Thousands rounded up, with older boys and men often ‘disappeared’, tortured or even summarily shot
Iraqi government backing the militias and is involved in the ‘brutal revenge attacks’
‘As the battle for Mosul begins, it is crucial that the Iraqi authorities take steps to ensure these appalling abuses do not happen again’ - Philip Luther
Paramilitary militias and government forces in northern Iraq have arbitrarily detained thousands of civilians who’ve escaped areas controlled by the Islamic State armed group - torturing, forcibly disappearing and even extrajudicially executing many of these, said Amnesty International in a new report today.
Amnesty’s report - based on interviews with more than 470 former detainees, witnesses and relatives of those killed, disappeared or detained, as well as officials, activists and humanitarian workers - highlights widespread revenge attacks and discrimination faced by Sunni Arabs suspected of being complicit in ISIS crimes or of supporting the group. Many were displaced during major military operations across the country earlier this year, including in Falluja and surrounding areas (in the governorate of Anbar), al-Sharqat (Salah al-Din governorate), Hawija (Kirkuk governorate) and around Mosul.
The predominantly Shi’a militias involved in abuses - known as the Popular Mobilisation Units - have long been backed by the Iraqi authorities, which have provided them with financial support and weapons and officially designated them part of the Iraqi forces in February. Amnesty is stressing that the Iraqi government’s responsibility for these violations cannot be ignored and countries supporting or participating in the ongoing military effort to combat ISIS in Iraq should have rigorous checks in place to ensure that any support or equipment they provide does not contribute to such abuses.
In one shocking incident at least 12 men and four boys from the Jumaila tribe who fled al-Sijir, north of Falluja, were extrajudicially executed after they handed themselves in to men wearing military and federal police uniforms on 30 May. Men and older boys were separated from the women and younger children before being lined up and shot dead. At least 73 other men and older boys from the same tribe were seized a few days earlier and are still missing.
Militias have also abducted, tortured and killed men and boys from the Mehemda tribe who fled Saqlawiya, another town north of Falluja. On 3 June, some 1,300 men and older boys were seized. Three days later, more than 600 of them were transferred to the custody of local Anbar officials bearing marks of torture on their bodies. Survivors interviewed by Amnesty said they were held at an abandoned farmhouse, beaten with various objects, including shovels, and denied food and water. One survivor said that 17 of his relatives were still missing, including his 17-year-old nephew. Another of his relatives died, apparently as a result of torture. He told Amnesty:
“There was blood on the walls … They hit me and the others with anything they could lay their hands on, metal rods, shovels, pipes, cables … They walked on top of us with their boots. They insulted us, and said that this was payback for the Speicher massacre [in which some 1,700 captured Shi’a cadets were summarily killed by ISIS] … I saw two people die in front of my eyes.”
A local investigative committee set up by the Governor of Anbar concluded that 49 people captured from Saqlawiya were killed - either shot dead or burned or tortured to death - and that 643 others remained missing. The government announced that investigations had been opened into the incident and arrests carried out, but has not disclosed any detailed information about findings or those detained.
The abductions and mass killings near Falluja are far from isolated incidents. Across the country, thousands of Sunni men and boys who fled ISIS-held territory have been forcibly disappeared by Iraqi security forces and militias. Most went missing either after handing themselves over to pro-government forces or being seized at their homes, in camps for internally displaced people, from checkpoints or on the streets According to one local parliamentarian, since late 2014 members of the Hizbullah Brigades have abducted and forcibly disappeared up to 2,000 men and boys at the al-Razzaza checkpoint alone, a security post which separates Anbar and Karbala governorates.
“The Hashd [militias] took our men away saying this was payback [for ISIS abuses],” said “Salma” (name changed to protect her identity), whose husband was seized at the al-Razzaza checkpoint with his two cousins in January 2016 as they fled ISIS rule.
The findings of Amnesty’s report were shared with both the Iraqi and Kurdish authorities on 21 September. No response has been received from the Iraqi authorities, while the Kurdish authorities have responded by largely denying Amnesty’s findings.
Amnesty International’s Middle East and North Africa Research and Advocacy Director Philip Luther said:
“After escaping the horrors of war and tyranny of ISIS, Sunni Arabs in Iraq are facing brutal revenge attacks at the hands of militias and government forces, and are being punished for crimes committed by the group.
“Iraq is currently facing very real and deadly security threats from ISIS, but there can be no justification for extrajudicial executions, enforced disappearances, torture or arbitrary detention.
“As the battle for Mosul begins, it is crucial that the Iraqi authorities take steps to ensure these appalling abuses do not happen again. States supporting military efforts to combat ISIS in Iraq must demonstrate they will not continue to turn a blind eye to violations.”
Torture and abuses in detention
All males fleeing areas under ISIS control who are considered of “fighting age” (roughly 15-65) are being subjected to security screening by the Iraqi authorities and the semi-autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government to determine if they have links to ISIS. The process is murky and often deeply flawed. While some detainees are released within days, others are transferred to security forces and held for weeks or months in horrific conditions, without access to their families or the outside world, and without being referred to a court.
Amnesty’s report also reveals how security forces and militia members have routinely tortured detainees at screening facilities, unofficial militia detention sites and facilities controlled by the Ministries of Defence and Interior in Anbar, Baghdad, Diyala and Salah al-Din governorates. Detainees have told Amnesty that they were suspended in stress positions for long periods, given electric shocks, brutally beaten and taunted with threats that their female relatives would be raped. Many said they were tortured to “confess” or to provide information on ISIS and other armed groups.
Former detainees held by the Kurdish security forces (Asayish) in Dibis, Makhmur and Dohuk in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq also said they faced torture and other ill-treatment. One man described being tortured at a facility controlled by Iraqi armed forces and intelligence near the village of Hajj Ali in June, where more than 50 people were held in one room and subjected to repeated beatings. He said: “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.”
Death sentences and executions
Iraqi courts have a long history of relying on coerced “confessions” to convict defendants of serious charges in flagrantly unfair trials - often sentencing them to death. So far this year at least 88 executions have been carried out, mainly on terrorism-related charges. Dozens of death sentences have been handed down and some 3,000 people remain on death row.
More than two years of massive displacements of people
Since mid-2014, tens of thousands of Iraqis have been forcibly displaced by Iraqi government forces and the Peshmerga (Kurdish armed forces), as well as militias. Many are barred from returning to their homes (purportedly on security grounds) or face arbitrary and discriminatory restrictions on their freedom of movement. Often they are confined to camps with little prospect of accessing essential services or of regaining a livelihood.
Meanwhile, ISIS atrocities, armed conflict and insecurity have led to the exodus of some 4.2 million civilians from their homes, with some 3.4 million still displaced. Many have fled with little more than the clothes on their backs, setting off at night to avoid detection and walking for hours along treacherous paths. Not all those escaping have made it to safety. Fleeing civilians have been shot at by ISIS fighters, while others have stepped on mines or other unexploded remnants of war.