Amnesty International released a report in September 2010 documenting the rampant abuses going on within Iraq’s prisons. Iraqi penal codes bar arbitrary arrests, require that suspects see an investigative judge within 24 hours of their detention, and bans torture. None of these laws are being followed. On the other hand, the Iraqi legal system is largely based upon confessions, which encourages torture and mistreatment to gain one. Iraqi officials regularly announce cases of abuse as a result, but investigations lead nowhere, and no senior officials have ever been held accountable. Amnesty International believes this has created a culture of impunity, which will be hard to break.
Amnesty estimates that around 30,000 people are currently being held in Iraq without a trial. The majority are Sunnis suspected of supporting the insurgency. There are hundreds of Shiites as well, most of which are followers of Moqtada al-Sadr. Many of the jails and prisons they are in are overcrowded, and lack basic services. Detainees often aren’t allowed to contact their family members, and let them know where they are, nor receive visits. The facilities are split between the Justice, Interior, and Defense Ministries. The Iraqi Human Rights Ministry in its 2009 annual report said that it had not been able to inspect most of these prisons.
Detainees in these facilities are routinely denied lawyers. This happens despite Iraq’s penal code, which requires legal representation. Some lawyers don’t want to represent suspected terrorists, while others fear reprisals if they do. The most common reason why no legal representation is provided is because prisoners are held incommunicado, and no one knows where they are. In 2009 the Iraqi Human Rights Ministry reported that this was routine in Defense and Interior Ministry run prisons.
The lack of lawyers during questioning also encourages torture and abuse. Amnesty has heard of rape, beatings, suspension in the air, electric shock, breaking bones, removing toenails, asphyxiation, making people sit on sharp objects like broken bottles, and using drills. Two examples in 2009 came from parliament’s Human Rights Committee who started investigating the case of two women who claimed they were repeatedly raped after they were arrested, while other lawmakers said that security forces had raped more than 21 male prisoners in Baghdad and Qadisiyah. Torture often occurs right after arrest as authorities seek a confession. Police or intelligence officers usually carry out interrogations instead of investigative judges as stipulated by law, which also increases the chances of abuse and torture. Last year, the Human Rights Ministry documented 574 allegations of torture. Amnesty believes the real number is much higher, since the ministry’s access to prisoners is extremely limited.
The Iraqi security forces have also used arrests to extort money from families. In November 2009 the Interior Ministry’s Counter-Terrorism Unit arrested Dr. Adnan al-Mahdawi, Dean of Education at the University of Diyala in Baquba. The unit claimed a colleague’s wife charged Mahdawi with involvement in her husband’s death. After Mahdawi was picked up, a member of the Counter-Terrorism Unit called up his family and demanded money in return for his release. They said they couldn’t pay, and Mahdawi has been locked up ever since. In early 2010 he went to court, but the accusing wife never showed up, and the trial is still on going.
Secret prisons also exist within Iraq. In April 2010 one such facility was discovered at the Muthanna airport in Baghdad. It held more than 400 prisoners, many of which were Sunnis rounded up in and around Mosul in late 2009 that had been tortured. The prison was under the direct control of the prime minister’s office, that subsequently claimed that it was not secret, and judges and lawyers had both gone there. An investigation was launched, but nothing has been heard of it since then, which is also common.
The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) is no better. It holds hundreds of suspected terrorists from the Islamist terrorist group Ansar al-Islam, as well followers of the legal political parties the Kurdistan Islamic Movement and the Kurdistan Islamic Group. The Kurds have also arrested Sunni Arabs outside of Kurdistan in provinces such as Ninewa and taken them to the KRG, and has been rounding up Kurds and holding them in secret jails since at least the 1990s. Many of these detainees are being held without trial, because officials claim they don’t fall under Iraqi or Kurdish laws. Amnesty believes it’s because the authorities don’t want them to go to court, and would rather imprison them indefinitely.
At the end of February 2008 Iraq’s parliament passed an Amnesty Law, meant to address the overflowing prison population. Each province was to create a judicial committee that was supposed to release anyone held for six months without seeing an investigative judge or who had not been sent to court after a year. In practice the law has largely been ignored. Prisoners have not been released after committees have said they should be, and the majority of those receiving amnesty are suspects wanted for questioning or out on bail, rather than actual prisoners. U.S. officials have claimed that Iraq’s outdated and bureaucratic judicial system, lack of computers, judges who don’t want to release people, and the inability of officials to safely travel in parts of the country are the reasons why the Amnesty Law has not been applied. Another possible reason is that the law was simply passed as a political act to make it look like Baghdad was moving towards reconciliation, and to relieve pressure from Washington, with no intention of really applying it.
Amnesty’s September report is just the latest on abuses going on within Iraq. Human Rights Watch, the United Nations, and the State Department have all made similar findings. As soon as an interim government was created in Iraq in mid-2004 stories (1) of abuse and torture began to emerge. As ever, the main causes have been the drive for a confession, the isolation many prisoners are held in, and the absence of lawyers and judges. Amnesty International called for a number of reforms by the Iraqis, and for the United States to exert pressure on Baghdad to solve these problems. The on-going insurgency, which leads to a constant flow of prisoners being rounded up, the country’s history of abuse that dates back to the Saddam era, and the lack of interest by three Iraqi administrations since the 2003 invasion points to little progress being made on this issue.
1. Edmonson, George, “Iraq routinely torturing prisoners, group says,” San Francisco Chronicle, 1/26/05
Amnesty International, “New order, same abuses: Unlawful detentions and torture in Iraq,” September 2010
Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, And Labor, “2009 Human Rights Report: Iraq,” U.S. State Department, 3/11/10
Edmonson, George, “Iraq routinely torturing prisoners, group says,” San Francisco Chronicle, 1/26/05
Knowlton, Brian, “U.S. alleges rights abuses by Iraqis,” San Francisco Chronicle, 3/1/05
Human Rights Watch, “The Quality of Justice, Failings of Iraq’s Central Criminal Court,” December 2008
UN Assistance Mission for Iraq, “Human Rights Report 1 January – 30 June 2008,” December 2008