DAMASCUS, Syria — In the early hours of Jan. 6, Laith al-Ani stood in a jail near the Baghdad airport waiting to be released by the American military after two years and three months in captivity.
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Before Mr. Ani was released, American guards asked him to select a sentence to describe his treatment by his captors.
He struggled to quell his hope. Other prisoners had gotten as far as the gate only to be brought back inside, he said, and he feared that would happen to him as punishment for letting his family discuss his case with a reporter.
But as the morning light grew, the American guards moved Mr. Ani, a 31-year-old father of two young children, methodically toward freedom. They swapped his yellow prison suit for street clothes, he said. They snipped off his white plastic identification bracelet. They scanned his irises into their database.
Then, shortly before 9 a.m., Mr. Ani said, he was brought to a table for one last step. He was handed a form and asked to place a check mark next to the sentence that best described how he had been treated:
“I didn’t go through any abuse during detention,” read the first option, in Arabic.
“I have gone through abuse during detention,” read the second.
In the room, he said, stood three American guards carrying the type of electric stun devices that Mr. Ani and other detainees said had been used on them for infractions as minor as speaking out of turn.
“Even the translator told me to sign the first answer,” said Mr. Ani, who gave a copy of his form to The New York Times. “I asked him what happens if I sign the second one, and he raised his hands,” as if to say, Who knows?
“I thought if I don’t sign the first one I am not going to get out of this place.”
Shoving the memories of his detention aside, he checked the first box and minutes later was running through a cold rain to his waiting parents. “My heart was beating so hard,” he said. “You can’t believe how I cried.”
His mother, Intisar al-Ani, raised her arms in the air, palms up, praising God. “It was like my soul going out, from my happiness,” she recalled. “I hugged him hard, afraid the Americans would take him away again.”
Just three weeks earlier, his last letter home — with its poetic yearnings and a sketch of a caged pink heart — appeared in The Times in one of a series of articles on Iraq’s troubled detention and justice system.
After his release from the American-run jail, Camp Bucca, Mr. Ani and other former detainees described the sprawling complex of barracks in the southern desert near Kuwait as a bleak place where guards casually used their stun guns and exposed prisoners to long periods of extreme heat and cold; where prisoners fought among themselves and extremist elements tried to radicalize others; and where detainees often responded to the harsh conditions with hunger strikes and, at times, violent protests.
Through it all, Mr. Ani was never actually charged with a crime; he said he was questioned only once during his more than two years at the camp.
American detention officials acknowledged that guards used electric devices called Tasers to control detainees, but they said they did so rarely and only when the guards were physically threatened. The officials said that detainees had several ways to report abuse without repercussions, and that all claims were investigated.
Officials declined to give specific details about why they had detained Mr. Ani or why they had freed him.
“He was released because the board that reviewed his case didn’t believe he any longer posed a threat,” said First Lt. Lea Ann Fracasso, a spokeswoman for detention operations, in a written answer to questions. “He was originally detained as a security threat. I don’t have anything more.”
The Detention System
The American detention camps in Iraq now hold 15,500 prisoners, more than at any time since the war began. The camps are filled with people like Mr. Ani who are being held without charge and without access to tribunals where their cases are reviewed, the Times examination published last December found.
Mr. Ani, a women’s clothing merchant, said he was detained in 2004 after American soldiers who were searching for weapons in his six-family apartment building found an Iraqi military uniform in the basement. His joy upon being released in January was short-lived. Days later, he said, a Shiite militia ransacked his home in Baghdad, looking to kill him. He hid, going from house to house, until he could move his family out of Iraq.
Now he is among the estimated 1.5 million Iraqis who have taken refuge in neighboring Syria and Jordan, where sectarian rifts are springing up.