(Baghdad) – Iraq’s leadership used draconian measures against opposition politicians, detainees, demonstrators, and journalists, effectively squeezing the space for independent civil society and political freedoms in Iraq, Human Rights Watch said today in its World Report 2013.
The number of violent civilian deaths in Iraq increased in 2012, for the first time since 2009. Thousands of civilians and police were killed in spates of violence, including targeted assassinations, amid a political crisis that has dragged on since December 2011. Alongside the uptick in violence, Iraqi security forces arbitrarily conducted mass arrests and tortured detainees to extract confessions with little or no evidence of wrongdoing.
“As insurgent groups targeted innocent Iraqis in a multitude of coordinated attacks throughout the year, Iraq’s security forces targeted innocent civilians in mass campaigns of arbitrary arrests and abusive interrogations,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “After decades of dictatorship, occupation, and terrorism, the Iraqi people today face a government that is slipping further into authoritarianism and doing little to make them safer.”
In its 665-page report, Human Rights Watch assessed progress on human rights during the past year in more than 90 countries, including an analysis of the aftermath of the Arab Spring. The willingness of new governments to respect rights will determine whether the Arab Spring gives birth to genuine democracy or simply spawns authoritarianism in new clothes, Human Rights Watch said.
The abuses in the criminal justice system are a major concern, Human Rights Watch said. Iraqi authorities should make reforming the system a top priority for 2013 to ensure that the requirements of Iraq’s Code of Criminal Procedure are carried out. The code requires police to obtain a warrant to arrest a suspect and to bring the suspect before a judicial investigator within 24 hours of arrest. The code also requires officials to ensure that defendants have access to a lawyer with adequate time to prepare an effective defenseand to challenge evidence against them, but security officials rarely comply with these requirements, Human Rights Watch said.
The government should investigateallegations of abuse against detainees, especially women. The government should also investigate abusive security forces and detainees’ claims that officers and judges use the country’s anti-terrorism law to harass innocent civilians.
The criminal justice system is plagued with arbitrariness and opacity, Human Rights Watch said. Security officers and judges alike use confessions as the cornerstone of criminal prosecutions, and frequently charge detainees with terrorism with no actual evidence. Human Rights Watch spoke to a number of lawyers and families of detainees who said that their clients or family members had been charged with terrorism under article 4 of the anti-terror law after the authorities obtained confessions through threats and physical abuse.
In December, Human Rights Watch documented several instances of torture of female detainees. Their families reported that security officers and judges collaborated to keep women detained on specious “suspicion of terrorism” charges, then demanded bribes to secure their release.
“A confession-based criminal justice system encourages the practice of torture as a legitimate method to extract confessions,” Whitson said. “The government needs to ensure that there will be genuine criminal investigations and prosecutions of anyone responsible for torture or other abuses.”
Security officers carried out mass and arbitrary arrests with impunity during 2012. Human Rights Watch spoke with several witnesses who reported that security officers conducted warrantless raids in their neighborhoods, apparently at random, detaining occupants for several days, and arresting entire families for terrorism without evidence.
Most recently, in November, federal police invaded 11 homes in the town of al-Tajji, north of Baghdad, and detained 41 people, including 29 children, overnight in their homes. Sources close to the detainees, who requested anonymity, said police took 12 women and girls ages 11 to 60 to 6th Brigade headquarters and held them there for four days without charge. The sources said the police beat the women and tortured them with electric shocks and plastic bags placed over their heads until they began to suffocate.
Despite widespread outcry over abuse and rape of women in pre-trial detention, the government has not investigated or held the abusers accountable. In response to mass protests over the treatment of female detainees, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki issued a pardon for 11 detainees. However, hundreds more women remain in detention, many of whom allege they have been tortured and have not had access to a proper defense.
In addition to making sure that arrests comply with international due process standards and with Iraqi laws, the government should publicly condemn any use of torture or other mistreatment in pretrial detention, including during interrogation with the aim of eliciting confessions, Human Rights Watch said. The authorities should promptly investigate all allegations of torture and mistreatment, and criminally prosecute guards and interrogators responsible for abusing prisoners. They should disallow confessions obtained through torture or other unlawful methods and allow detainees sufficient opportunity to contest evidence against them.
While demonstrations for reform in the Arab world swept the region, the Iraqi government focused on curtailing the right of Iraqis to assemble freely. Human Rights Watch observed how Iraqi authorities successfully interfered with Tahrir Square demonstrations in Iraq during 2012, by flooding the weekly protests with al-Maliki supporters and undercover security agents. Baghdad security forces blocked access to protests sites, beat unarmed journalists and protesters, smashed cameras, and confiscated computer memory cards. Several dissenting activists and independent journalists told Human Rights Watch that they no longer felt safe to attend the demonstrations protesting widespread corruption and calling for greater civil and political rights.
Meanwhile, the prime minister consolidated power in his office by appointing loyalists to key ministerial and security posts that, under the Iraqi constitution, require parliamentary approval. Al-Maliki responded to peaceful demonstrations in December with threats, saying he would “not tolerate protests.”
The authorities should investigate attacks on demonstrators, and prosecute officers responsible for torturing detainees after mass arrest campaigns that arresting officers characterized as “precautionary” measures to prevent terrorist attacks. Six detainees released in April reported that interrogators told them that they were being held to curb criminal activity and any “embarrassing” public protests during a summit meeting in Baghdad for Arab leaders.
Authorities executed a record number of detainees in 2012 – at least 129, up from 62 in 2011 – with the government releasing little or no information about many of those executed or the evidence supporting their convictions. Many were accused of terrorism.
March 19 will be the 10-year anniversary of the US-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein’s decades-long dictatorship. The US government has not sufficiently pressed the Maliki government to rein in corruption and serial human rights abuses, Human Rights Watch said. Justice for abuses committed by coalition forces in Iraq remains almost non-existent.
“The failure of the US and UK to hold their troops accountable for abuses in detention and extra judicial killings during their presence in the country seems to have paved the way for the current government to make excuses for abuses, failure of law and order, and lack of accountability,” Whitson said.