces in Baghdad nearly a decade ago on suspicion of fomenting jihad — had been beaten and denied medication.

In emails and phone calls from her home in Raleigh, North Carolina, Sandra Omar said that her 51-year-old husband shared a poorly heated shipping container with a dozen other inmates. She said he and other Sunni prisoners were denied care packages, refused exercise and repeatedly beaten. She said Omar had been on some form of hunger strike for more than two months to protest his condition.

The U.S. government claimed that Omar was unlikely to be tortured when it handed him to the Iraqi justice system, whose prisons are notorious for rights abuses. But Omar says he was brutalized soon after he was turned over. American officials say they are aware of Shawki's allegations and of his hunger strike. In a statement, it said it had raised the issue of abuse with Iraqi officials and that they were investigating.

"We are in regular contact with him and the prison authorities concerning his health," the statement said.

Omar's case is unique in one way: He was the first known American to be slated for trial in Iraq's post-Saddam Hussein courts. He is also one of only five American citizens in Iraqi custody. But his allegations of mistreatment are far from unusual. Erin Evers, a Middle East researcher with Human Rights Watch, said she knew of similar claims, and that they were symptomatic of a shaky criminal justice system shot through with corruption.

"It's one of the biggest problems in Iraq today," she said, noting that the Sunni protest movement, which has threatened the government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, has prisoners' rights at the heart of its demands.

Iraqi officials deny mistreating their American prisoner; Deputy Justice Minister Busho Ibrahim said the allegations were "absolutely not true." But Omar's Iraqi lawyer, Zeina Ahmad, told The Associated Press that when she saw her client late last year his feet had been so badly beaten they had swelled up and turned blue.

Omar's path to U.S. citizenship began when the Kuwaiti-born Jordanian visited South Dakota more than three decades ago. In 1982, he met Sandra, a student at the Pierre School of Practical Nursing in Pierre, South Dakota. The couple married the following year, moving around the country as their family grew.

Sandra Omar, who was put in touch with The Associated Press though the London-based prisoners' advocacy group CagePrisoners, said she grew up "firmly Christian." When the two wed, she still held on to the hope that Shawki would convert.

"It didn't turn out that way," she said.

Instead, she converted to Islam, eventually moving to Jordan in 1995 in a bid to familiarize the couple's children with the Arabic language and Muslim culture. Shawki Omar, who had become increasingly devout, took a second wife — a Jordanian — and brought the entire family to Iraq in 2002 in an attempt to get his eldest son into university there. He then took a third wife — an Iraqi. The family left as the U.S.-led invasion was looming, but Sandra said that Shawki returned to the country after the war.

What happens next is in dispute.

In a statement, U.S. Maj. Gen. John Gardner alleged that Omar was an al Qaeda emissary whose second marriage had made him a member of terror kingpin Abu Musab Zarqawi's extended family. Gardner said that multinational forces had arrested four Jordanian jihadists and an Iraqi insurgent at Omar's home in October 2004. Under questioning, the general said, the arrested jihadists accused Omar of trying to organize the kidnapping of foreigners in Baghdad.

Sandra Omar said the allegations are bogus, suggesting that the information had been squeezed out of Omar's alleged associates under duress.

"This is the kind of faulty intelligence you get when you torture people," she said of the allegations.

From U.S. detention, Omar sent a series of desperate-sounding letters to his wife and son, saying he was being kept in solitary confinement and would be refusing food until he saw a lawyer.

"The last time I checked my passport I thought I was an American citizen," he wrote in a letter dated March 2005. He went on to demand that his family do something — anything — to prevent his transfer to Iraqi custody.

"Sue everyone," he wrote in another letter, dated April 2005.

Omar's family did sue, sparking a case that went to the Supreme Court and drew in the AP and other media organizations, all of which challenged the government's contention that people detained on battlefield — such as Omar — had no access to the U.S. justice system.

Omar scored one important victory — the Supreme Court ruled that he and others like him were allowed to challenge his detention in American court. But he lost the bigger legal battle. On July 8, 2011, a lower court accepted U.S. government assurances that Omar was unlikely to face torture while in Iraqi custody. A week later, Omar was under Baghdad's control.

Things at Karkh prison have gotten worse since, Sandra Omar said.

She said the facility was rife with sectarian discrimination and that Omar has been prevented from getting blood pressure medication sent to him by his family.

Both she and Ahmad, Omar's Iraqi lawyer, said he had been on a hunger strike for more than two months, although neither went into detail regarding what the strike entailed. Ibrahim, the deputy justice minister, did not specifically address the hunger strike issue, but insisted that Omar was in good health.

Omar's accusations come just days after the U.S. military confirmed that more than half of the detainees in the U.S. prison camp at Guantanamo Bay are now on hunger strike. Detainee attorneys say the figure is much higher, as the prisoners -- many of whom have been jailed for years without charge - use the hunger strike to protest their continued incarceration.

Omar's former U.S. lawyer, University of Chicago Law School assistant professor Aziz Huq, said the abuse allegations were no surprise.

"You would have to be extravagantly optimistic, in engaging in these handovers, to think that you're not exposing these people to substantial risk of abuse," he said.