Almost eight years after US-led forces invaded Iraq, the country’s transition to a functioning and sustainable democracy built on rule of law is far from accomplished.
And knowledgeable observers are divided about whether the country is a work in progress full of growing pains, a wishful thought – or a propaganda vehicle.
According to a new report from Human Rights Watch, “the rights of Iraq’s most vulnerable citizens, especially women and detainees, are violated with impunity, and those who would expose official malfeasance or abuses by armed groups do so at enormous risk.”
“Iraq’s future as a society based on respect for fundamental human rights depends in large part on whether Iraqi authorities will adequately defend those rights and establish a credible national criminal justice system embodying international standards with respect to torture, free expression, and violence against women and other vulnerable sectors of society,” the report says.
Bikya Masr, an independent Iraqi website, has reported on the latest outrage committed by Iraqis against other Iraqis. At about 2 a.m. on February 23, 2011, more than 20 armed men, some of them wearing brown military uniforms and red berets, and others wearing black military uniforms with skull-and-cross-bones insignia on their helmets, pulled up in Humvees outside the group’s office in Baghdad and broke in, a witness told Human Rights Watch.
The security forces conducted a destructive search of the office that lasted more than an hour and seized the organization’s computers, external hard drives, cameras, cell phones, CDs, documents, and several flak jackets and helmets marked “Press,” the witness said.
“This raid on the Journalistic Freedoms Observatory shows the contempt of Iraqi authorities for groups that challenge the state’s human rights record,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch.
A spokesman for the Baghdad Operations Command confirmed to Human Rights Watch that the men were part of the Iraqi army but gave few other details.
Ziyad al-Ajili, the group’s executive director, told Human Rights Watch that the authorities “were obviously sending us a message to stop our work of supporting journalists…. This kind of governmental intimidation is precisely what we try to shed light on.” In Iraqi television interviews over the days leading up to the raid, al-Ajili voiced support for the right of Iraqis to protest peacefully and the media’s right to report on the protests.
Human Rights Watch visited the group’s office the morning after the raid and saw extensive damage, including broken furniture, destroyed equipment, kicked-in doors, and ripped-up posters and literature for the organization’s events, such as their annual “Press Courage Awards.” Framed photographs of journalists killed in Iraq since 2003 were strewn on the floor, covered in broken glass.
Human Rights Watch expressed concern that authorities would not return the computer hard drives and other electronic data storage devices seized from the group.
Al-Ajili said he fears that the authorities used the raid as a pretext to close the office, which serves as an informal gathering point for local journalists.
In late January, the group held an awards ceremony in Baghdad, honoring investigative journalists who had uncovered corruption and other wrongdoing.
Although improvements in security since 2008 have reduced the assaults against media workers, journalists and press freedom advocates remain at risk in Iraq.
In the months following the 2003 invasion, Iraq experienced a media boom as hundreds of new publications and television and radio channels sprung up across the country, and Iraqis gained access to satellite dishes and the Internet.
But media freedom was short-lived with the introduction of restrictive legislative and other barriers and an upsurge in violence that made Iraq one of the most the most dangerous countries in the world to work as a journalist.
While improvements in security since 2008 have reduced the murder rate of media workers, journalism remains a hazardous occupation. Extremists and unknown assailants continue to kill media workers and bomb their bureaus. In addition, journalists now also have to contend with emboldened Iraqi and Kurdish security forces and their respective image-conscious central and regional political leaders.
Increasingly, journalists find themselves harassed, intimidated, threatened, arrested, and physically assaulted by security forces attached to government institutions and political parties. Senior politicians are quick to sue journalists and their publications for unflattering articles. The government should amend vague legislative and regulatory content-based restrictions that curtail the right to freedom of expression, and direct security forces not to harass, abuse, and intimidate journalists.
According to Human Rights Watch, the 2003 invasion and its resulting chaos “have exacted an enormous toll on Iraq’s citizens. Over the past eight years, violence has claimed tens of thousands of Iraqi lives and millions continue to suffer from the effects of insecurity.”
Iraq has made some recent progress as it has pulled itself away from the civil strife that engulfed the country, especially in 2006 and 2007. “But terror attacks increased again in the run-up to the March 2010 parliamentary elections” and did not abate in the months that followed. Only
in November, eight months after those elections, did Iraq’s political parties finally agree to form a new coalition government ending the political crisis that has stunted progress on security and other fronts, including human rights.
The Human Rights Watch report is based on on-the-ground research conducted in April 2010, visiting seven cities across Iraq and interviewing 178 activists, lawyers, journalists, religious leaders, detainees (former and current), security officers, victims of violence, and ordinary Iraqis.
“We found that, beyond the continuing violence and crimes associated with it, human rights abuses are commonplace. This report presents those findings regarding violations of the rights of women and other vulnerable populations, the right to freedom of expression, and the right to be free from torture and ill-treatment in the 2009-2010 period,” HRW said.
The Rights of Women and Girls have also been adversely affected by the deterioration of security, which has promoted a rise in tribal customs and religiously-inflected political extremism. “This has had a deleterious effect on women’s rights, both inside and outside the home. For Iraqi women, who enjoyed some of the highest levels of rights protection and social participation in the region before 1991, these have been heavy blows,” HRW said.
It added: “Militias promoting misogynist ideologies have targeted women and girls for assassination, and intimidated them to stay out of public life. Increasingly, women and girls are victimized in their own homes, sometimes killed by their fathers, brothers and husbands for a wide variety of perceived transgressions that allegedly shame the family or tribe. If they seek official protection from violence in the home, women risk harassment and abuse from Iraq’s virtually all-male police and other security forces.”
HRW notes that “Iraqi law protects perpetrators of violence against women: Iraq’s penal code considers ‘honorable motives’ to be a mitigating factor in crimes including murder. The code also gives husbands a legal right to discipline their wives. Trafficking in women and girls in and out of the country for sexual exploitation is widespread. There have been no reported convictions for trafficking, and a long-awaited anti-trafficking bill is on hold in the parliament, awaiting revisions.”
Outside of Kurdistan, there are no government-run shelters. The many women who have fled sectarian or other violence, who have been widowed, or who for other reasons are heads of households and dependent on state aid are particularly vulnerable to abuse.
The organization claims religious and government institutions are “sometimes complicit in their exploitation – in exchange for charity or benefits, widows have been asked to engage in “pleasure marriages,” a previously banned traditional practice that critics say is akin to prostitution.”
The women who are coerced into the practice face stigmatization and have no recourse. Human Rights Watch calls on Iraq to immediately suspend and proceed to repeal sections in the penal code that allow mitigation of sentences on grounds of “honor” for violent crimes against women.
Women are but one of the groups being marginalized by the Iraqis. The country today has numerous communities whose marginalization has left them in dire straits.
Although the government has passed laws (including constitutional safeguards) to protect some of these different communities, and in some cases has instituted significant assistance programs, it is still failing some of its most vulnerable citizens, such as internally displaced persons, minorities and persons with disabilities. Many of the government’s assistance or protection programs are non-operational or sub-operational, and insufficient to meet the needs of target populations, despite Iraq’s international and domestic commitments. More than 1.5 million Iraqis fled their neighborhoods as sectarian violence tore up their communities in 2006 and 2007.
Thousands of internally displaced persons now reside in squatter settlements without access to basic necessities such as clean water, electricity and sanitation. An over-stretched Ministry of Displacement has promised aid, but none of the more than a dozen displaced persons we interviewed had received any.
Human Rights Watch calls on Iraq’s government to develop a coherent national strategy on refugees and internally displaced persons to facilitate their voluntary return, local integration in places of displacement, or relocation to other places in safety and dignity.
Armed groups proclaiming intolerant ideologies have continued their assaults on minority communities, decimating Iraq’s indigenous populations, and forcing thousands to flee abroad with no plans to return. The government has failed to stop such attacks targeting minority groups, including Sabian andaeans, Chaldo-Assyrians, Yazidis, and Shabaks. To end a climate of impunity, the government must conduct thorough and impartial investigations when attacks occur and bring those responsible to justice.
Years of armed conflict have resulted in thousands of war amputees and other persons with disabilities. Stigmatized, unable to find work, get adequate medical care, or obtain new prostheses and wheelchairs, persons with disabilities in Iraq find themselves relegated to the margins of society. The government needs to ensure access to education and employment, strengthen health-care services, and establish rehabilitation and psychosocial support facilities.
After the fall of Saddam Hussein, Iraqis hoped that torture as an instrument of state coercion would end. But US and British forces tortured Iraqi detainees at their facilities across Iraq, most famously at Abu Ghraib. And despite knowing there was a clear risk of torture, US authorities transferred thousands of Iraqi detainees to Iraqi custody, where Iraqi security forces have continued the torture tradition.
Iraqi interrogators routinely abuse detainees, regardless of sect, usually in order to coerce confessions. Interviews with dozens of detainees transferred from a secret detention facility outside Baghdad revealed the significant shortcomings of Iraq’s criminal justice system. Interrogators sodomized and whipped detainees, burned them with cigarettes and pulled out their fingernails and teeth.
Yet Iraq’s prime minister, instead of ordering a public inquiry and prosecuting those responsible for the abuse, dismissed both our findings and those of the Ministry of Human Rights as fictitious, and suspended the government’s prison inspection team that initially uncovered the abuse. The government should launch independent and impartial investigations into all allegations of torture and ill-treatment, and institute disciplinary measures and criminal prosecution proceedings, as appropriate, against officials at all levels who are responsible for the abuse of detainees.
The United States and other governments should assist with legal reforms in Iraq by advising how to amend existing laws so that they are consistent with Iraq’s obligations under international human rights standards. The international community should press Iraq to promptly investigate all allegations of torture and ill-treatment and criminally prosecute officials who are responsible for the abuse of detainees.
INTER PRESS News Service has reported that “the publication of a motherlode of secret field reports from the Iraq War is shining a bright light on heretofore unknown or underreported suspicions about the abuse of Iraqi prisoners by their fellow Iraqis, often with their U.S. military counterparts “turning a blind eye.”
The Wikileaks documents offer graphic proof that U.S. servicemen and women often witnessed or were aware of Iraqi brutality against prisoners, but turned a blind eye.
While the Wikileaks documents are sparse on information about mistreatment of prisoners in U.S.-run detention facilities, they are heavy on the chilling details of abuse of Iraqis by Iraq’s own army and police.
During the period covered by the Wikileaks documents, at least six prisoners died in Iraqi custody, most of them in recent years. Hundreds of reports referenced beatings, burnings and lashings. Such treatment appeared to be considered normal by the Iraqis.
According to The New York Times, “In one case, Americans suspected Iraqi Army officers of cutting off a detainee’s fingers and burning him with acid. Two other cases produced accounts of the executions of bound detainees. And while some abuse cases were investigated by the Americans, most noted in the archive seemed to have been ignored, with the equivalent of an institutional shrug: soldiers told their officers and asked the Iraqis to investigate.”
U.S. military orders said that if U.S. personnel were not directly involved in prisoner abuse, U.S. soldiers need not take any action. This order caused U.S. forces to look the other way in cases of the abuse of Iraqis by Iraqis.
When U.S. forces discovered and reported abuse, Iraqis frequently failed to act. One report said a police chief refused to file charges “as long as the abuse produced no marks.” Another police chief told military inspectors that his officers engaged in abuse “and supported it as a method of conducting investigations.”
The Wikileaks documents also show that U.S. forces sometimes used the threat of Iraqi brutality to persuade prisoners to cooperate with interrogators.
It was not until later in the war that some of the worst examples of Iraqi abuse came to light. For example, in August 2009, an Iraqi police commando unit reported that a detainee committed suicide in its custody, but an autopsy conducted in the presence of a U.S. official “found bruises and burns on the detainee’s body as well as visible injuries to the head, arm, torso, legs, and neck.” The report stated that the police “have reportedly begun an investigation.”
And in December, 12 Iraqi soldiers, including an intelligence officer, were caught on video in Tal Afar shooting to death a prisoner whose hands were tied, The Times reports.
Wikileaks reports that, while the U.S. forces told the local Iraqi Army commander, no inquiry was begun because U.S. soldiers were not involved.
It was not unusual, however, for U.S. soldiers to intervene. One U.S. soldier heard screams in a prison cell and found two badly dehydrated detainees with bruises on their bodies. He ordered them out of Iraqi custody.
In August 2006, Wikileaks documents show, a U.S. sergeant in Ramadi walked into an Iraqi military police station and found an Iraqi lieutenant using an electrical cable to slash the bottom of a detainee’s feet. The sergeant stopped him, but later he found the same Iraqi officer whipping a detainee’s back.
The Wikileaks disclosures, while reporting little that was unknown, paint a far more detailed picture of the military sea-change that defined the United States’ involvement in Iraq. The New York Times says, “The early days of the Iraq war, with all its Wild West chaos, ushered in the era of the private contractor, wearing no uniform but fighting and dying in battle, gathering and disseminating intelligence and killing presumed insurgents.”
WikiLeaks is an international organization that publishes anonymous submissions and leaks of otherwise unavailable documents while preserving the anonymity of sources. Its website was launched in 2006.
Meanwile, Marian Wang of ProPublica, wrote that “Iraqi protesters clashed with Iraqi riot police on Feb. 25, 2011, in Baghdad’s Tahrir square following a rally calling for improved public services, more jobs and less corruption.”
She continued: “As the Mideast protests and government crackdowns continue, one country to watch closely is Iraq, with whom the U.S. has a long-term partnership and where clashes between protesters and government forces recently turned violent. Even as Iraqi security forces detained and abused hundreds of intellectuals and journalists, the U.S. government—in keeping with a pattern of silence on Iraq’s abuses—has withheld criticism of its strategic ally. (Salon noticed this too).
“Asked generally about the violence against Iraqi demonstrators on Friday, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said only “the approach we’ve taken with regard to Iraq is the same that we’ve taken with regard to the region,” which he said was to call on governments to respond to the protests peacefully. Neither the White House nor the State Department seem to have mentioned the matter since. Yesterday’s State Department briefing discussed Libya, Egypt, Iran, Oman, Saudi Arabia, South Korea, China, Pakistan, Argentina, South Africa and Haiti—Iraq was never discussed.
ProPubica wrote that “nearly 30 people have been killed in the Iraqi unrest so far. Unlike in other Mideast countries, the Iraqis are demanding better services and an end to corruption, not an end to the government.
Four journalists who had been released described being rounded up well after they had left a protest of thousands at Baghdad’s Tahrir Square. They said they were handcuffed, blindfolded, beaten and threatened with execution by soldiers from an army intelligence unit.
One journalist told the Washington Post that Iraqi soldiers used electric shocks on him.
It’s far from the first time the government of Iraq has been accused of detaining and abusing citizens, including journalists. Allegations of abuse by the post-Saddam Iraqi government have been made year after year , even at times by the U.S. government, which has also had to come to terms with its own detainee torture and abuse in American-run prisons in Iraq.
Last year, the Los Angeles Times uncovered a secret Baghdad prison where hundreds of Sunni men were detained and tortured by Iraqi security forces. “They beat people, they used electricity,” one Iraqi official told the Times. Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki vowed to shut the prison, saying: “Our reforms continue, and we have the Human Rights Ministry to monitor this. We will hold accountable anybody who was proven involved in such acts.”
Asked about the detention and torture by Iraqi forces in July 2010, a senior administration official said in a background briefing that the U.S. is “engaged with the Iraqis” on these kind of issues “on a regular basis.” The administration official noted that what was “particularly striking” was that the Iraqi government took corrective action and “Iraqis are finding a way to use the political system.”
Months later, Amnesty International released another report detailing continued widespread abuse and torture in Iraqi prisons. And earlier this month, Human Rights Watch released a report that described yet another secret prison run by Maliki that was still operating. (Iraqi government officials denied the report.) Two Iraqi journalists told NPR their stories—one said he had been imprisoned at a secret facility for nine months; the other said his nephew was detained by Maliki’s personal combat brigade, which reportedly controls the secret prison.
Asked earlier this month about the latest prison allegations, a U.S. military spokesman made clear that U.S. troops were not involved and referred further questions to Maliki’s government, the Post reported
Finally, the Washngton Post reported on Sunday that Iraqi security forces detained about 300 people, including prominent journalists, artists and lawyers who took part in nationwide demonstrations Friday, in what some of them described as an operation to intimidate Baghdad intellectuals who hold sway over popular opinion.
On Saturday, the Post wrote, four journalists who had been released described being rounded up well after they had left a protest of thousands at Baghdad’s Tahrir Square. They said they were handcuffed, blindfolded, beaten and threatened with execution by soldiers from an army intelligence unit.
“It was like they were dealing with a bunch of al-Qaeda operatives, not a group of journalists,” said Hussan al-Ssairi, a journalist and poet who described seeing hundreds of protesters in black hoods at the detention facility.
“Yesterday was like a test, like a picture of the new democracy in Iraq.”
The Iraq protests were different from many of the revolts sweeping the Middle East and North Africa in that demonstrators were calling for reform, not for getting rid of the government. Their demands ranged from more electricity and jobs to ending corruption, reflecting a dissatisfaction with government that cuts across sectarian and class lines, the Post wrote.
William Fisher, a regular contributor to The Public Record, has managed economic development programs for the U.S. State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development in the Middle East, Latin America and elsewhere for the past 25 years. He has supervised major multi-year projects for AID in Egypt, where he lived and worked for three years. He returned later with his team to design Egypt’s agricultural strategy. Fisher served in the administration of President John F. Kennedy. He reports on a wide-range of issues for numerous domestic and international newspapers and online journals. He blogs at The World According to Bill Fisher.
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