[Trigger Warning: Graphic Discussion of Sexual Violence and Torture]
In today’s Iraq, it is unfortunately all too easy to find Iraqis who have had loved ones who have been detained and tortured, and the trend is increasing.
Baghdad – Heba al-Shamary (name changed for security reasons) was released last week from an Iraqi prison where she spent the last four years.
“I was tortured and raped repeatedly by the Iraqi security forces,” she told Al Jazeera. “I want to tell the world what I and other Iraqi women in prison have had to go through these last years. It has been a hell.”
Heba was charged with terrorism, as so many Iraqis who are detained by the Iraqi security apparatus are charged.
“I now want to explain to people what is occurring in the prisons that [Prime Minister Nouri al-] Maliki and his gangs are running,” Heba added. “I was raped over and over again, I was kicked and beaten and insulted and spit upon.”
Heba’s story, horrific as it is, unfortunately is but one example of what a recent report from Amnesty International refers to as “a grim cycle of human rights abuses” in Iraq today.
The report, “Iraq: Still paying a high price after a decade of abuses”, exposes a long chronology of torture and other ill-treatment of detainees committed by Iraqi security forces, as well as by foreign troops, in the wake of the US-led 2003 invasion.
Speaking on condition of anonymity because her nephew remains in prison, an Iraqi woman told Al Jazeera how he was arrested by Iraqi security forces when he was 18-years-old, under the infamous Article Four which gives the government the ability to arrest anyone “suspected” of terrorism, and charged with terrorism. She told, in detail, of how he has been treated:
“They beat him with metal pipes, with harsh curse words and much swearing about his sect and his Allah (because he is Sunni) and why God is not helping him, and that they will bring up their mothers and sisters to rape them,” she explained to Al Jazeera. “Then they use electricity to burn different places of his body. They took all his cloths off in winter and left them naked out in the yard to freeze.”
Her nephew, who was released after four years imprisonment after the Iraqi appeals court deemed him innocent, was then arrested 10 days after his release, again under Article 4.
While he was free, he informed his aunt of how he and other detainees were tortured.
“They made some other inmates stand barefoot during Iraq’s summer on burning concrete pavement to have sunburn, and without drinking water until they fainted. They took some of them, broke so many of their bones, mutilated their faces with a knife and threw them back in the cell to let the others know that this is what will happen to them.”
Her nephew was tortured every day because he would not confess to a crime he did not commit, nor give any names for who had done it because he allegedly did not know.
“Finally, after the death of many of his inmates under torture, he agreed to sign up a false confession written by the interrogators, even though he had witnesses who have seen him in another place the day that crime has happened,” she added.
He remains in prison, where he has told his aunt he is now being tortured by militiamen that are brought into the prison to torture detainees, and one of his eyes has been lanced by them.
Yousef Abdul Rahman has an equally shocking story, from being detained in 2011 and spending four months in “the worst of prisons.”
“I was kept in a Maliki prison, where they dumped cold water on me and used electricity on me,” he told Al Jazeera. “Many of the prisoners with me were raped. They were raped with sticks and bottles. I saw the blood on that place of their bodies from when it happened, and I saw so many men this happened to.”
In today’s Iraq, it is unfortunately all too easy to find Iraqis who have had loved ones who have been detained and tortured, and the trend is increasing.
‘This was really harmful to me’
Ahmed Hassan, a 43-year-old taxi driver, was detained by Iraqi police at his home in the Adhamiyah district of Baghdad in December 2008. He was charged with “terrorism”, and held in a federal police prison in nearby Khadimiyah.
Hassan told Al Jazeera the prison was run by the Ministry of Interior, but alleged it was overseen by Prime Minister al-Maliki himself.
He said he was regularly tortured and held in a six-by-four metre cell with “at least 120 detainees, with a small toilet that has no door, and scarce running water.”
Prisoners received one meal a day that was often undercooked. And it was so crowded that “most of us would be forced to sleep standing”, he said.
Hassan explained that his jailors had “various techniques of torture.”
“They forced me to drink huge amounts of water and then would tie up the head of my penis so I could not urinate. This was really harmful to me,” said Hassan.
Another method was to “take off my fingernails with a pair of pliers, one by one” so Hassan would “make confessions for things I did not do”, he said.
Hassan said he was also hung upside down from his feet with his head placed in a bucket of water while he was whipped with plastic rods.
Jassim told Al Jazeera of one of his close friends who was detained and tortured similarly.
“When he was released, he told me he was hung by his ankles and tortured by electricity,” he said of his friend who was detained during a home raid by Iraqi SWAT forces in his predominantly Sunni neighbourhood of Al-Adhamiyah.
Stories of detentions and torture and executions are everywhere in today’s Iraq.
Sheikh Khaled Hamoud Al-Jumaili, one of the leaders of the ongoing demonstrations in Fallujah against the Maliki government, told Al Jazeera there that “thousands of Fallujans have been detained and we don’t know how many are now dead or on death row.”
“The fighting from 2004 has never stopped,” he added. “We simply switched from fighting the Americans to now we are fighting Maliki and his injustice and corruption.”
Another Fallujah sheikh, who asked to speak on condition of anonymity, told Al Jazeera he was detained and tortured by “Maliki’s forces” in 2012.
“I was taken to the Khadamiyah prison [in Baghdad] and tortured there,” he said while pulling up his shirt to reveal dark puncture wounds across his back. “I was beaten with sticks, punched, starved, spit upon, and hung by my ankles and then wrists. Maliki is even worse than the Americans.”
An Iraqi law known as Article Four gives the government of Prime Minister Maliki broad license to detain Iraqis. Article four and other laws give the government the ability to impose the death penalty for nearly 50 crimes, including terrorism, kidnapping, and murder, but also for offenses such as damage to public property.
This is why Iraq currently has one of the highest rates of death sentences in the world, but also why so many Iraqis, primarily Sunnis, are being detained.
Stories like those from Jassim and Hassan are exactly the kind referenced in the recent Amnesty International report.
“Torture is rife and committed with impunity by government security forces, particularly against detainees arrested under anti-terrorism while they are held incommunicado for interrogation,” reads the report.
“Detainees have alleged that they were tortured to force them to “confess” to serious crimes or to incriminate others while held in these conditions. Many have repudiated their confessions at trial only to see the courts admit them as evidence of their guilt, without investigating their torture allegations, sentencing them to long term imprisonment or death.”
Executions and International Condemnation
Saadiya Naif, 60 years old, has had three of her sons executed – two of them by American forces during the occupation, and one of them in 2008 by Iraqis.
“Baker was arrested by Iraqi police and held for one and a half years,” she told Al Jazeera, while weeping. “He was only 19 when they executed him. I tried to use lawyers to get him out of prison, but all three of them received death threats. Then, after one and a half years in prison, he phoned me to say goodbye, because he was to be executed the next day.”
According to international human rights groups, at least 3,000 Iraqis have been given the death sentence since 2005, which was the year capital punishment was reinstated after the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003.
At least 447 prisoners have been executed since 2005, and hundreds of prisoners await execution on death row. In addition, 129 prisoners were hanged in 2012.
The government of Prime Minister Maliki has been strongly criticized by both the UN and several other human rights groups for the number of executions being carried out.
Christof Heyns, UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, said last year he was alarmed by reports of individuals who remain at risk of execution. “I am appalled about the level of executions in Iraq. I deeply deplore the executions carried out.”
The surge in state-sanctioned killings has also drawn sharp criticism from the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, who called it “a sharp increase from previous years.”
“Given the lack of transparency in court proceedings, and the very wide range of offences for which the death penalty can be imposed in Iraq, this is truly a shocking figure,” Pillay said.
Human Rights Watch’s deputy Middle East director, Joe Stork, said Iraq “has a huge problem with torture and unfair trials.”
Lisa Hajjar is a professor of sociology at University of California Santa Barbara and a visiting professor at American University Beirut. Her work focuses on torture and detention issues in the context of war.
She said the situation in Iraq is common in ongoing civil wars, with the regime in power attempting to eliminate opponents from the past. Hajjar described the executions and torture as “intentional state terror.”
“I call it terroristic torture,” Hajjar told Al Jazeera. “When people are tortured or there are extrajudicial executions, the purpose is to dissuade others. The goal is to create a visible spectacle, and the purpose is to terrorize communities into quiescence.”
In response to this kind of international criticism, Iraq’s Justice Ministry said torture might happen in isolated incidents, and the media exaggerates it.
“The international community has not been fair with the Iraqi people,” Justice Ministry spokesman Haider al-Sadee recently told Al Jazeera. “When there is an explosion in America the whole world is rocked and countries are invaded as a result. But when Iraq defends its rights and executes a person after convicting him of a crime, international organisations condemn it.”
“Speaking as an Iraqi citizen,” he added. “I believe the least that should be done to show justice to the families of victims is to execute them publicly.”
This cavalier attitude, along with increasing rates of detentions, reports of ongoing torture, and increasing executions, have factored largely into why predominantly Sunni areas of Iraq, like Baghdad’s Al-Adhamiyah neighbourhood and much of Al-Anbar province, are holding regular demonstrations against Maliki’s government.
Every Friday in Fallujah, for three months now, hundreds of thousands have demonstrated and prayed on the main highway linking Baghdad and Amman, which runs just past the outskirts of that city.
People in Fallujah, and the rest of Iraq’s vast Anbar province, are enraged at the government of Prime Minister Maliki because his security forces, heavily populated by members of various Shia militias, have been killing and detaining Sunnis in Anbar Province, as well as across much of Baghdad.
Sheikh Khaled Hamoud Al-Jumaili, one of the sheikhs leading the demonstrations, made it clear to Al Jazeera why the protests have been ongoing.
“We demand an end to checkpoints surrounding Fallujah, we demand they allow in the press, we demand they end their unlawful home raids and detentions, we demand an end to federalism and gangsters and secret prisons,” he told Al Jazeera inside a tent just prior to recent Friday demonstrations.
Sheikh Jumaili went on to tell Al Jazeera that the millions of people in Anbar province had withdrawn all their demands on the Maliki government, because none of them had met.
“Now we demand a change in the regime and a change in the constitution,” he said. “We will not stop these demonstrations. This one [March 8] we have labeled “Last Chance Friday” because it is the governments’ last chance to listen to us.”
The Sheikh was then asked what would happen if the Maliki government did not listen to the demands of the protestors.
“Maybe armed struggle comes next,” he replied.
While there is no way of linking the events, on March 14 Iraq’s Ministry of Justice was attacked by at least one car bomb and a suicide bomber, as part of a series of coordinated attacks that rocked Baghdad, killing 24 and injuring at least 50 others.
Meanwhile, protests against the Maliki government’s ongoing use of detentions, torture, and executions continue in Sunni areas around Iraq, with no sign of abatement.
“Death sentences and executions are being used on a horrendous scale,” Amnesty International’s Hadj Sahraoui said in the groups recent report. “It is particularly abhorrent that many prisoners have been sentenced to death after unfair trials and on the basis of confessions they say they were forced to make under torture.”
“It is high time that the Iraqi authorities end this appalling cycle of abuse and declare a moratorium on executions as a first step towards abolishing the death penalty for all crimes,” he added.
Human Rights Watch’s Erin Evers, a Middle East Researcher working on Iraq, said she has received a wide range of figures from various sources as to the number of actual detainees.
“Iraq’s Ministry of Justice claims 30,000 people in Ministry of Justice and Interior Ministry detention facilities, but there are a lot contradictions from the government,” Evers told Al Jazeera. “I’ve had another source put the number at 50,000. The fact that the number varies so widely and that information on where and how people are detained is not widely available points to a larger problem.”
A point made to Al Jazeera by many Iraqis is this: perhaps the Maliki government does not need secret prisons anymore, because it instead has “secret prisoners.”
What is meant by this is that since the Iraqi security apparatus is not operating by the rule of law by carrying out arbitrary detentions and no due process, it is thus easy enough to detain people and hold them in normal facilities without having any record of them.
In this way it is possible for the government to interrogate ordinary Iraqis using any method it chooses, because the families and friends of the detainees have no idea where the detainee is, or how long they will be kept there.
According to Evers, Human Rights Watch “condemns the methods Iraqi security forces are using that don’t adhere totheir own laws or to international standards … the arrests conducted arbitrarily and without warrants, illegal detentions, and use of abuse interrogation methods to extract confessions. In terms of executions, while Human Rights Watch always opposes the death penalty, what is especially concerning in Iraq, is that they are carried out after trials lacking in due process, and for convictions based on forced confessions because the criminal justice system is based on confessions rather than the gathering of evidence.”
Evers went on to point out that the fact that the Iraqi justice system is so opaque points to the route of the problem.
“Which is that these institutions are failing, and it is a misnomer to call it a justice system as it’s certainly not actually meting out justice,” she said.
Amnesty International’s report is based on information gathered from multiple sources, including interviews with detainees, victims’ families, refugees, lawyers, human rights activists and others, plus reviews of court papers and other official documents.
Amnesty International sent its latest findings to the Iraqi government in December 2012 but has yet to receive any response.
“The real tragedy here is that not only are ordinary Iraqis suffering from ongoing terrorist attacks, but from the fact that the institutions that are supposed to protect them are instead targeting them,” Evers concluded. “By invoking ordinary Iraqis’ suffering from ongoing terrorist attacks and instability, the government implies that somehow it’s OK to violate people’s human rights under the guise of protecting them, and clearly even this not working.”
Dahr Jamail is a feature story staff writer and producer for the Human Rights Department of Al Jazeera English. Currently based in Doha, Qatar, Dahr has spent more than a year in Iraq, spread over a number of trips between 2003 and 2013.