Iraq: A decade of abuses

Report
March 11, 2013

Iraq: A decade of abuses

View More Research

Ten years after the US-led invasion that toppled the brutal dictatorship of Saddam Hussein, Iraq remains mired in human rights abuses. Thousands of Iraqis are detained without trial or serving prison sentences imposed after unfair trials, torture remains rife and continues to be committed with impunity, and the new Iraq is one of the world's leading executioners. The government hanged 129 prisoners in 2012, while hundreds more languished on death row. Yet, when he launched the campaign of “shock and awe” in March 2003, that swept away Saddam Hussein's regime within just four weeks, then US President George W Bush justified the military intervention partly on human rights grounds, pointing to the many grave crimes committed under the Iraqi leader. The decade since, however, as this report shows, has brought only limited change although tens of thousands of Iraqis' lives have been lost, mostly during the political and sectarian violence that succeeded the armed conflict and continues to this day. As the record shows, in the years when they held sway, the US-dominated coalition of occupying forces created their own legacies of human rights abuse, for which there is yet to be full accountability, and failed to implement new standards that fundamentally challenged the mould of repression set under Saddam Hussein. Today, assuredly, many Iraqis enjoy greater rights and freedom than existed under the ousted dictator but the margin of improvement is far less than it should be, and the country remains wracked by political, religious and other divisions and serious abuses of human rights.

The violence of the past decade has devastated Iraq and its people. By early 2013, the Iraq Body Count organization had recorded more than 110,000 violent civilian deaths, including at least 14,800 deaths it said were caused by the US-led Coalition Forces (renamed the Multinational Force at the official end of the occupation on 30 June 2004 and, subsequently, United States Forces - Iraq on 1 January 2010 after the departure of all non- US forces). Many civilians have also been killed or injured by Iraqi forces acting alone, in joint operations by Iraqi and coalition forces, or by members of private military and security companies hired to guard and protect foreign officials and other foreign nationals employed or engaged in Iraq.

The greatest number of deaths and injuries of civilians, however, has resulted from the actions of armed groups opposed to the presence of foreign troops and to the Iraqi governments that have held office since the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) handed power back to Iraqi control at the end of June 2004. Armed militias affiliated to political parties have also been responsible for many killings. Today, armed groups opposed to the government continue to mount suicide and other bomb attacks, often targeting busy venues and locations such as marketplaces where civilians are present, or religious pilgrims, as well as members of the police and security forces. Violence by armed groups and political militias has also encompassed abductions and hostage-taking, political assassinations and forced displacement of people from their homes or the areas in which they reside. The internal armed conflict intensified and became increasingly sectarian following a bomb attack that targeted and largely destroyed the holy Shi'a Al-Askari shrine in Samarra in February 2006. The sectarian violence this sparked caused hundreds of thousands of Iraqis to become internally displaced within their own country and hundreds of thousands more to flee as refugees to neighbouring states, particularly Syria and Jordan.

Amid this context of armed conflict, intense political and sectarian rivalry and widespread lethal violence, tens of thousands of Iraqis have been rounded up by the authorities; many of them have been detained for months or years without charge or trial in conditions that facilitate, even invite, torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment (other ill-treatment). When prisoners have been brought before the courts, international fair trial standards also have been frequently and systematically violated. Many defendants have alleged that police or other interrogators tortured and coerced them to make selfincriminating statements while holding them incommunicado in pre-trial detention, and have repudiated such "confessions" at trial. Courts, however, have frequently accepted such "confessions" as evidence despite their repudiation by defendants, and used them as a basis to deliver guilty verdicts. Much of Iraqi justice still functions according to the principle that "the confession is the master of evidence", underscoring the pervasive nature of the "confession culture" that dominates the approach of the police and security forces to obtaining information as a basis for prosecuting suspects before the courts. In many cases, as this report details below, courts have convicted defendants of terrorism or other serious crimes on the basis of confessions that defendants say were coerced from them under torture when they were detained without access to lawyers or any contact with the world outside their place of incarceration. They have also sentenced many such defendants to death. Since the death penalty was reinstated in August 2004, at least 447 prisoners have been executed, including many after courts convicted them under the Anti-Terrorism Law of 2005.

Affiliates of al-Qa'ida and other armed groups continue to carry out and claim responsibility for violent attacks causing many civilian casualties. In many other cases of attacks on civilians, where no group has claimed responsibility, it has been difficult or impossible to identify the perpetrators. Often, consequently, such attacks have been attributed to specific armed groups because they appear to follow a particular pattern of abusive attacks, but without clear evidence. Suicide and other bombings intended to cause large numbers of civilian as well as other casualties have been some of the most devastating attacks. Many are believed to have been perpetrated by armed groups who oppose, and seek to undermine public confidence in, the present government and its security forces by creating conditions which make it appear that they are incapable of governing the country and protecting the public. Armed groups also continue to attack the institutions of the state and those who maintain them, particularly the police and security forces and members of the judiciary and other officials.

Amnesty International recognizes the continuing grave threat that anti-government armed groups continue to pose to public security and order and the rule of law in Iraq. The organization condemns unreservedly, as it has done many times, the gross human rights abuses and violations of international humanitarian law that armed groups continue to commit, and it urges them to immediately desist.6 As well, Amnesty International fully recognizes the Iraqi authorities' duty and responsibility to apprehend and bring to justice members of armed groups and all other perpetrators of serious human rights abuses. However, when doing so, the Iraqi authorities - including both the executive power and the judiciary - must comply at all times with Iraq's obligations under international human rights law and respect and protect the human rights of those they suspect or accuse of committing crimes. Iraq is a state party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and other human rights instruments, including the UN Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (UNCAT), which it ratified in 2011. These treaties all impose obligations that the Iraqi government is bound to uphold even when confronting the serious violence that persists today and taking action against those suspected or accused of committing even the most heinous of crimes.

Since late 2012, tens of thousands of people, mostly members of the Sunni community, have taken to the streets to express their discontent with the government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. They accuse the Prime Minister, a Shi'a Muslim, of leading a government that discriminates against Sunnis. The demonstrations, in Anbar, Mosul and Salah al-Din, provinces that comprise Iraq's Sunni heartland, have continued to be held almost daily and generally peak on Fridays. The demonstrators' main demands are for greater respect for due process, the enactment of an amnesty law and a review of the country's anti-terrorism law, and an end to violations of the rights of male and female prisoners and detainees. They were supported by many civil society organizations from other provinces, including Baghdad. However, the authorities blocked protesters' attempts to extend their demonstrations to Baghdad.

Violations of the rights of detainees, particularly the use of torture and other ill-treatment to extract confessions, are not merely a consequence of sectarian tensions and conflict, however. They are more deeply entrenched and widespread. In many cases reported to Amnesty International, both the perpetrators and the victims of such abuses were members of the same confessional group - as, for example, when several prisoners under sentence of death at the Fort Suse Prison near Suleimaniya told Amnesty International in February 2013 that they were Shi'a Muslims who had been tortured and coerced to provide confessions in separate cases by fellow Shi'a Muslims within the security forces in southern Iraq. Similarly, detainees from the Sunni Muslim community have told Amnesty International that they were tortured or ill-treated by Sunni members of the security forces.

Serious abuses of detainees' rights also continue to be reported in the Kurdistan Region, comprising three provinces in the north-east of Iraq. The Kurdistan Region has enjoyed semiautonomous status since the early 1990s and continues to be administered by a coalition of two Kurdish political parties that form the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). In recent years, the Kurdistan Region has experienced far less violence than the rest of Iraq and while serious human rights violations continue to be committed, their scale and intensity are far less than those in other parts of Iraq.

This report focuses on violations of the human rights of detainees and prisoners, including torture and other ill-treatment, committed by Iraqi security forces and US-led coalition forces in the 10 years since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. It cites many individual cases, some very recent, in which detainees are alleged to have been tortured or otherwise ill-treated, coerced into providing confessions that they later repudiated, convicted of serious crimes in trials that failed to meet international fair trial standards, often on the basis of their contested confessions, and sentenced to death.

Prior to writing this report, Amnesty International submitted many of these cases to the government of Iraq in a memorandum of mid-December 2012. In that, Amnesty International sought the government's response to the torture and other ill-treatment allegations cited and asked what steps the Iraqi authorities have taken to conduct thorough investigations into these and similar allegations, as international law requires, and to ensure that those responsible for torture and other serious human rights violations are brought to justice. As well, Amnesty International questioned and called for an end to practices such as the parading of detainees before press conferences and TV broadcasting of their "confessions" before they stand trial or before delivery of the trial verdict. These practices, detailed below, fundamentally undermine the presumption of innocence and the right of fair trial of the detainees concerned. That some of these detainees were subsequently convicted of capital crimes, sentenced to death and executed adds a peculiarly egregious and abhorrent dimension to their use. Amnesty International requested that the government respond in sufficient time for its comments to be reflected in this report. By late February 2013, however, Amnesty International had received neither an acknowledgement nor any substantive response from the Baghdad authorities.

The information contained in this report is based on research that Amnesty International has conducted throughout the past decade drawing on an extensive range of official, public and confidential sources within Iraq and outside the country. These include face to face and telephone interviews with victims of human rights abuses and their families, and reviews of court and other documents. Information was gathered also during periodic field missions that Amnesty International has undertaken to the Kurdistan Region. In September 2012, Amnesty International representatives visited Baghdad and met and had discussions with officials of the Ministry of Human Rights and the Supreme Judicial Council, as well as non-governmental sources, including victims of human rights abuses and their families, lawyers, human rights activists, journalists and others. In February 2013, Amnesty International visited two prisons at Erbil and a third, Fort Suse Prison, near Suleimaniya in the Kurdistan Region, and was able to speak without the presence of prison staff to inmates. Almost all prisoners held at Fort Suse Prison had been convicted by criminal courts in central and southern Iraq.

Many individuals who have spoken to Amnesty International about what they have seen or experienced in Iraq agreed to do so only on condition of anonymity due to concern for their own safety and of those close to them. Some said they had declined to file formal complaints with the Iraqi authorities after being subjected to torture or other ill-treatment because they fear that this would place them or their families in renewed jeopardy and expose them to the possibility of re-detention, further torture or other ill-treatment. Amnesty International recognizes and appreciates the debt it owes to such individuals as well as to Iraq's determined community of human rights activists, and it pays tribute to them and to all who continue to work for an end to human rights abuses in Iraq.

The last section of this report includes recommendations addressed to the government of Iraq, concerning measures that it should take urgently to halt the serious human rights violations detailed below - detention without trial, torture and other ill-treatment, unfair trials, and the death penalty - and in order to implement reforms to prevent their repetition.

Other recommendations are addressed to the governments whose military forces participated in the 2003 invasion of Iraq and subsequently formed part of the occupying force, principally the USA and the UK, regarding measures needed to ensure full accountability for violations of human rights and international humanitarian law allegedly committed in Iraq by members of their armed forces.