Human Rights Watch in its annual world report found that Iraq has become more authoritarian in the last year. In 2012, the government clamped down upon the opposition, demonstrators, and reporters. The security forces continued to carry out arbitrary arrests, mass detentions, and tortured people on little to no evidence. The result was the limiting of political freedom, along with the continued lack of due process.
Human Rights Watch said that Iraq needed to reform its criminal justice system. According to the Criminal Procedure Code, people detained by the authorities have to have an arrest warrant, and need to be brought before an investigative judge within 24 hours of their arrest. Suspects then have the right to an attorney, and time to prepare their defense. This law is rarely followed. Human Rights Watch, the United Nations, and other groups have found people are regularly picked up and held incommunicado for weeks, sometimes months, and in some cases, years before they ever go to trial or see a judge. Lawyers often don’t see their clients until right before going to court. Iraqi criminal law was rarely followed under Saddam, and that culture of ignoring legislation has continued since then. A major problem is a lack of judges to adjudicate cases. Another is the fact that eight different organizations hold prisoners, and there is no overall authority that keeps track of them, so people often get lost in the system. A third issue is that people picked up by the Kurdish security forces are taken to Kurdistan, which has no process to transfer detainees back to the federal government. Finally, the government often picks people up on suspicion of terrorism, and feels no urgency to treat them fairly.
All of this leads to widespread abuses within the Iraq. One major cause of this is the reliance of the justice system upon confessions. That encourages threats, beatings, and torture to obtain them. People are regularly arrested, threatened, abused, and then confess against their will. Another factor is that since the withdrawal of American troops, the Iraqi security forces no longer try to prevent attacks, but are more reactive, carrying out mass arrests after an incident. Many of these raids are completely random, and sometimes include entire families. In November 2012, for example, Federal Police came to eleven homes in Taji, Salahaddin, and carried away 41 people, 29 of which were children. They were held for four days where they were electrocuted and suffocated. Women and their kids did not escape that treatment. Corruption is another issue. In December, Human Rights Watch documented cases of women being tortured, charged with terrorism, and then judges and members of the security forces demanding bribes to get them released. Finally, the army and police run secret prisons. In March 2011, the Justice Ministry said it would close down Camp Honor where a secret prison was discovered. Prisoners who were held there said they were beaten and tortured. A year later, Human Rights Watch received information that the facility was still open. The United Nations said these violations were the result of the culture of abuse, which is the legacy of Saddam Hussein. When his regime was overthrown the practices that he instituted remained. That’s why beatings are so common after someone is arrested, because that’s what happened in the ancien regime, and most police officers and soldiers either saw that happen or were victims of it themselves, so they are just perpetuating what they know. Not only that, but almost all of Iraq’s leaders either lived under Saddam, or in neighboring countries like Iran and Syria, which also ignore basic human rights, so they have no real motivation to solve these problems, because they have never lived under a system that had the rule of law.
Human Rights Watch reported newer troubling trends as well. In 2012, Iraq witnessed its second straight year of demonstrations. The central and regional government in Kurdistan responded by cracking down upon the right of assembly and the media. On February 17, hundreds of security forces surrounded protesters in Sulaymaniya City, while men in plain clothes beat them. On February 25, the police and army blocked hundreds of demonstrators from reaching Tahrir Square in Baghdad. People were told that there were lists of people that were wanted, and that anyone with a similar name would be picked up. Later in the year, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki flooded the square with pro-government supporters and secret agents in an attempt to push the dissenters out, and spy upon their activities. The security forces also blocked reporters from protests, beat them, and broke and confiscated their equipment. This created a sense of fear amongst both activists and the media, which eventually ended the demonstrations. Today, Iraq is again facing a wave of protests, and the government is once again slowly but surely imposing restrictions upon them. Both the Kurdistan Regional Government and Baghdad have shown little patience with public dissent against their rule, and have used the security forces and their followers to break up anyone that would protest against them. This is another clear violation of Iraqi law and the constitution, and points to the politicization of the army and police.
A final example of the problems with the security forces concerned attacks upon emo youth and gays in early 2012. In March, there were several reports of people following alternative lifestyles being threatened, beaten, and killed. Instead of investigating these cases, the Interior Ministry said that the stories were being made up, and did nothing about them. In fact, the Interior Ministry had been talking about eradicating the emo culture since the fall of 2011, which resulted in an official statement in February 2012 that emos were a threat to society, and then another that there was going to be a crackdown upon the youth movement. No one was ever prosecuted for the deaths, and the story eventually disappeared from the headlines. This pointed to the strength of religious parties within the Iraqi government and security forces, which were not open to Western culture coming to the country. Their followers were able to intimidate and kill people with impunity with the implicit support of the Interior Ministry.
Iraq has struggled to follow the rule of law for decades. That explains why there are still mass arrests, people being held incommunicado, secret prisons, abuse, corruption, and torture. Iraq seems to be taking more steps backwards however, as both Baghdad and the Kurdish regional government used the security forces to break up demonstrations in 2012, and Prime Minister Maliki appears to be doing the same thing right now with protesters. The attacks upon emos and gays also showed the cultural conservatism amongst some of the ruling parties who were not willing to allow these alternative lifestyles to be openly practiced. As one analyst for Human Rights Watch pointed out, in 2012 Iraq became more authoritarian, while not improving the safety of the general public. Rather if people lived in the wrong neighborhood, wanted to protest against the government, or take up a different way of living they were likely to be threatened, arrested, or even killed. That’s a sad state of affairs for a country that many people were hoping would develop into a democracy after the fall of Saddam. It goes to show that elections do not make a government that respects the rights of the people, minorities, and differing views. A culture has to be developed where freedom of expression and the media, and due process is respected. Those are all lacking in today’s Iraq.
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
Human Rights Watch, “Iraq: A Broken Justice System,” 1/31/13
- “World Report 2013,” 1/31/13