Scathing report exposes backlash against fleeing Iraqi civilians

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An Iraqi man remembers the day he was driven to what appeared to be an abandoned farmhouse, referred to as the “yellow house” by survivors, and locked in a small room with tens of other detainees.

“There was blood on the walls. Torture started immediately. They hit us with anything they could lay their hands on, metal rods, shovels, pipes, cables. They walked on top of us with their boots,” he said. “I saw two people die before my eyes.”

The man, originally from Saqlawiya, a city north of Fallujah in central Iraq, was recounting his terrifying experience at the hands of one of the country’s government-backed Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) last June.

He described witnessing his relative beaten to death by a shovel and hearing the gunshots after a group of men was led outside. The man, who now lives in a displaced persons camp in Amariyat al-Falluja, said that 17 of his family members, including his 17-year-old nephew, are still missing.

The unidentified man’s story is one of many highlighted in a scathing new report by Amnesty International released Tuesday on the widespread human rights violations and war crimes against Sunni men and boys suspected of supporting ISIS.

The abuses, the Amnesty report claims, are perpetrated by predominately Shia paramilitary militias backed by the Iraqi and Kurdish authorities as well as government troops themselves. The rights group said these violations are being committed by militias and government forces during “revenge attacks” against fleeing civilians.

According to the man, the “revenge attack” he endured at that farmhouse was in retaliation for the Speicher massacre when 1,700 captured Shia cadets were killed by ISIS in 2014.

Amnesty International is calling for action from the Iraqi and Kurdish governments as well as the international community to put an end to violence against civilians, which includes extrajudicial killings, forced disappearances, arbitrary detainment and torture.

The rights group said they shared the findings of their report with Iraqi and Kurdish authorities on Sept. 21. Iraqi authorities have yet to respond to the organization’s claims. Kurdish officials also received the report’s findings on Sept. 21 and replied on Oct. 4 with their own statistics on detainees accused of terrorism in Kurdistan. However, the Kurdish government rejected the majority of Amnesty International’s conclusions.

Philip Luther, Research and Advocacy Director for the Middle East and North Africa at Amnesty International, warns in the report that civilians fleeing the latest operation in Mosul this week could also be exposed to these types of crimes.

“As the battle to retake Mosul begins, it is crucial that the Iraqi authorities take steps to ensure these appalling abuses do not happen again,” Luther said. “States supporting military efforts to combat IS in Iraq must demonstrate they will not continue to turn a blind eye to violations.”

The report is based on interviews with more than 470 former detainees, witness and relatives of victims as well as other information provided by over 70 humanitarian workers, officials, lawyers and activists during late July and August.

Enforced disappearances

On top of countless extrajudicial killings and “revenge attacks,” such as the one in Saqlawiya, the report claims that enforced disappearances of thousands of Sunni men and boys by Iraqi security forces and state-backed militias has been rampant since the emergence of ISIS and other armed groups in Iraq. Many of the victims went missing after they surrendered to militias, were picked up at displaced persons camps or settlements, or were detained at security checkpoints.

One family fleeing ISIS in al-Qaem was stopped at the al-Razzaza checkpoint on their way to Baghdad on Dec. 25, 2015. Two men were taken by the paramilitary group, Kata’ib Hizbullah, operating the checkpoint.

“Hizbullah wouldn’t tell us why they took our sons away. They ordered us to leave and not to look back. We asked about them everywhere,” a relative who witnessed the event told Amnesty International. “We don’t know whether they are alive or dead.”

The report lists numerous other examples dating back to 2014 of families in the governorates of Anbar, Baghdad, Diyala and Salah al-Din searching for their loved ones with no information. Many families said they were too scared about reprisals from the police and paramilitary groups to file complaints or reports of the abductions. Enforced disappearances are considered a crime under international law.

Coerced confessions

Central Iraqi and Kurdish authorities routinely subject civilian men of fighting age (15 to 65) to security screenings and interrogations after they have escaped ISIS-controlled areas to determine if they have any ties to the terror group. According to the report, while some men are released within days, many are transferred to horrible detainment facilities where they are tortured, ill-treated and coerced into giving confessions.

One man described his horrifying experience at a facility controlled by Iraqi armed forces near the village of Hajj Ali in June.

“They beat me with a thick cable on the soles of my feet. I saw another detainee having a cigarette extinguished on his body. A boy of about 15 had hot wax poured on him. They wanted us to confess to being Daesh (ISIS),” he said.

Another Sunni Arab man in his forties, told Amnesty International about the interrogations he endured for two weeks at an Iraqi detention centre in Baghdad in June.

“Men in military uniform would take me out from the cell for interrogations, usually at night, and blindfold me. Interrogations lasted for hours. I was suspended for about five hours by my arms from the ceiling,” he said. “Eventually they took me to a rural area and just dumped me there. Before releasing me, they threatened to kill me if I complained about torture.

The report claims that many detainees are tortured until they provide information or confess to terror-related crimes. Amnesty International alleged that Iraqi courts often use these confessions to convict defendants in blatantly unfair trials which often result in death sentences.

One distraught mother told the rights group that her son had been sentenced to death in 2015 after being convicted of belonging to a terrorist group. She said he had signed a “confession” after being tortured in a facility controlled by the Ministry of Defence. The woman said the Central Criminal Court dismissed claims that he confessed under duress and refused to refer him to forensics to corroborate his story.

“I cannot describe in words the suffering of Iraqi detainees and their families. My son still has visible scars on his body, which he showed me during a [prison] visit,” she said. “I have been running from prison to prison, court to court to try to help my son, who was the only one providing for our family. I don’t know where to turn any more. There is no justice in this country.”