Thursday, May 30, 2013

Stories Of Human Rights Abuses In Iraq From Amnesty International and the State Department’s Annual Reports

Amnesty International and the U.S. State Department recently released their annual reports on human rights around the world. As usual, Iraq fared badly. Neither organization found any improvements in the situation within the country. The common charges of mass arrests, arbitrary detentions, holding suspects without charges and access to lawyers, torture and abuse of prisoners, holding people that should be released, corruption, intimidation and harassment of the media, and limiting freedom of speech and assembly were all heard. These abuses occurred at the hands of both the central and Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). The reason why this situation persists is because there is no due process, and more importantly no accountability within the government to stop and reform any of these practices. Even when parts of the government itself find cases of abuse nothing substantive is done about it. Investigations are always announced for example, but they never lead to anything. Since these types of report have become the norm for Iraq, there is nothing different between this year’s and the last few. What Amnesty and the State Department can provide is specific stories that can humanize the poor state of human rights within the country.

Iraq suffers from weak rule of law. Suspects are supposed to have a number of rights until they are found guilty, but that rarely happens. Two of the most common examples of how the government ignores these protections are the use of torture, and the public airing of confessions before detainees go to trial in terrorism cases. What happened to Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi is a high-profile example. In December 2011, several of the vice president’s bodyguards were arrested, and then shown on state-run TV confessing to carrying out assassinations for Hashemi. That resulted in several death sentences for him the next year. Hashemi and others later claimed that his guards were tortured, and forced to confess. One member of his security detail, Amir Sarbut Zaidan al-Batawi died in custody three months after his arrest. When his family received his body in March 2012, they said that it showed signs of abuse and torture. The government denied those charges, and said that he passed away because of kidney failure. More routine cases were like those of Nabhan Adel Hamid, Muad Mohammed Abed, Amer Ahmed Kassar, and Shakir Mohammed Anad who were arrested in Ramadi and Fallujah in March and April 2012. They were held incommunicado for several weeks, and allegedly tortured. Afterward their confessions were aired on local television. When they went to trial they told the court that those confessions were forced out of them due to abuse. The testimony of other detainees supported their claims, and a medical examination of one defendant found burn marks and other wounds consistent with torture. Despite that all four were sentenced to death in December. Under the constitution torture is outlawed. However, since the Iraqi criminal justice system is based upon confessions the most common way to obtain one is to beat it out of people. This is especially true for terrorism cases where the stakes are much higher. The use of televised confessions also undermines the justice system, since there’s no way a defendant can receive a fair trial if they have said they are guilty in public beforehand. Again, since terrorism is such a pressing concern, the government feels it necessary to continuously air these suspects before the public to make it look like its security measures are working.

Sometimes these harsh techniques lead to deaths either unintentionally or not. Samir Naji Awda al-Bilawi, a pharmacist, and his 13-year old son Mundhir were picked up at a checkpoint in Ramadi. Three days later the family found out that the father had died in custody. Images released to the media showed that he had injuries to his head and hands. The son later said that they had been beaten in a police station, and tortured including the use of electric shock. In September 2012, Yasin Chafadschi from Qayara, Ninewa was arrested, tortured, and died as a result. The press received pictures of the man with bruises, his eyes swollen shut, dried blood on his face, and his fingernails missing. The police denied they had done anything to him, and claimed that insurgents had kidnapped and killed him. Ninewa Governor Atheel Nujafi ordered an investigation into the matter, but nothing came of it. Again, these cases are common place in Iraq. Since so many prisoners are tortured it is inevitable that some of them die in custody. Even if there are inquiries like the one involving Chafadschi nothing ever comes of them. Again, because there is no political will to change the system, these abuses continue, and the security forces operate with impunity with no fear that their violations of people’s rights will ever be punished.

The number of people being picked up by the government, and facing these conditions is increasing, because of the tactics currently used by the security forces. The Iraqi army and police no longer carry out counterinsurgency operations like they did with the Americans. Instead, they are acting like the U.S. military did from 2003-2006 with similar results. The most common tactic is mass arrests during security sweeps. Human Rights Watch for example, reported that Federal Police raided eleven homes in Taji, Salahaddin on November 3, 2012, and arrested 41 people, including 29 children. 12 women and girls aged 11 to 60 were held for four days without charges at the headquarters of the police unit. They were all beat and tortured including electrocuting them, and suffocating them with plastic bags. Again, the main way information was extracted from prisoners was by force. This case was especially disturbing, because it did not involve terrorism suspects, but suspected family members, including children who were treated like their adult family members. Even if any intelligence were gained from this action the resulting backlash amongst the community would mean that the government could not rely upon these people to support their security operations. Instead, they would look at the Federal Police as a threatening force. That could lead to at least tacit support for any insurgents in the area, if not open backing.

These acts take place in Iraq’s many detention facilities, but there are also a number of secret ones run by the central and regional governments. In 2010, the media found out about one of these operating in the Green Zone run by security forces under the control of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki that held more than 400 Sunni prisoners. Over 100 of them showed signs of torture. In March 2011, the government claimed that it had closed the place. In May 2012 however, Human Rights Watch reported that it was still in use as late as March 2012. By the end of that year there were still details emerging that it was in operation. Secret prisons quickly popped up across Iraq when the Iraqi security forces were put back together. The U.S. knew about many of these facilities, but did nothing, because the policy was that this was an Iraqi affair, and they needed to deal with it. Today, there is no reason to believe that Baghdad or the Kurdistan Regional Government will stop using these types of prisons to hide those they do not want the judicial system to know about.

Iraq also lacks due process. The Iraqi constitution states that prisoners have to see an investigative judge within 24 hours of their arrest, and that can only be extended for one day. In practice, most are usually held for 72 hours with some exceptions. Cases involving the death penalty, which are mostly about terrorism can lead to indefinite detentions. Prisoners are also supposed to be told their charges, and have access to their lawyers before they go to trial. That rarely happens. The norm is that people are often picked up with not knowing why, and some can be held for days to months to years without seeing a judge, lawyer or court. In December 2011, the army arrested three lawyers without warrants for attempting to represent their clients who were charged with terrorism. That led to a sit in by their peers, resulting in two being released the day they were picked up. The third however, was held for three months, and was only released after the Supreme Criminal Court ordered it. Afterward, all three claimed that they were tortured. In March 2012, during a routine visit to Kirkuk prison one detainee told inspectors that he had been held for 4 ½ years under terrorism charges without ever going to trial. That was obviously an extreme example, but shows just how little respect the security forces, and the various ministries and offices that run detention facilities have for the law. The Iraqi system is obviously overwhelmed by cases since it is dealing with an insurgency, but there appears to be little effort made to follow the constitution or the rules for how an investigation is to be conducted.

The final piece of this process is the judiciary, which is supposed to be independent, but in practice comes under the influence of many. Certain laws, the history of dictatorship, the security situation, and dependence upon other parts of the government all contribute to make the courts weak. Threats, tribal groups, insurgents, and gangs often impede the work of judges on top of that. On June 20, 2012, a judge from the Ninewa Criminal Court was shot down while driving through Mosul. On July 22, Al Qaeda in Iraq announced a campaign specifically against the judiciary. In total, eight judges were killed, and there were another ten attempts last year. Given this pressure there are many cases that simply get dropped, because judges are afraid that they will lose their lives. That’s also a reason why the judiciary often overlooks abuses that happen to detainees before they appear before them, because they know that the governing elite wants action taken against suspected insurgents and criminals. They will therefore ignore torture and forced confessions, and give out guilty sentences even though that is against the constitution, which outlaws abuse.

Iraq has a large number of media outlets, but their freedom to do their work is limited by the security and political situation. There are laws that protect the integrity of the press, but they often say “in accordance with existing law.” That means restrictive articles from the Baathist period still apply. The 1968 Publications Law allows imprisonment for seven years for insulting the government for instance. The media has said that politicians, government officials, security services, tribes, and businessmen all pressure them not to publish certain stories, and that they fear reprisals from the insurgency. That leads to a large amount of self-censorship. Reporters and media outlets also face direct targeting and intimidation. The Iraqi Journalists Rights Defense Association recorded 50 cases of harassment against 75 reporters in 2012. That same year, the Metro Center document 132 cases in Kurdistan, which included 5 death threats, 50 arrests, 21 beatings, and several lawsuits. Almost all of those incidents involved the independent and opposition media in the region. In November 2011, Karzan Karim, a former Asayesh officer and columnist for the Kurdistan Post was arrested after he wrote several articles about corruption at the Irbil International Airport. He was officially accused of revealing secrets about his time with Kurdish security, put on trial for terrorism, and sentenced to two years in prison in October 2012. His family claimed that he was beaten and tortured, and later received threats from the authorities after they publicly criticized his detention, and being held without trial for 11 months. On March 14, 2012, security forces held a TV crew from Russia Today for three hours when they tried to report about attacks upon emos and gays in Baghdad. The team had a permit, but the authorities took their film anyway. On April 11, Kurdish intelligence officers beat two reporters covering a meeting at a military facility in Zakho, Dohuk. On May 8, Kurdish security forces attacked two journalists covering a protest in front of the Kurdish parliament building, and took their equipment. On June 26, police in Kirkuk arrested a reporter and held him for five hours after he took photos of police beating child beggars in the city. On November 4, security forces beat an al-Sumaria cameraman, and then arrested him for filming a bomb site in Anbar, before releasing him later in the day. On November 18, the body of Samir al-Sheikh Ali, the editor of Al-Jamaheer newspaper was found dead in Baghdad. Ali was a human rights activist who pushed for media freedom. He was found shot three times in the chest. Kurdistan is also known for filing lawsuits against reporters and media outlets that criticize officials. In October, a Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) politburo member and his bodyguard sued Asos Hardi, the editor of Awene for an article that accused the two of attacking him in August 2011. The editor of Zang magazine and reporters for Bazaw magazine in the KRG received fines for around $858 for publishing articles critical of members of the government. Again, the new Iraq is supposed to protect freedom of the media, but in practice that does not always happen. Old laws are applied, which restrict their operations, and other pieces of legislation are ignored. The security forces have gone after journalists, and in Kurdistan there’s always the threat of being sued and having to pay fines if they write about anyone in the regional government. It’s no wonder that many reporters and their employers sometimes hold back on articles given this environment.

The KRG is also known for limiting freedom of association and for going after its critics. On March 27, Hussein Hama Ali Tawfiq, a businessman was arrested and taken to the Asayesh headquarters in Sulaymania where he was beaten. He was told to testify against others about corruption, but refused. He was later charged with bribery, and held until acquitted in November. There was no investigation into his case. On May 17, the Asayesh detained three Yazidi men in Sinjar, Ninewa for ten days. Their crime was for going to a conference sponsored by the central government. They were never charged, and the Asayesh told them not to go to anymore meetings in Baghdad without official permission from the Kurdish authorities. Kurdistan likes to portray itself as the “other Iraq” meaning that there is supposed to be more stability, security, and freedom than in the rest of the country. The above cases show that there is a limit to what people can do in not only the KRG, but in the disputed territories it lays claim to.

Kidnappings have been a chronic problem in Iraq since 2003. People being abducted is an all too common experience for people, and is usually done for money. On February 4, 2012, the driver, secretary, and brother of a member of parliament were all taken in Samarra, Salahaddin. The kidnappers demanded $1.5 million in ransom. That was never paid, and the brother and secretary were killed, with their bodies dumped five days later. The driver was later found beaten and unconscious. A man from Baghdad and a woman from Diyala were arrested over the matter. On August 23, two Yazidi men were kidnapped in Sinjar, and held for $600,000. On August 30, men dressed as members of the security forces abducted a Turkmen boy from Kirkuk. He was released on September 23 after his family paid for his release. Criminal elements or gangs do most of these, but sometimes the security forces are implicated. In May 30, a Yazidi man was taken in Kurdistan, and later found dead the next month. His family blamed the Asayesh. Organized crime grew tremendously during the 1990s, as the government would often use them to get around sanctions. After the fall of Saddam, these groups had free reign to grow, and expand into kidnapping. Many insurgents and armed groups also used the technique to raise money. Corrupt officials have probably been involved as well. This is a constant threat to the average Iraqi.

The main reason why Iraq has such a poor human rights record is that there is no accountability. During 2012, the Human Rights Ministry sent 500 cases involving torture to the courts. The ministry claimed that led to some arrest warrants being issued, but by the end of the year, nothing had happened with any of them. The same thing occurred in 2011. On October 21, security forces beat and wounded four protesters when a demonstration against the lack of services turned violent. The next day, the governorate council questioned the governor about the incident, and set up a committee to look into the matter, but it led to nothing. The use of beatings, torture, forced confessions, etc. are widely known throughout the country. The fact that the ruling parties have no problem with them is the reason why they persist. Most of Iraq’s leaders either grew up in Iraq under Saddam or were in exile in other authoritarian states like Syria or Iran. Living under those repressive systems means they have no issue with replicating them in the new Iraq.

Iraq is supposed to be a developing democracy, but with widespread abuse within the security forces, and the lack of rule of law that is becoming a precarious enterprise. Until politicians want to get rid of these practices they will continue, and Iraq will never have the basic freedoms necessary for a democratic society. Instead it will be a nation with the trappings of democracy like elected officials and a number of media outlets, but will suffer from torture, no due process, and the violation of people’s basic rights.


Amnesty International, “The State of the World’s Human Rights, Amnesty International Report 2013,” May 2013

Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, “United States Department of State Country Reports on Human Rights Practices,” United States Department of State, 2013

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