In October 2012, the United Nations released its semi-annual human rights report on Iraq. It was authored by the High Commissioner for Human Rights and the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI), and covered the first six months of last year. They had two major findings. First, violence and terrorism were still a daily occurrence in Iraq, although security overall was relatively stable. Second, Iraq’s justice system has major flaws. That includes the lack of due process, torture and abuse in prisons, the holding of detainees for long periods incommunicado, extended delays before trials, and the failure to release people after their charges had been dismissed, they were found guilty, or they served their terms. The U.N. noted that the Iraqi government was aware of these issues, and was working on improving some of them, but that it would take a very long time before any meaningful progress would be made. The report highlighted the fact that Iraq faces many institutional and cultural problems on top of the daily violence.
The United Nations noted that violence was up in the first half of 2012. There were more deaths in the first six months of 2012 compared to the same time period in 2011. From January to June 2011, UNAMI counted 1,256 killed. For that same period in 2012, it found 1,346 fatalities. Those numbers continued for the rest of the year as Iraq Body Count had more deaths for 2012, 4,557, than 2011, 4,136. The increase was due to more mass casualty attacks, namely bombings that occurred in 2012. Still, the two years were not far enough apart for the U.N. to declare that the situation had worsened. Rather it felt that security remained relatively stable for the last two years. It pointed to the lack of reconciliation, regional issues like the rebellion in Syria, and political disputes within Iraq as reasons why violence had not declined. Unfortunately, the United Nations predicted that would mean Iraqis would continue to suffer these levels of violence for the near future.
Of even longer term importance might be the fact that Iraq does not have strong rule of law. Its criminal justice system has had problems for decades dating back to the Baathist period, and many of those issues persist to the present day. First, there’s the issue of arrests. People are routinely picked up and held incommunicado. Some are placed in secret facilities, despite the Human Rights Minister recently claiming that none existed in the country. Ninewa has an especially bad record of this. Families there told UNAMI that they could not get ahold of relatives after they were picked up. They said that those taken away by the army routinely did not get access to lawyers. Not only that, but in February 2012, the head of the Ninewa Bar Association told the United Nations of five cases where lawyers were held by the army because they tried to represent people detained by the military. These are all violations of the Iraqi constitution and law, and harken back to the Saddam era. It creates a sense of fear and anger at the authorities, because families cannot find their relatives after they are arrested, while lawyers cannot gain access to them to protect their rights.
Iraqi prison (Shafaq News)
Another issue is people being held for extended periods without going to court. On June 30, Baghdad reported that it had 16,018 people waiting for trial in its prisons. During a visit to Kirkuk prison in March 2012, UNAMI found a prisoner who had been held four and a half years without a trial. In June, there was a protest at Taji prison where some claimed that they had spent five years in the facility without a court date. In provinces with disputed territories between the central and Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) there is the added issue of the role of the Kurdish security forces, the Asayesh. They don’t have the authority to arrest people outside of the Kurdistan Region, but they do. Those detained are usually taken to Kurdistan where the courts do not have jurisdiction over crimes out of the region either. That causes problems when the provinces or Baghdad request the prisoners be transferred since there is no legal process to do so. That leads to people sitting in jail for extended periods without trials, because of this bureaucratic hold-up. The result of all this is that many Iraqi prisons are overcrowded, and suffer from unsanitary conditions, and a lack of services. At the Chamchamal prison in Sulaymaniya there were 2,474 inmates in February 2012 in a facility meant to house 2,070. At the Al Qurna jail in Basra, there were 48 prisoners in rooms built for 20. Basra police said that they could not transfer detainees to the main prison in the province, because of a lack of space. The U.N. believed the main cause of this problem was that the government lacked the capacity, experience, and accountability to handle the number of prisoners held in the country. Another issue is the fact that up to seven different authorities controlled prisoners. That included the Justice, Interior, Defense, and Labor Ministries, along with the KRG, the police, and military units. That makes it extremely difficult to find prisoners, and work out their cases with the courts. That also means there is a lack of accountability as there is no one office that can look after detainees. Both the central and regional governments have promised greater oversight of their prisons. The Justice Ministry and Kurdistan are both building new facilities, and closing or rebuilding ones that don’t meet standards to address overcrowding. There has been no effort to better regulate the prisons however.
Corruption and red tape keeps Iraqis imprisoned longer than they should, and can even lead to being arrested. UNAMI found numerous cases of people having to pay bribes to guards or police to be released. In April 2012, the parliamentary integrity committee reported prisons were not following court orders to release detainees found not guilty or who had served their sentences unless they made payoffs. The June prison strike at Taji included complaints about delays in procedures that kept people in prison, and having to pay bribes either to get released or get a trial date. The U.N. was also told of cases where the security forces picked people up, because they had not been paid off. Graft and bribery are rampant throughout the Iraqi government. It should come as no surprise that the police, army, and prison system should be affected by it. It is just one more issue causing too many prisoners in some facilities, and people not getting their day in court, or worse, their freedom.
Iraq has laws against torture, but does not follow them. In January 2012, there were reports about torture at a facility near the Baghdad airport. That same month, there was a story of a man beaten and tortured by the Asayesh in Kirkuk. UNAMI documented mistreatment by prison guards and the army in Ninewa in the first half of last year. The Ministry of Justice has even admitted that there might be mistreatment in prisons run by the Defense and Interior Ministries. The Human Rights Ministry conducted 183 inspections of prisons and jails in the first half of 2012. It found that most abuse happened during the investigation period, and also pointed a finger at the Interior and Defense Ministry facilities as being the worst offenders. The main cause of this torture is the Iraqi legal systems dependence upon confessions. The main way these are obtained is beating it out of detainees. The U.N. called this part of the “culture of abuse” that Iraq suffers from. First, this has gone on for decades since the Saddam era, and therefore is an accepted practice. The idea of prosecuting such abuse is completely foreign in Iraq as a result. Not only that, but there is little sympathy amongst the public for people arrested, especially for terrorism or general crime, so there is no pressure to end it.
Iraq’s courts are no better than its prisons. Iraqi law bars confessions obtained through force being used, but judges still accept them. The government also regularly airs high profile detainees on state-run television explaining their guilt. That violates due process, and standards for fair trial. As noted before, some people have to wait months to years if ever to go to court. The U.N. believed this was caused by a lack of judges to review cases. In Irbil for example, there was only one judge for the Asayesh who had over 100 cases. To add to that, Iraq has had a huge increase in the number of executions. In 2010 there were only 18. That jumped to 67 in 2011, and 70 in just the first six months of 2012. With all the problems with the justice system, UNAMI was concerned about so many death penalties being handed out. There was no telling how many abuses might have happened in those cases. Again, since many of those being executed were picked up for terrorism charges, there is no public outcry to end them. Courts and due process are two important institutions and procedures to ensure a democratic system. Iraq is weak in both, which will continue to hinder its development as a truly free country.
Violence in Iraq is world famous, but the difficulties the country is facing in implementing a fair and equal justice system is only known by experts and Iraqis. Iraq continues to be beset by terrorists and insurgents, who while a shadow of their former selves have shown strong staying power. They do not appear to be willing to give up anytime soon, so the routine of shootings and explosions will continue for the foreseeable future. Even when that ends though, Iraq will lack the culture and institutions to make sure that people are treated fairly by the criminal justice system. The two are connected today, because the Iraqi security forces main way with dealing with attacks is to conduct raids and mass arrests. That floods the already struggling prison and court systems. Once there, prisoners are likely to be beaten to obtain a confession, and then have to wallow for months until they get to see a lawyer or go to court. Even if they are found innocent or guilty and serve their term, there is a question of whether they will be released unless they have the money to satisfy greedy guards and police who demand bribes. Some of these problems like overcrowding are slowly being address by the government, but the larger problems of abuse are not being dealt with at all. That’s because of the scars left by the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein have made such practices generally acceptable. Until that culture changes, Iraq’s institutions cannot begin to reform, and begin to implement a real system of due process that will ensure equal treatment for all.
Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights/United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI) Human Rights Office, “Report on Human Rights in Iraq: January to June 2012,” October 2012
Iraq Body Count
Shafaq News, “Human rights minister denies the existence of secret prisons in Iraq,” 1/2/13