One cold December morning in 1983, a dozen security officers barged into a classroom in Chamchamal, a town 40 km north of Kirkuk.

In front of the bewildered schoolchildren, the officers grabbed their 23-year-old teacher and beat him to a pulp before dragging him off for questioning. They stuffed him in the trunk of a car and drove away.

Anwar Shukur Mohammed, head of the Political Prisoners High Commission (PPHC) in Arbil, recalls the harrowing details of his five years in Iraqi prisons. He was kept in a tiny cell, and given a slice of bread a day.

He still bears the scars of the daily torture sessions. They pulled out his fingernails, and stuck them into his arms. They tied him to a pillar, gave him electric shocks, and beat him with barbed wires and pieces of wood.

Anwar was charged with cooperating with the Kurdish liberation movement. He readily admits that he was encouraging the Kurdish youth to stand up against the Iraqi regime during the war with Iran by distributing leaflets and other peshmarga (partisan fighter) publications to his students.

He was sentenced to life in prison, and never expected to see freedom again. But in 1988, the Baghdad regime declared a general amnesty. If the physical scars have healed, the emotional wounds remain.

"They would record the screams of women, and play them repeatedly to the prisoners," he claimed. "One day, they told me one of the women was my sister, and if I did not confess, they would rape her."

The PPHC was established last November by 17 former prisoners. Their objective is to raise international awareness over the plight of more than 3,000 Kurdish dissidents who are languishing in Iraqi prisons. They have invested their own money and resources into the project.

"We have appealed to Amnesty International, the United Nations, U.S. President George W. Bush, British Prime Minister Tony Blair and many human rights groups," said Anwar.

"We want to know what has happened to these political prisoners. We want them to be released, and we are seeking compensation for the families of those who were executed, as well as those who have spent long years in prison."

Delsos Namiq Said, a founding member of the PPHC, spent three years in prison. Her gentle demeanor reveals nothing of the brutality she experienced at the hands of Iraqi prison guards.

In 1985, state security officers stormed into her home in the middle of the night. Delsos and her younger brother were arrested and taken to a prison in Suleimanieh. For three years, she endured the same torture routine as the other prisoners.

"They did not differentiate between the male and female prisoners," she said, simply.

She recalled one particular episode when she was tied to a ceiling ventilator and left suspended for hours. When she was finally released, she fell to the ground, and suffered extensive internal bleeding for months afterward. As a result, she said she is unable to conceive children.

Delsos was accused of taking part in the clandestine movement to gather support for the Kurdish liberation movement. She would creep into the schools at nights to slip leaflets and other material into the students' desks.

She was also released in 1988, and married seven years ago.

Asked how she would react if she were to run into one of her prison guards on the street now, she replied: "It is unlikely. Many of them were killed when the Suleimanieh Prison was raided in the spring of 1991 during the Kurdish uprising."

When Arbil was under Baghdad's control, there were more than 25 prisons in the governorate. Today, only one of these prisons remains operational, and it is used by the local Kurdish authorities to detain convicted criminals.

According to Anwar, once the Iraqi regime is toppled, the plan is to expand the PPHC's mandate to include political prisoners of all ideologies and ethnic groups.

"This regime must be removed. And freedom of thought and expression must be allowed under the new regime," he said.

Located on Salahuddin Street, opposite the under-construction Sheraton Hotel, the PPHC office receives about 100 visitors daily. Some are former political prisoners who come to register their names. Others are family members inquiring about loved ones who were imprisoned years ago.

"Once Saddam's regime is removed, and a democratic, multi-party government is installed, we intend to lobby for the many prisons in Iraq to be converted into institutions for public service, such as hospitals and schools," said Anwar.