A leading human rights group has accused Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki of operating secret jails where terrorism suspects are tortured. Representatives for Maliki deny the charges, calling them an attempt to smear the Iraqi government. Here, a guide to the accusations, and to the government's response:

What is the human rights group claiming?
The organization, Human Rights Watch, says Maliki is running his own personal combat brigade, called Brigade 56 or the Baghdad brigade. The 3,000 soldiers in the special unit allegedly operate a secret detention facility called Camp Justice where 280 prisoners accused of terrorism and other crimes are held without access to lawyers — and tortured. "When you have these institutions that are operating outside the rule of law," says Human Rights Watch researcher Samer Muscati, "it creates a situation where there is no transparency, where forces are likely to engage in activity that is reprehensible, and there's no way to rein them in."

How does Maliki answer the charges?
Justice Ministry officials deny everything. "This news is incorrect," says Justice Ministry official Busho Ibrahim, as quoted by The New York Times. "All the prisons in Camp Justice belong to our ministry." Ibrahim said the "false news" about the jail was meant to "discredit the reputation of Iraqi government." Parliamentary leaders invited relatives of people allegedly being held at the facility to come forward with proof. "The Parliament will check this matter," said the speaker of Iraq's Parliament, "and if the findings are true, we will request that the government explain itself."

Is there evidence of secret jails in Iraq?
Yes, in fact one was disclosed last year, and Maliki promised that the detainees there would be transferred to the Ministry of Justice. Detainees at the original facility — Camp Honor, in the Green Zone — told the Los Angeles Times that prisoners there were hung upside down and given electric shocks to their genitals. "The interrogators beat me repeatedly," one former Camp Honor detainee told an investigator, "and told me that they would go to my house and rape my sister if I did not sign a confession, so I did. I did not even know what I was confessing."

Is there hope of progress?
The reports of abuse suggest that some Iraqi authorities are "behaving in much the same way" as the disgraced government they replaced, says Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director of Human Rights Watch. "The difference now is there are political forces in Iraq that are not at all happy with this kind of thing," he said. "This has sparked outrage, as it should."

Sources: NY Times, LA Times, Christian Science Monitor, NPR