Iraq’s March 2010 election was hailed as a step towards democracy not only for itself, but also for the Middle East that has seen very few examples of the people being able to select their own leaders. Democracy is more than simply casting ballots however, it is also about creating a civil society that respects individual rights and establishes rule of law. A few days after Iraq’s voting was done, the State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, And Labor issued its 2009 report on human rights in Iraq. The State Department documented widespread problems throughout the country with its justice system, prisons and jails, media, and with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s abuse of power. The root of the problem is that Iraq has a weak government that does not enforce its own laws or fully protect its own people. The paper shows that the country still has a long way to go before it is a truly democratic nation.
The State Department dealt with Iraq’s justice system first, which showed that the country lacks the rule of law. The Human Rights Bureau found arbitrary arrests, torture, mistreatment, overcrowding and poor facilities in Iraq’s jails and prisons, lack of trials, and a weak judiciary. Iraq has a justice system similar to France’s Napoleonic Code, where judges do most of the investigating, and trials are more about determining punishments rather than determining guilt or innocence. Iraq’s constitution also ensures the right to a lawyer during questioning. The basis for most convictions is confessions, and that is what leads to abuses. Once suspects are brought to jail, police or soldiers usually beat or torture them until they testify against themselves. Due to the security problems in the country there are also many arrests made without warrants, although 2009 saw fewer of these instances than in previous years. Rape has also been reported, such as occurred with women in the Adhamiya prison in Baghdad in June, 2009. Prisoners are often denied the right to counsel, and held for months or years without facing a trial because there is such a backlog of cases and a shortage of judges who are weak, and open to intimidation and corruption. That has led to overcrowding in most facilities, some of which are also known for lack of food, bad medical care, poor maintenance, and denial of family visits or notification. This is true for both prisons and jails run by the central government, as well as those controlled by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). In total, Iraq held around 29,000 prisoners by the end of 2009. Similar cases were found in a December 2008 report by Human Rights Watch that said Iraq lacked due process, and by the United Nations.
The lack of accountability, oversight, sectarianism, and corruption prevent these abuses from being stopped. That means officers and soldiers that are accused of abuse rarely face punishments or consequences for their actions. For example, two police officers were charged with rape in the Adhamiya case in mid-2009, but by the end of the year nothing had happened to them. On June 11, the Interior Ministry run prisons in Rusafa, Baghdad, and Diwaniyah, Qadisiyah were accused of abuse and torture, and prisoners there went on a hunger strike. On June 18, the government set up a committee to look into the matter that led to 40 officials being charged, including one general, two colonels, two majors, and two lieutenants who were all suspended from work, but never went to trial. The State Department did find that more officers were investigated in 2009, whereas before nothing would happen.
One major improvement was that the security forces and ministries are no longer accused of running deaths squads as they once were during the 2006-2007 sectarian war. However, no officers, soldiers, or officials have ever been punished for these crimes. In 2007 for example, Deputy Health Minister Hakim al-Zamili and others in the ministry who were part of the Sadrist movement were arrested for killing Sunnis using Baghdad hospitals. In March 2008, charges were dropped against them for lack of evidence, probably due to witness intimidation. Ironically, Zamili successfully ran in the 2010 election, and won a seat in parliament representing Baghdad for the Sadrists.
The central government and the KRG continue to use the security forces for their own political goals however. Prime Minister Maliki for example, made a concerted effort to break the power of the Iraqi Islamic Party and Accordance Front in Diyala during 2009 that has been documented here before. That began in May when arrest warrants were issued for four provincial council members, the deputy governor, and a member of parliament from the governorate. On May 18, the Iraqi Special Forces, who are under the direct control of Maliki, raided the provincial council building in Baquba and arrested Abdel Jabbar Ali Ibrahim, the head of the Accordance Front on the council, for terrorism. Ibrahim has been held in some Baghdad jail ever since. The Prime Minister later dropped the arrest warrants for the three other council members after Sunni parliamentarians protested against them. On November 22, the deputy governor Muhamad Hassayn Jasim was arrested for financing terrorism. He too is still being held by the Defense Ministry. There are continued reports of the Kurdish peshmerga and asayesh security forces discriminating against Christians, Yazidis, and Shabak minorities in Ninewa as well. The Kurds have been accused of confiscating their property and building settlements on them, limiting their job opportunities, harassment, and abuse. Human Rights Watch documented many of these cases in Ninewa in 2009, and so did the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom in 2008.
Iraq also has one of the largest media industries in the Middle East, but there are limits on their freedom. First, many reporters and editors complain that laws prohibiting defamation limit what they report out of fear of lawsuits. Many also said that they self-censor themselves or have their stories dropped due to political pressure. Journalists talked about intimidation, threats, harassment by politicians and parties, arrests, and murders. In Kurdistan, a press freedom law was passed in 2008, but it hasn’t been evenly enforced. Many reporters are still sued or arrested under an older law for printing stories about the ruling parties. Defamation is also illegal in the KRG and journalists are often arrested for it.
Iraq has held six elections since it regained its sovereignty in 2005. That makes it an exceptional country in a region that is known for autocracies and monarchies. Allowing people to pick their own government, and replace politicians they don’t like is an important step towards democracy, but it is only a piece of the puzzle. Iraq needs a government that protects its own people from itself, and enforces the law. That is sorely lacking in Iraq right now since the authorities are still weak, divided, corrupt, and there is no transparency or oversight. That means the Prime Minister can use the security forces against his political rivals, suspects can be tortured and held incommunicado for years sometimes, and the media can be intimidated by officials with little to no consequences.
Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, And Labor, “2009 Human Rights Report: Iraq,” U.S. State Department, 3/11/10
Al Dulaimy, Mohammed and Allam, Hannah, “In tight Iraq parliament vote, upsets point to future battles,” McClatchy Newspapers, 3/19/10
Human Rights Watch, “On Vulnerable Ground,” 11/10/09
- “The Quality of Justice, Failings of Iraq’s Central Criminal Court,” December 2008
Rubin, Alissa, “Charges Are Dropped Against 2 Shiite Ex-Officials Accused in Sectarian Killings,” New York Times, 3/4/08
United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq, “Human Rights Report 1 January – 30 June 2009,” 12/15/09
United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, "Iraq Report - 2008," December 2008
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