To make sure no one is ignorant of the danger they are in, Iraqi television news has shown gruesome footage of a man before and after his hand was amputated for allegedly stealing a television.
An army deserter, who escaped to Kurdistan last month after part of his ear was amputated, said he saw 300 people in one detention camp who had part or all of one ear cut off by doctors. Victims also have an X branded on to their forehead just above the eyebrows.
Such is the number of operations taking place that the authorities have started to bring civilian doctors to the prisons rather than sending offenders to the hospitals, one doctor who fled told a UN official. A government decree threatens anybody carrying out cosmetic surgery on those who have been branded or otherwise maimed with the loss of their own hand or ear.
The campaign of mutilation started on 4 June with a decree signed by Saddam Hussein introducing, for the first time in Iraq, the punishment of the cutting off of a hand below the wrist for theft. A second offence means the amputation of a foot below the ankle.
The prime target of the government is evidently not thieves but Iraqi men who either deserted from the army or evaded their military call-up. Seeing them as a potential political threat, the government accelerated the call-up programme last year and is enforcing it through the mutilations.
To drive the message further home, Iraqi television news showed film of a terrified man, Ali Ubaid Abed Ali, before and after his right hand was amputated for allegedly stealing a television and a small sum of money, about 30 pence, from a relative. The news item, which opens with a lingering shot of the severed hand on a blue sheet, created a wave of fear inside Iraq but passed largely unnoticed in the West.
Mr Ali is shown writhing in pain in a bed in a hospital, reported to be in Diyala province north-east of Baghdad, with a large white bandage around the stump of his right arm. A large X has been branded on his forehead and he appears to be in a state of shock. A neatly dressed news reader in a dark suit and tie reads out an account of the crime and savage punishment without a flicker of expression on his face.
Some doctors are refusing to carry out the operations and have fled to Kurdistan and Iran. Sixty medical students from the southern Iraqi city of Basra were arrested three weeks ago, according to a senior surgeon who reached Iran.
Emma Nicholson MP, who recently visited Iraqi refugee camps in southern Iran, said two Iraqi medical students from Basra who escaped to Iran separately said they were worried about the fate of those under arrest.
Some amputees are known to have died from infections because surgeons are forbidden to give aftercare, even when there is heavy bleeding. A doctor from Baghdad military hospital: said "They are shoved into crowded cells and no treatment is allowed once they leave us."
Doctors are also vulnerable to retaliation from the relatives of mutilated soldiers. One surgeon who was caught by them had his own ears cut off and was then killed.
The UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Iraq, Max Van Der Stoel, said last month that one particularly sad aspect of what is happening is the diversion of doctors, drugs and medical equipment "away from health related activities and for the purpose of legalised mutilations".
There is no way of knowing how many people have lost limbs or ears. Hassan Abdullah Hussein, who said he deserted because the army paid too little for him to feed his family, was arrested in Kirkuk by members of the ruling Baath party and lost the upper party of one ear. He said that in the camp where he was kept the amputations were "going on like a conveyor belt - people in, people out." Press and other reports confirm that the new policy is being implemented all over the country.
If anything the use of mutilations to enforce government authority has increased in the six months since it started. Even bakers - a politically important group because Iraqis depend on the official bread ration - have been threatened with amputation if they break regulations.
Nor are amputations and branding the only punishment inflicted on victims. Their families lose part of their rations and are forced to live in special areas which the government say it is allocating to "cowards".Reuse content