Iraq is a constitutional parliamentary republic. The 2018 parliamentary elections, while imperfect, generally met international standards of free and fair elections and resulted in the peaceful transition of power from Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to Adil Abd al-Mahdi. Widespread protests that began in October 2019 led to the resignation of al-Mahdi on December 1, 2019, and triggered a five-month period of government formation. Mustafa al-Kadhimi, acting director of the Iraqi National Intelligence Service, secured confirmation as prime minister by the Iraqi Council of Representatives on May 6 after announcing commitments to hold early elections in 2021, provide judicial accountability for violence during the previous year’s protests, bring all arms under state control, and address systemic and widespread corruption within Iraqi government institutions.
Numerous domestic security forces operate throughout the country. Iraqi Security Forces are organized administratively within the Ministries of Interior and Defense, as well as within the quasi-ministerial Counterterrorism Service. The Ministry of Interior is responsible for domestic law enforcement and maintenance of order; it oversees the Federal Police, Provincial Police, Facilities Protection Service, Civil Defense, and Department of Border Enforcement. Energy police, under the Ministry of Oil, are responsible for providing energy infrastructure protection. Conventional military forces under the Ministry of Defense are responsible for the defense of the country but also carry out counterterrorism and internal security operations in conjunction with the Ministry of Interior. The Counterterrorism Service reports directly to the prime minister and oversees the Counterterrorism Command, an organization that includes three brigades of special operations forces. The National Security Service intelligence agency reports directly to the prime minister.
Iraq’s regular armed forces and domestic law enforcement bodies struggled to maintain order within the country, operating in parallel with the Popular Mobilization Committee, a state-sponsored umbrella military organization composed of approximately 60 militia groups, also known as Popular Mobilization Forces; such units operated throughout the country, often outside government control and in opposition to government policies. Most Popular Mobilization unit members were Shia Arabs, reflecting the demographics of the country, while Sunni Arab, Yezidi, Christian, and other minority units generally operated within or near their home regions. All Popular Mobilization units officially report to the chairman of the Popular Mobilization Committee and are under the ultimate authority of the prime minister, but several units were, in practice, also responsive to Iran and its Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.
The two main Kurdish political parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, each maintain an independent security apparatus. Under the federal constitution, the Kurdistan Regional Government has the right to maintain internal security forces, but the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and the Kurdistan Democratic Party separately control additional Peshmerga military units, as well as separate police forces under nominal Kurdish Ministry of Interior control. The constitution also allows for a centralized, separate Asayish internal security service; however, the Kurdistan Democratic Party and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan also each maintain Asayish forces. The Kurdistan Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan also maintain separate intelligence services, nominally organized under the Kurdistan Region Security Council.
Federal civilian authorities did not maintain effective control over some elements of the security forces, particularly certain Iran-aligned Popular Mobilization Force units and the Popular Mobilization Committee. Poorly defined administrative boundaries and disputed territories between the Iraqi Kurdistan Region and the central government led to confusion over the jurisdiction of security forces and the courts. Members of the security forces committed numerous documented abuses.
The country experienced large-scale protests in Baghdad and several Shia-majority provinces beginning in early October 2019 and lasting through mid-2020, with reports of more than 500 civilians killed and 20,000 or more injured. The government took minimal steps to bring to justice those responsible for the violence.
Significant human rights issues included: unlawful or arbitrary killings, including extrajudicial killings; forced disappearances; torture and cases of cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment or punishment; harsh and life-threatening prison and detention center conditions; arbitrary arrest and detention; arbitrary or unlawful interference with privacy; serious restrictions on free expression, the press, and the internet, including violence against journalists, threats of violence, unjustified arrests and prosecutions against journalists, censorship, site blocking, and existence of criminal libel; substantial interference with the rights of peaceful assembly; legal restrictions on freedom of movement of women; forced returns of internally displaced persons to locations where they faced threats to their lives and freedom; threats of violence against internally displaced persons and returnee populations perceived to have been affiliated with ISIS; widespread official corruption; lack of investigation of and accountability for violence against women; crimes involving violence targeting members of ethnic minority groups; violence targeting lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or intersex persons; criminalization of consensual same-sex sexual conduct between adults; and restrictions on worker rights, including restrictions on formation of independent unions; discrimination in employment of migrants, women, and those with disabilities; and the worst forms of child labor.
The government, including the Office of the Prime Minister, investigated allegations of abuses and atrocities perpetrated by the Iraqi Security Forces, including a ministerial investigation of the October 2019 protests, but rarely punished those responsible for perpetrating or authorizing human rights abuses. Impunity effectively existed for government officials and security force personnel, including the Iraqi Security Forces, Federal Police, Popular Mobilization Forces, and certain units of Kurdistan Regional Government Asayish internal security services.
Despite a reduction in numbers, ISIS continued to commit serious abuses and atrocities, including killings through suicide bombings and improvised explosive devices. The government continued investigations and was prosecuting allegations of ISIS abuses and atrocities and, in some instances, publicly noted the conviction of suspected ISIS members under the counterterrorism law.
Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:
a. Arbitrary Deprivation of Life and Other Unlawful or Politically Motivated Killings
There were numerous reports that the government and members of the security forces committed arbitrary or unlawful killings, and nongovernmental militias and ISIS affiliates also engaged in killings (see section 1.g.).
In August the UN Assistance Mission in Iraq (UNAMI) and the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) recorded credible reports of the deaths of 487 protesters and 7,715 incidents of injury to protesters at, or in the vicinity of, demonstration sites from October 2019 to April. A comprehensive disaggregation of those injured was not possible. The casualty findings were broadly consistent with reports from various independent institutions in the country.
Human rights organizations reported that Iran-aligned Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) militia groups engaged in killing, kidnapping, and extortion throughout the country, particularly in ethnically and religiously mixed provinces. Unlawful killings by unidentified gunmen and politically motivated violence occurred frequently throughout the country. In July historian and government advisor Hisham al-Hashemi was killed near his home in Baghdad’s Ziyouna district by two gunmen firing from a motorcycle. No group claimed responsibility for the shooting, but Al-Hashemi had been threatened by the Islamic State as well as pro-Iranian militias.
In August civil society activists blamed pro-Iranian militias for the killing of prominent activist Ossama Tahseen in Basrah Province by unknown gunmen. Tahseen was shot 21 times while security forces reportedly looked on. Also in August unknown gunmen killed female activist Reham Yakob. Yakob, who had previously led all-women protests in Basrah, had harshly criticized the government and pro-Iranian militias via social media before her death.
Government security forces reportedly committed extrajudicial killings. The Iraqi Parliament announced in December 2019 that a parliamentary “fact-finding committee” assigned to investigate the use of violence in the southern provinces had concluded its work and that its final report would be submitted to then caretaker prime minister Adil Abd al-Mahdi, without providing a timeline. The Dhi Qar Province portion of the investigation remained unfinished due to “incomplete statements of the officers.” Ultimately the committee did not release its final report, and apparently no significant legal action was taken against the perpetrators. The establishment of a fact-finding body to pursue accountability for violence against protesters was one of the first commitments of Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi’s government when he became prime minister in May. On July 30, al-Kadhimi stated that violence during demonstrations, as of that date, had killed at least 560 persons, including civilians and security personnel.
During the year the security situation remained unstable in many areas due to intermittent attacks by ISIS and its affiliated cells; sporadic fighting between the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) and ISIS strongholds in remote areas; the presence of militias not fully under the control of the government, including certain PMF units; and sectarian, ethnic, and financially motivated violence.
Terrorist violence continued throughout the year, including several ISIS attacks (see section 1.g.). According to the Iraqi Security Media Cell (a component of the Defense Ministry), the number of ISF personnel killed in attacks during the year was 88, while another 174 members were wounded.
There were frequent reports of forced disappearances by or on behalf of government forces, including Federal Police and PMF units. UNAMI/OHCHR reported that from October 2019 to March, UNAMI received 154 allegations of missing protesters and human rights activists presumed to have been abducted or detained.
UNAMI/OHCHR stated in a May report that they were not aware of any official investigations conducted by law enforcement authorities to locate the missing, to identify and prosecute those responsible, or to obtain justice and redress for victims. The government also did not initiate investigations into the abduction and torture of demonstrators and did not prosecute any perpetrators in relation to such acts, including those committed by nongovernment militias and criminal groups.
Local authorities in Sinjar, Ninewa Province, reported approximately 70 Yezidis were confined in secret Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) prisons. Local authorities alleged that since July 2019 PKK fighters had abducted more than 400 Yezidi women residents whose fates remained unclear. Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) security forces did not have direct access to Sinjar and were unable definitively to verify reports. In July the PKK kidnapped two citizens in Duhok Province. The fate of the two abductees remained unknown.
c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment
Although the constitution and laws prohibit such practices, they do not define the types of conduct that constitute torture, and the law gives judges full discretion to determine whether a defendant’s confession is admissible, often without regard for the manner in which it was obtained. Numerous reports indicated that government officials employed torture and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment. Courts routinely accepted forced confessions as evidence, which in some ISIS-related counterterrorism cases was the only evidence considered.
As in previous years, there were credible reports that government forces, including Federal Police, the National Security Service (NSS), and the PMF, abused and tortured individuals–particularly Sunni Arabs–during arrest and pretrial detention and after conviction. Former prisoners, detainees, and international human rights organizations documented cases of torture and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment in Ministry of Interior-run facilities and, to a lesser extent, in Ministry of Defense-run detention facilities.
Human rights organizations reported that both Ministry of Interior and Ministry of Defense personnel tortured detainees. UNAMI/OHCHR reported that some detained protesters were subjected to various mistreatment during interrogation, including severe beatings, electric shocks, hosing or bathing in cold water, being hung from the ceiling by the arms and legs, death threats and threats to their families, as well as degrading treatment (such as being urinated on or being photographed naked). In the same report, women interviewees described being beaten and threatened with rape and sexual assault. A local NGO in June reported that dozens of torture cases were recorded in detention centers in Ninewa, Salah al-Din, Kirkuk, Anbar, Dhi Qar, and Baghdad.
Impunity effectively existed for government officials and security force personnel, including the Iraqi Security Forces, Federal Police, Popular Mobilization Forces, and certain units of Kurdistan Regional Government Asayish internal security services.
Prison and Detention Center Conditions
Prison and detention center conditions were harsh and occasionally life threatening due to food shortages, gross overcrowding, physical abuse, inadequate sanitary conditions and medical care, and the threat of COVID-19 and other communicable illnesses.
Physical Conditions: Overcrowding in government-run prisons was a systemic problem exacerbated by an increase in the number of alleged ISIS members detained during the past two years. In addition three of the 24 correctional facilities managed by the Iraqi Corrections Service–the government entity with legal authority to hold persons after conviction–remained closed due to security concerns, worsening overcrowding in the facilities that remained open.
In July the Ministry of Justice warned of an emerging health crisis during the COVID-19 pandemic due to prison overcrowding. A senior ministry official stated the juvenile prison was holding 600 inmates, despite a maximum capacity of 250. The official claimed the Justice Ministry had tracked 31 positive cases of COVID-19 among the juvenile inmate population as of July.
In June the Iraqi High Commission for Human Rights (IHCHR) echoed the Ministry of Justice’s concerns reporting that the country’s penal system’s facilities suffered from overcrowding and a lack of infrastructure and health services, adding that maintaining social distancing among inmates was impossible, which would turn prisons into epicenters of the COVID-19 epidemic.
In April the Justice Ministry announced that 950 adult inmates and 57 juveniles received special pardons to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 in detention facilities. In August the ministry also announced the opening of a new prison in Baghdad to reduce overcrowding with assurances the new prison complied with international standards.
The IHCHR estimated the number of detainees and inmates in Ninewa detention centers at 5,500 individuals, with the number of juveniles (younger than age 18) detained in terrorism cases at 1,000. Overcrowding in detention centers ranged from 150 to 200 percent of their capacity, especially in al-Faysaliah Detention Center in Mosul. The IHCHR reported the centers witnessed high death rates, including 180 deaths in 2018, 40 in 2019, and 22 as of June.
The number of detainees increased beyond the designated capacity across the Iraqi Kurdistan Region’s (IKR) six correctional centers. The Independent Human Rights Commission Kurdistan Region (IHRCKR) reported the Erbil Correctional Center, built to house 900 detainees, held 1,957 inmates. The IHRCKR reported three inmates with chronic disease died without getting proper medical treatment due to overcrowding of detention centers. Limited medical staff was unable to handle all cases and provide adequate medical services to all prisoners.
Within the IKR, provinces applied parole and criminal code provisions inconsistently. Legal procedures were often delayed by administrative processing, and parole decisions were not made in a timely fashion.
According to UNAMI, the KRG’s newer detention facilities in major cities were well maintained, although conditions remained poor in many smaller detention centers operated by the KRG Ministry of Interior. In some KRG Asayish detention centers and police-run jails, KRG authorities occasionally held juveniles in the same cells as adults. An IHRCKR report stated that as of September, authorities housed more than 50 minors in Erbil Women’s and Children Reformatory Center with their convicted mothers. UNICEF funded a separate annex to the prison for these minors, but they continued to lack access to education.
Administration: The central government reported it took steps to address allegations of mistreatment in central government facilities, but the extent of these steps was not known. Both Iraqi and international human rights organizations asserted that judges frequently failed to investigate credible allegations that security forces tortured terrorism suspects and often convicted defendants based solely on coerced confessions.
Prison and detention center authorities sometimes delayed the release of exonerated detainees or inmates due to lack of prisoner registration or other bureaucratic issues, or they extorted bribes from prisoners prior to their release at the end of their sentences. International and local human rights groups reported that authorities in numerous instances denied family visits to detainees and convicts. Guards allegedly demanded bribes or beat detainees when detainees asked to call their relatives or legal counsel.
The KRG inconsistently applied procedures to address allegations of abuse by KRG Ministry of Interior officers or the Asayish. In a September report on prison conditions across the IKR, the IHRCKR stated that some prisons failed to maintain basic standards and to safeguard the human rights of prisoners. The report emphasized the need for new buildings and for laws to protect the rights and safety of inmates.
Independent Monitoring: Iraqi Corrections Service prisons allowed regular visits by independent nongovernmental observers. In June the government complied with a request from the IHCHR to allow alternative virtual methods to monitor prisons and detention facilities after prison authorities prevented the commission’s inspection teams from accessing these facilities due to the spread of COVID-19.
d. Arbitrary Arrest or Detention
The constitution and laws prohibit arbitrary arrest and detention and provide for the right of any person to challenge the lawfulness of his or her arrest or detention in court. Despite such protections, there were numerous reports of arbitrary arrests and detentions, predominantly of Sunni Arabs, including internally displaced persons (IDPs). In July security forces arrested 20 Sunni alleged suspects after an ISF brigadier general was killed during an ISIS attack in Tarmiya. The detainees were not involved in the attack, had no reported affiliation with ISIS, and were released only after the prime minister’s direct intervention.
In September, ISF units arrested prominent activist Dhurgham Majid and 40 other protesters in al-Hillah, Babil Province, and detained them until the following day without providing a reason for their detention.
KRG security forces detained at least 50 protesters, activists, and journalists in late August in the towns of Zakho and Duhok. Many observers called the detentions arbitrary, either because persons were detained for exercising their right to peaceful assembly, or because authorities ignored their right under law to be brought before a judge within 24 hours.
Arrest Procedures and Treatment of Detainees
The law prohibits the arrest or remand of individuals, except by order of a competent judge or court or as established by the code of criminal procedures. The law requires authorities to register the detainee’s name, place of detention, reason for detention, and legal basis for arrest within 24 hours of the detention–a period that may be extended to a maximum of 72 hours in most cases. For offenses punishable by death, authorities may legally detain the defendant as long as necessary to complete the judicial process. The Ministry of Justice is responsible for updating and managing these registers. The law requires the Ministries of Defense and Interior and the NSS to establish guidelines for commanders in battlefield situations to register detainees’ details in this central register. The law also prohibits any entity, other than legally competent authorities, to detain any person.
Human rights organizations reported that government forces, including the ISF (including the Federal Police), NSS, PMF, Peshmerga, and Asayish, frequently ignored the law. Local media and human rights groups reported that authorities arrested suspects in security sweeps without warrants, particularly under the antiterrorism law, and frequently held such detainees for prolonged periods without charge or registration. The government periodically released detainees, usually after concluding that it lacked sufficient evidence for the courts to convict them, but many others remained in detention pending review of other outstanding charges.
In May, Amnesty International reported that armed members of the KRG’s Asayish entered the home of teacher and activist Badal Abdulbaqi Abu Bakr in the town of Duhok and arrested him without a warrant. Bakr was later charged with “misuse of electronic devices” for his role in organizing peaceful protests through social media platforms.
The law allows release on bond for criminal (but not security) detainees. Authorities rarely released detainees on bail. The law provides for judges to appoint free counsel for the indigent. Attorneys appointed to represent detainees frequently complained that insufficient access to their clients hampered adequate attorney/client consultation. In many cases detainees were not able to meet their attorneys until their scheduled trial date.
Government forces held many terrorism-related suspects incommunicado without an arrest warrant and transported detainees to undisclosed detention facilities (see section 1.b.).
Arbitrary Arrest: There were numerous reports of arbitrary arrest or unlawful detention by government forces, including the ISF (including the Federal Police), NSS, PMF, Peshmerga, and Asayish. There were no reliable statistics available regarding the total number of such acts or the length of detentions. Authorities often failed to notify family members of the arrest or location of detention, resulting in incommunicado detention if not enforced disappearance (see section 1.b.). Humanitarian organizations also reported that, in many instances, federal authorities did not inform detainees of the reasons for their detention or the charges against them. Many reports of arbitrary or unlawful detention involved suspected members or supporters of ISIS and their associates and family members.
There were reports of Iran-aligned PMF groups also arbitrarily or unlawfully detaining Kurds, Turkmen, Christians, and other minorities in western Ninewa and the Ninewa Plain. There were numerous reports of 30th and 50th PMF Brigades involvement in extortion, illegal arrests, kidnappings, and detention of individuals without warrants. In July credible law-enforcement information indicated that the 30th PMF Brigade operated secret prisons in several locations in Ninewa Province, which housed 1,000 detainees arrested on sectarian-based, false pretenses. Leaders of the 30th PMF Brigade allegedly forced families of the detainees to pay large sums of money in exchange for the release of their relatives.
In October, Iraqi security forces in Basrah arbitrarily detained without warrant eight human rights defenders, including human rights defender Hussam al-Khamisy, according to witnesses who spoke to the NGO Gulf Center for Human Rights and local rights groups. The eight were held for six hours and released only after being forced to sign a document, which they were not allowed to read.
Pretrial Detention: The Ministries of Justice, Defense, Interior, and Labor and Social Affairs are authorized by law to hold pretrial detainees, as is the NSS in limited circumstances, for a brief period. Lengthy pretrial detentions without due process or judicial review were a systemic problem, particularly for those accused of having ties to ISIS. There were no independently verified statistics, however, concerning the number of pretrial detainees in central government facilities, the approximate percentage of the prison and detainee population in pretrial detention, or the average length of time held.
The lack of judicial review resulted from several factors, including the large number of detainees, undocumented detentions, slow processing of criminal investigations, an insufficient number of judges and trained judicial personnel, authorities’ inability or reluctance to use bail or other conditions of release, lack of information sharing, bribery, and corruption. Overcrowding of pretrial detainees remained a problem in many detention centers.
Lengthy pretrial detentions were particularly common in areas liberated from ISIS, where the large number of ISIS-related detainees and use of makeshift facilities led to significant overcrowding and inadequate services. There were reports of detention beyond judicial release dates and unlawful releases.
According to the IHCHR, 448 non-Iraqi women and 547 children were in Ministry of Justice custody as of September. Of the 547 children, 222 were placed with their mothers, while 80 were sent to the juvenile correctional department and 32 were sent to state shelters (orphanages).
Authorities reportedly held numerous detainees without trial for months or years after arrest, particularly those detained under the antiterrorism law. Authorities sometimes held detainees incommunicado, without access to defense counsel, presentation before a judge, or arraignment on formal charges within the legally mandated period. Authorities reportedly detained spouses and other family members of fugitives–mostly Sunni Arabs wanted on terrorism charges–to compel their surrender.
KRG authorities also reportedly held detainees for extensive periods in pretrial detention; however, no data was available regarding the approximate percentages of prison and detainee population in pretrial detention and the average length of time held.
KRG officials noted prosecutors and defense attorneys frequently encountered obstacles in carrying out their work and trials were unnecessarily delayed for administrative reasons. COVID-19 preventive measures and closures presented additional obstacles to the resolution of judicial proceedings during 2020.
According to the IHRCKR, some detainees remained in KRG internal security service facilities for extended periods even after court orders were issued for their release. The IHRCKR reported that other detainees remained in detention centers longer than required due to lack of implementation of parole and closure of courts due to COVID-19 restrictive measures. Lawyers provided by an international NGO continued to have access to and provide representation to any juvenile without a court-appointed attorney.
Detainee’s Ability to Challenge Lawfulness of Detention before a Court: The constitution and law grant detainees the right to a prompt judicial determination on the legality of their detention and the right to prompt release. Despite the 2016 law concerning rights of detainees, NGOs widely reported that detainees had limited ability to challenge the lawfulness of detention before a court and that a bribe was often necessary to have charges dropped unlawfully or gain release from arbitrary detention. While a constitutional right, the law does not allow for compensation for a person found to have been unlawfully detained. In July an Iraqi NGO documented 10 cases of detainees forced to pay bribes to gain release from detention and cited stories of family members blackmailed by security officers who accepted bribes without releasing the detainees. The report quoted an IHCHR member who said that at least half of these detainees had been incarcerated for periods ranging from six months to two years without having their cases settled.
e. Denial of Fair Public Trial
The Iraqi constitution provides for an independent judiciary, but certain articles of law restricted judicial independence and impartiality. The country’s security situation and political history left the judiciary weak and dependent on other parts of the government. The Federal Supreme Court rules on issues related to federalism and the constitution, and a separate Higher Judicial Council manages and supervises the court system, including disciplinary matters.
Corruption or intimidation reportedly influenced some judges in criminal cases at the trial level and on appeal at the Court of Cassation.
Numerous threats and killings by sectarian, tribal, extremist, and criminal elements impaired judicial independence. Judges, lawyers, and their family members frequently faced death threats and attacks. In February the head of the Iraqi Bar Association, Dhia al-Saadi, announced his intention to prosecute the perpetrators who tried to assassinate protester lawyer Ali Ma’arij in Dhi Qar Province.
Judges in Mosul and Baghdad were repeatedly criticized by international NGOs for overseeing hasty trials and handing down long prison sentences for ISIS family members. Defense attorneys said they rarely had access to their clients before hearings and were threatened for defending them. According to Amnesty International, trials for terrorism-related charges lasted anywhere from one to 10 minutes, and authorities often brought groups of 50 to 80 detainees into the court to be sentenced together. Children older than age nine also were prosecuted for illegal entry into the country despite statements that their parents brought them to the country without their consent.
The Kurdistan Judicial Council is legally, financially, and administratively independent from the KRG Ministry of Justice, but KRG senior leaders reportedly influenced politically sensitive cases. Judicial appointments and rulings were reportedly also influenced by the region’s strongest political parties.
The constitution and law provide all citizens the right to a fair and public trial, but the judiciary did not enforce this right for all defendants. Some government officials, the United Nations, and civil society organizations (CSOs) reported trial proceedings fell short of international standards.
By law accused persons are innocent until proven guilty. Judges in ISIS-related cases, however, sometimes reportedly presumed defendants’ guilt based upon presence or geographic proximity to activities of the terrorist group, or upon a spousal or familial relationship to another defendant, as indicated by international NGOs throughout the year. The law requires detainees to be informed promptly and in detail of the charges against them and of their right to a fair, timely, and public trial. Nonetheless, officials routinely failed to inform defendants promptly or in detail of the charges against them. Trials were public, except in some national security cases. Numerous defendants experienced undue delays in reaching trial.
In 2019 the government established specialized terrorism courts to prosecute accused foreign terrorist fighters repatriated from neighboring Syria. In April 2019 courts began preparing cases against nearly 900 citizens accused of joining ISIS. The IHCHR said that as of August, a total of 794 of the 900 had been found guilty of terrorism crimes and sentenced to death. By law the Court of Cassation reviews each sentence, but according to the IHCHR, it was likely that all of the death penalty sentences would be upheld.
Defendants’ rights under law include the right to be present at their trial and the right to a privately retained or court-appointed counsel, at public expense, if needed. Defendants frequently did not have adequate time and facilities to prepare a defense. Insufficient access to defense attorneys was a serious defect in investigative, trial, and appellate proceedings. This scenario was typical in counterterrorism courts, where judicial officials reportedly sought to complete convictions and sentencing for thousands of suspected ISIS members quickly, including through mass trials.
Defendants also have the right, under law, to free assistance of an interpreter, if needed. The qualifications of interpreters varied greatly. Some foreign missions provided translators to their citizen defendants; however, not all countries were able to provide this service. When no translator was available, judges reportedly postponed proceedings and sent the foreign defendants back to jail.
Judges assemble evidence and adjudicate guilt or innocence. Defendants and their attorneys have the right, under law, to confront witnesses against them and present witnesses and evidence. They may not be compelled to testify or confess guilt. Nevertheless, defendants and their attorneys were not always granted access to evidence, or government officials demanded a bribe in exchange for access to the case files. In numerous cases judges reportedly relied on forced or coerced confessions as the primary or sole source of evidence in convictions, without the corroboration of forensic evidence or independent witness testimony.
The public prosecution, defendant, and complainant each have the right to appeal an acquittal, conviction, or sentence in a criminal court ruling. Appeals are heard by the criminal committee, consisting of a presiding judge and a minimum of four other judges, within the Federal Court of Cassation in Baghdad. The criminal committee automatically reviews all cases with a minimum sentence of 25 years, life imprisonment, or death. The committee may uphold a decision or overrule it and return the case to the trial court for a retrial or for additional judicial investigation. The law provides for retrials of detainees convicted due to forced or coerced confessions or evidence provided by secret informants. The Ministry of Justice reported in 2019 that authorities released almost 8,800 detainees from government custody between the law’s enactment in 2016 and October 2019. Updated figures were not available as of December.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) reported in September that a study of appeals court decisions indicated judges in almost two dozen cases appeared to ignore torture allegations and, in some instances, relied on uncorroborated confessions. According to HRW, judges denied these appeals even when the torture allegations were substantiated by forensic medical exams, and where the confessions were unsubstantiated by any other evidence or extracted by force.
Political Prisoners and Detainees
The government did not consider any incarcerated persons to be political prisoners and argued they had violated criminal statutes. It was difficult to assess these claims due to lack of government transparency, prevalence of corruption in arrest procedures, slow case processing; and extremely limited access to detainees, especially those held in counterterrorism, intelligence, and military facilities. Political opponents of the government alleged the government imprisoned individuals for political activities or beliefs under the pretense of criminal charges ranging from corruption to terrorism and murder.
A legal advisor at an Iraqi human rights NGO noted the disappearances of at least 75 human rights and political activists who were kidnapped from protest squares and were being held by unknown parties presumed to be Iranian-backed militias.
In May, Prime Minister al-Kadhimi ordered the immediate release of all detained protesters. The Higher Judicial Council subsequently ordered courts around the country to release all protesters. In July the prime minister followed up with unannounced visits to prisons where nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) claimed protesters were being detained. According to local human rights organizations, prison officials were surprised by al-Kadhimi’s visits, during which the prime minister reportedly asked detainees whether there were any protesters among them.
After al-Kadhimi’s prison visits the IHCHR confirmed the release of 2,740 protester detainees. The IHCHR was allowed to visit the remaining 87 detainees, those accused of specific violent acts against government forces, while in custody.
Amnesty: A general amnesty law approved in 2016 and amended in 2017 includes amnesty for corruption crimes under the condition that the stolen money be returned. NGOs and politicians complained that authorities implemented the law selectively and in a manner that did not comply with the intended goal of the legislation, which was to provide relief for those imprisoned under false charges or for sectarian reasons.
Civil Judicial Procedures and Remedies
Individuals and organizations may seek civil remedies for, or cessation of, human rights violations through domestic courts. Administrative remedies also exist. The government did not effectively implement civil or administrative remedies for human rights violations due in part to the overwhelming security focus of the executive branch on maintenance of law and order, coupled with an understaffed judiciary.
Unlike federal law, KRG law provides for compensation to persons subject to unlawful arrest or detention and survivors of the Anfal chemical weapons campaign waged by the former Baath regime of Saddam Hussein; the KRG Ministry of Martyrs and Anfal Affairs handles such cases. The ministry approved approximately 5,127 cases (many historical) that were to receive compensation consisting of a piece of land, 10 years’ salary, and college tuition for one family member, although the government could not always pay compensation due to budget constraints. The ministry stated there were 20,364 unlawful arrest claims approved but pending final compensation decisions.
Individuals in the IKR and the rest of the country who were imprisoned for political reasons under the former Baath regime of Saddam Hussein received a pension as compensation from the government. While KRG political prisoners’ pensions were approximately 500,000 dinars ($440) plus 50,000 dinars ($44) for each year of being imprisoned, the central government paid other Iraqis a minimum of 1.2 million dinars ($1,050).
The constitution and law prohibit the expropriation of property, except for the public benefit and in return for just compensation. In previous years government forces and PMF units forced suspected ISIS members, in addition to religious and ethnic minorities, from their homes and confiscated property without restitution. Although home and property confiscations declined sharply during the year, many of those who confiscated the homes still occupied them or claimed ownership to the property. This factor, among other concerns, contributed to low rates of return for IDPs to these areas. The compensation commission of Mosul, Ninewa Province, stated that families of suspected ISIS members could receive compensation if they obtained a security clearance to return home from the NSS, but HRW reported that almost all families of ISIS suspects were being denied clearance.
In Mosul, activists claimed that various PMF militia confiscated more than 5,000 private and public properties by manipulating property registration to replace the owner of record, many of whom fled the area during ISIS occupation. Similarly, NGO contacts reported a pro-Iranian militia group, Asaib Ahl al-Haq, confiscated the Abu Nawas theater building in November, one of the oldest theaters in Baghdad, to support their activities.
f. Arbitrary or Unlawful Interference with Privacy, Family, Home, or Correspondence
The constitution and law prohibit such actions, but there were numerous reports that the government failed to respect these prohibitions. Government forces often entered homes without judicial or other appropriate authorization.
g. Abuses in Internal Conflict
Killings: Iraq Body Count, an independent NGO that records civilian deaths in the country, reported 848 civilians killed during the year due to internal conflict, a drop from 2,392 civilian deaths reported during the preceding year. An IHCHR commissioner attributed the drop in deaths to reduced protest activity during the year, as well as to COVID-19 lockdowns.
Despite its territorial defeat in 2017, ISIS remained a major perpetrator of abuses and atrocities. The remaining fighters operated out of sleeper cells and strike teams that carried out sniper attacks, ambushes, kidnappings, and assassinations against security forces and community leaders. These abuses were particularly evident in Anbar, Baghdad, Diyala, Kirkuk, Ninewa, and Salah al-Din provinces. Salah al-Din provincial operations commander Saad Muhammed told local media on July 25 that an ISIS group attacked the house of a village leader, Khudair Abbas al-Samarrai, and killed him along with five of his immediate family members.
Abductions: There were frequent reports of enforced disappearances by or on behalf of government forces, including the ISF and PMF, as well as non-PMF militias and criminal groups.
A UNAMI report released in August on enforced disappearances in Anbar Province called for independent and effective investigations to establish the fate of approximately 1,000 civilian men and boys who disappeared during military operations against ISIS in Anbar during 2015-16. The report highlighted a list of 300 names, compiled by the IHCHR, of persons allegedly kidnapped from al-Sejar, al-Saqlawia, and al-Razzazah in 2016. Despite this list’s being shared with Iraqi government officials, as of August the IHCHR had not received any information about these individuals, and the Iraqi government had not added the names to their databases of known missing persons.
The KRG Office for Rescuing Kidnapped Yezidis on September 2 stated that 2,880 (1,304 females and 1,576 males) of the 6,417 Yezidis kidnapped by ISIS in 2014 remained missing. The report indicated ISIS attacks on Yezidi communities had resulted in 310,000 Yezidi IDPs, forced more than 100,000 to flee Iraq, and left 2,745 children as orphans. The statement noted that in Sinjar 83 mass graves had been discovered, in addition to dozens of individual gravesites, and that 68 holy shrines and temples were destroyed. The report noted that referenced statistics did not reflect additional human casualties or the vast material losses in residential and agricultural land, residences, businesses, livestock, cars, and other property.
Other minority populations were also victims of gross human rights violations committed by ISIS forces. A Shabak member of parliament reported that 233 Shabak men women and children had been kidnapped by ISIS and their whereabouts remained unknown. Ali Hussein, of Iraqi Turkmen Front, reported approximately 1,200 Turkmen had been kidnapped, including 446 women. Hussein estimated that 800 of the 1,200 were killed, while the rest remained missing. The KRG Ministry of Endowments and Religious Affairs estimated the total number of Christians killed by ISIS at 303, with another 150 missing. According to the KRG Ministry of Peshmerga, more than 45 Peshmerga taken prisoner during the fighting with ISIS remained missing.
Physical Abuse, Punishment, and Torture: Reports from international human rights groups stated that government forces, including Federal Police, National Security Service, PMF, and Asayish, abused prisoners and detainees, particularly Sunni Arabs.
The Iraqi War Documentation Center (IWDC) released a statement in July stating that in June and July approximately 207 civilians were reportedly detained, mostly Sunnis accused of ISIS affiliation, by ISF and PMF units, from the Salah al-Din, Ninewa, Diyala, and Baghdad belt areas, including at least 10 women and three children. The IWDC added that one of these detainees, Ahmed Hadi al-Dulaimi, from Tarmiyah district north of Baghdad, died on July 6 while in PMF custody and that his body showed signs of torture.
Child Soldiers: There were no reports that the central government’s Ministry of Defense conscripted or recruited children to serve in the security services. The government and Shia religious leaders expressly prohibited children younger than 18 from serving in combat.
In previous years ISIS was known to recruit and use children in combat and support functions. Due in part to ISIS’ territorial defeat, little information was available on its use of children in the country during the year.
In June the UN Security Council published a report on children and armed conflict, in which the UN secretary-general commended the government for its continuing discussion with the United Nations on developing an action plan to prevent the recruitment and use of children by the Popular Mobilization Forces and noted that no new cases of recruitment and use by those forces were documented during the year.
See also the Department of State’s annual Trafficking in Persons Report at https://www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report/ .
Other Conflict-related Abuse: Conflict disrupted the lives of hundreds of thousands of persons throughout the country, particularly in Baghdad, Anbar, and Ninewa provinces.
Government forces, including the ISF and PMF, established or maintained roadblocks that reportedly impeded the flow of humanitarian assistance to communities in need, particularly in disputed territories such as Sinjar, Ninewa Province. Media outlets circulated a video of an improvised explosive device (IED) attack on a UN World Food Program (WFP) vehicle in Ninewa on August 26. The Saraya Awliyaa al-Dam militia declared responsibility for the attack. A WFP worker was reportedly injured by the blast in Bartalla district between Erbil and Ninewa.
ISIS reportedly targeted religious celebrations and places of worship, civilian infrastructure, including several attacks on electricity and water infrastructure in Kirkuk and other provinces. ISIS leadership characterized the attacks as “continuous operations to drain through attrition the Iraqi army, Iraqi police, and Peshmerga.”
On August 22, ISIS militants reportedly carried out an IED attack against a Shia holy site during an Ashura religious procession in Dujail, located in southern Salah al-Din Province. The resulting clashes between ISIS and government forces responding to the attack resulted in 13 fatalities and three injuries among Iraqi Federal Police and Saraya al-Salam militiamen, as well as seven civilians wounded.
On August 25, the Iraqi Security Media Cell reported that ISIS terrorists opened fire on a police station in the Daquq area of the Kirkuk highway with four reported deaths and four wounded.
In 2017 the UN Security Council, in cooperation with the government, established the UN Investigative Team to Promote Accountability for Crimes Committed by Da’esh/ISIL (UNITAD) with a goal to bring justice and accountability to individuals who committed, or participated in, mass atrocities and serve as a deterrent to further gross violations of human rights. The investigative team–which was tasked with collecting, preserving, and storing evidence of acts that may amount to war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide committed by ISIS–formally began its work in 2018. In March 2019 UNITAD launched its first exhumation at the Yezidi village of Kocho, in Ninewa Province’s Sinjar district. COVID and security issues delayed much of UNITAD’s work during the year, but in October a new exhumation was launched at the Solagh Institute in Ninewa, where elderly Yezidi women deemed too old to be sold by ISIS into sexual slavery were executed and buried. In November, UNITAD also announced planned exhumations in Zagroytiya village just south of the Mosul airport, where dozens of Sunni male law enforcement personnel were killed, and Mosul’s Badoush Prison, where hundreds of Shia inmates were executed.
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
The constitution provides for the right of free expression, including for the press if such does not violate public order and morality, express support for the banned Baath Party, or advocate altering the country’s borders through violent means. Despite this provision, media and social activists faced various forms of pressure and intimidation from authorities, making the primary limitation on freedom of expression self-censorship due to a credible fear of reprisals by the government, political parties, ethnic and sectarian forces, militias, terrorist and extremist groups, or criminal gangs. A media environment in which press outlets were closely affiliated with specific political parties and ethnic factions, an opaque judiciary, and a developing democratic political system combined to place considerable restrictions on freedom of expression, including the press.
Freedom of Speech: Individuals were able to criticize the government publicly or privately but not without fear of reprisal. Impunity in cases of violence against the press and a lack of a truly independent judiciary and press regulation body diminished the effectiveness of journalists.
Central government and KRG forces arrested and detained protesters and activists critical of the central government and of the KRG, respectively, according to statements by government officials, NGO representatives, and press reports.
Freedom of Press and Media, Including Online Media: Despite the constitutional protection for freedom of expression, central government and KRG oversight and censorship sometimes interfered with media operations, at times resulting in the closure of media outlets, restrictions on reporting, denying access to public information, and interference with internet service.
Local media was active and expressed a variety of views, largely reflecting owners’ political viewpoints. Media also self-censored to comply with government restrictions against “violating public order” and because of a fear of reprisal by political figures and parties, militias, terrorist groups, criminal organizations, government officials, and private individuals. Political parties strongly influenced, or controlled outright, most of the several hundred daily and weekly print publications, as well as dozens of radio and television stations.
The KRG’s Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) prioritized access to the outlets they owned. In KDP strongholds Kurdistan Television, Rudaw, and K24 had access to all public places and information, while in PUK-dominated Sulaymaniya Province, Kurdsat News, and GK Television enjoyed the same privilege. Conversely, outlets belonging to opposition parties or lacking party affiliation had limited access to public information in the IKR.
The IKR press law does not give the KRG the authority to close media outlets, but in August the KRG closed the Kurdish Nalia Radio and Television (NRT) offices in Erbil and Duhok over the television station’s coverage of protests. On September 9, KRG coordinator for international advocacy Dindar Zebari defended the move stating that NRT violated Article 2 of Law 12 of 2010, which bars encouraging a public disturbance or harming social harmony in accordance with IKR law.
Government forces sometimes prevented journalists from reporting, citing security reasons. Some media organizations reported arrests and harassment of journalists, as well as government efforts to prevent them from covering politically sensitive topics, including security issues, corruption, and government failure to provide adequate services.
Violence and Harassment: Several journalists were killed throughout the year during the course of their work, some reportedly by militia or security forces. On February 11, unknown gunmen assassinated journalist and general supervisor of al-Rasheed Satellite TV, Nizar Thanoun, while he was traveling in his car in the al-Jama neighborhood of western Baghdad.
In addition to those killed, others in media reported threats, intimidation, and attacks. Istiaq Adel, a reporter for al-Sumaria satellite TV, reported she survived an attack on January 30 after receiving several threatening text messages.
HRW released a report in June that cited numerous violations of press freedom and freedom of expression amid widespread protests and during the COVID-19 outbreak. Media workers reported that politicians, government officials, security services, tribal elements, and business leaders pressured them not to publish articles critical of them. Journalists reported accounts of government or partisan violence, intimidation, death threats, and harassment.
Amnesty International continued to receive reports of activists and journalists threatened by security forces. These forces warned them that if they continued to speak out against human rights abuses committed against protesters, they would be added to a blacklist compiled by intelligence services.
Throughout the IKR there were reports of beatings, detentions, and death threats against media workers. In some cases the aggressors wore KRG military or police uniforms. In particular journalists working for NRT were frequently arrested. On August 14, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) reported that Kurdish security forces in Erbil briefly detained an NRT crew covering protests in the city and seized their equipment. Rebwar Kakay, head of NRT’s office in Erbil, told the CPJ that authorities held the journalists without charge for eight hours at Erbil’s Azadi police station, and that the team’s cameras, live streaming devices, press badges, and cell phones were seized.
Certain KRG courts applied the more stringent Iraqi criminal code in lawsuits involving journalists instead of the IKR’s own Press Law, which provides greater protection for freedom of expression and forbids the detention of journalists. KRG officials increased their use of lawsuits against journalists critical of the KRG, including applying laws such as the Law of Misuse of Electronic Devices instead of the IKR press law. In the first nine months of the year, KRG officials from various government offices filed eight independent lawsuits against freelance journalist Hemn Mamand after he posted content on Facebook critical of the KRG’s COVID-19 response. Mamand was arrested twice, in March and again in April, and spent 34 days in detention on charges levied under the Law of Misuse of Electronic Devices.
Reporting from areas liberated from ISIS control remained dangerous and difficult. Journalists covering armed clashes involving government forces, militias, and ISIS remnants faced serious threats to their safety. Military officials, citing safety considerations, sometimes restricted journalists’ access to areas of active fighting.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: The law prohibits producing, importing, publishing, or possessing written material, drawings, photographs, or films that violate public integrity or decency. The penalties for conviction include fines and imprisonment. Fear of violent retaliation for publishing facts or opinions critical of political factions inhibited free expression. The Ministry of Culture must approve all books published in or imported into the country, thereby subjecting authors to censorship.
The Press Freedom Advocacy Association in Iraq (PFAA) released a report in July that detailed restrictions imposed by the Communication and Media Commission (CMC) on media outlets over the past 10 years, which included 128 closures of media outlets, suspension of operating licenses, fines, and forced job termination of selected employees. Since October 2019 the CMC ordered the closure of 19 local and Arab media outlets, most of which participated in the coverage of the October 2019 demonstrations.
HRW reported in April that the CMC suspended Reuters’ license for three months and fined it for an article it published on April 2 alleging that the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in the country was much higher than the official statistics. Authorities lifted the suspension on April 19 amid international pressure.
Libel/Slander Laws: Militias and government officials used arrest warrants in defamation cases to intimidate, silence, and in some instances apparently “flush out” activists and journalists from hiding. An Iranian-backed militia, Harakat al-Nujaba, targeted Middle East Eye correspondent Suadad al-Salihi with a defamation complaint over her reporting on their activities, which resulted in Baghdad’s Karrada Investigative Court issuing an arrest warrant against her on October 22. On November 5, the Ninewa Federal Court of Appeals issued arrest warrants against four media bloggers over their critical reporting on the province’s COVID-19 response. One blogger claimed to have been directly threatened by Ninewa’s provincial health services director. In similar developments in the IKR, on September 22, police detained journalist Bahroz Jaafar in Sulaymaniya following a lawsuit filed by President Barham Salih over defamation charges.
Nongovernmental Impact: Nongovernmental and quasi-governmental actors, including militias outside of state control, terrorist groups, and criminal organizations, threatened journalists with violence for reporting on sensitive subjects. On July 17, dozens of journalists expressed concerns regarding a potential escalation of violence against them by outlaw militias, particularly in the wake of the Hisham al-Hashemi killing. The PFAA reported in July it had documented specific threats by unknown militias against at least 30 journalists during the year. The PFAA also said that it had become common practice to accuse journalists responsible for antimilitia reporting of being agents of foreign governments and encourage violence against them.
The government restricted or disrupted access to the internet and censored online content, and there were reports the government monitored private online communications without appropriate legal authority. Government restrictions on access to the internet were overt, but the government denied that it monitored private online communications without appropriate legal authority. Despite restrictions, political figures and activists used the internet to criticize politicians, organize demonstrations, and campaign for candidates through social media platforms.
The government acknowledged it interfered with internet access in some areas of the country, reportedly due to the security situation and ISIS’ disruptive use of social media platforms. While Wi-Fi and 3G access was largely restored, connectivity remained weak, making social media and streaming difficult. Slow speeds, or the “throttling back” of internet access, greatly limited the ability of users to upload video and photographic content.
There were government restrictions on academic freedom and cultural events. Social, religious, and political pressures significantly restricted the exercise of freedom of choice in academic and cultural matters. In all regions, various groups sought to control the pursuit of formal education and the granting of academic positions. Academic freedoms remained restricted in areas of active conflict with ISIS.
NGOs in the IKR reported that university president, dean, and senior professorship positions were easier to obtain for those with links to the traditional KDP and PUK ruling parties. Privilege was also given to those affiliated with political parties in the pursuit of higher degrees.
The constitution provides for freedom of assembly and peaceful demonstration “regulated by law.” The government sometimes limited freedom of peaceful assembly and association.
Regulations require protest organizers to request permission seven days in advance of a demonstration and submit detailed information regarding the applicants, the reason for the protest, and participants. The regulations prohibit all “slogans, signs, printed materials, or drawings” involving “sectarianism, racism, or segregation” of citizens. The regulations also prohibit anything that would violate the constitution or law; encourage violence, hatred, or killing; or prove insulting to Islam, “honor, morals, religion, holy groups, or Iraqi entities in general.” Authorities generally issued permits in accordance with the regulations. As demonstrations escalated starting in October 2019, authorities consistently failed to protect demonstrators from violence (see section 1.e.).
In February armed militias attacked protest squares in Najaf and Karbala using live bullets, batons, and knives against peaceful protesters and also burned their tents. The security forces watched the attacks unfold without intervening to protect the demonstrators or stopping the militants. In May security forces in Diwaniyah Province opened fire on protesters who had gathered to demand the release of four activists arrested earlier that day.
From October 2019 to August, the al-Nama Center for Human Rights documented 39 killings targeting protesters, 31 attempted killings, 20 cases of harassment and intimidation, seven enforced disappearances, 36 kidnappings, and 35 arbitrary detentions throughout the country. Most of these attacks were carried out by unknown gunmen who observers believed were likely linked to Iranian- or Sadrist-backed militias.
The constitution provides for the right to form and join associations and political parties, with some exceptions. The government generally respected this right, except for the legal prohibitions against groups expressing support for the Baath Party or “Zionist principles.”
The government reported it took approximately one month to process NGO registration applications. NGOs must register and periodically reregister in Baghdad. According to the NGO Directorate at the Council of Ministers Secretariat, there were 4,600 registered NGOs as of September, including 168 branches of foreign organizations. There were also 900 women-focused or -chaired NGOs registered as of September. The directorate also sanctioned 700 NGOs for committing violations, such as providing cover for political parties or suspicious operations against the NGO code.
NGOs registered in Baghdad could operate in the IKR; however, NGOs registered solely in the IKR could not operate in the rest of the country. As a result some NGOs registered only in the IKR could not operate outside the IKR and KRG-controlled disputed territories.
c. Freedom of Religion
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/ .
d. Freedom of Movement
The constitution and law provide for the freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, but the government did not consistently respect these rights. Law and custom generally do not respect freedom of movement for women. For example, the law prevents a woman from applying for a passport without the consent of her male guardian or a legal representative. Women could not obtain the Civil Status Identification Document, required for access to public services, food assistance, health care, employment, education, and housing, without the consent of a male relative.
In some instances authorities restricted movements of displaced persons, and authorities did not allow some IDP camp residents to depart without specific permission, thereby limiting access to livelihoods, education, and services. Many parts of the country liberated from ISIS control suffered from movement restrictions due to checkpoints of PMF units and other government forces. In other instances local authorities did not always recognize security permits of returnees or comply with the central government’s orders to facilitate, but not force, returns.
Despite improving security conditions in some areas, many returnees grappled with the destruction of homes, lack of services and livelihoods, and continued concerns for security due to the prevalence of PMF groups and, in Sinjar, militias aligned with the PKK. In some cases this led to secondary displacement or a return to IDP camps.
Security considerations, unexploded ordnance, destruction of infrastructure, COVID-19 curfews, and travel restrictions, as well as official and unofficial access restrictions, limited humanitarian access to IDP communities. Insecurity caused by the presence of ISIS, the PKK, and PMF groups hindered the movement of local and international staff of humanitarian organizations, restricting their ability to monitor and implement some programs for a portion of the year.
UNAMI also reported that more than 2,460 humanitarian missions had been canceled or prevented from reaching their destinations since the beginning of December 2019. An estimated 2.4 million persons in need were affected by the restrictions imposed on humanitarian movements. According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), in September alone more than 287,700 individuals in need were affected by these restrictions.
Humanitarian and other organizations reported improved field access beginning in September following action by the NGO Directorate to begin processing access letter requests. According to OCHA, in October the number of individuals affected by access related restrictions fell to 37,000. Humanitarian organizations reported smoother movement in the central provinces of Baghdad, Anbar, and Diyala. Access challenges continued, however, in some areas in western Ninewa, Kirkuk, and Salah al-Din provinces.
In July humanitarian partners reported 77 restrictions of access incidents across 22 districts, with Ninewa Province reporting the highest number. Across all provinces, approximately 95 percent of the incidents reported constituted administrative restrictions on humanitarian activities and movements. It was estimated that more than 231,000 persons in need were affected by access-related incidents that took place in Ninewa (71 percent), Kirkuk (27 percent), Anbar (1 percent), and Baghdad (1 percent). Most incidents reported by humanitarian organizations indicated difficulties related to lack of national-level access letter authorizations.
In-country Movement: The law permits security forces to restrict in-country movement and take other necessary security and military measures in response to security threats and attacks. There were numerous reports that government forces, including the ISF, Peshmerga, and PMF, selectively enforced regulations, including for ethnosectarian reasons, as well as criminal extortion, requiring residency permits to limit entry of persons into areas under their control.
Multiple international NGOs reported that PMF units and the Peshmerga prevented civilians, including Sunni Arabs and ethnic and religious minorities, from returning to their homes after government forces ousted ISIS (see section 6). The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reported that local armed groups barred returns to certain areas of Baiji, Salah al-Din Province. Similarly, Christian CSOs reported that certain PMF groups, including the 30th and 50th PMF Brigades, prevented Christian IDP returns and harassed Christian returnees in several towns in the Ninewa Plain, including Bartalla and Qaraqosh. Members of the 30th Brigade also refused to implement a decision from the prime minister to remove checkpoints, and their continued obstruction led to forced demographic change in traditionally Christian areas of the Ninewa Plain.
The KRG restricted movement across the areas it administered for nonresidents. Authorities required nonresidents to register with the local Asayish office to obtain a residence permit. These permits were generally renewable. Citizens of all ethnosectarian backgrounds, including Kurds, crossing into the IKR from central or southern regions were obligated to cross through checkpoints and undergo personal and vehicle inspection. The government imposed similar restrictions on IDPs from Ninewa Province and the disputed territories.
KRG authorities applied restrictions more stringently in some areas than in others. The United Nations and international humanitarian organizations stated that entry limitations for IDPs and refugees seeking to return to their areas of origin depended upon the ethnosectarian background of the displaced individuals and the area to which they intended to return. There were also reports that authorities sometimes closed checkpoints into the region for extended periods, leaving some returnees separated from their families and agricultural land on the other side of the line of control. Closed checkpoints forced many IDPs to wait, often resulting in secondary displacement. In other instances the closure of checkpoints forced returnees to take circuitous and dangerous routes to reach their areas of origin. KRG officials also prevented individuals whom they deemed security threats from entering the region. KRG officials generally admitted minority IDPs into the IKR, although security checks reportedly were lengthy on occasion. Entry was often more difficult for men, particularly Arab men traveling without family.
Foreign Travel: The government required exit permits for citizens leaving the country, but the requirement was not routinely enforced.
e. Status and Treatment of Internally Displaced Persons
According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM) Displacement Tracking Matrix, an estimated 1.3 million persons remained internally displaced, with more than 250,000 residing in camps and an additional 44,000 in informal settlements, predominantly in Erbil, Duhok, and Ninewa provinces. According to IOM, more than 100,000 IDPs lived in critical shelters, including unsafe and abandoned buildings, religious buildings, and schools. Nearly five million persons returned to areas of origin across the country since liberation from ISIS.
The constitution and national policy on displacement address IDP rights, but few laws specifically do so. The government and international organizations, including UN agencies and local and international NGOs, provided protection and other assistance to IDPs. Humanitarian actors continued to provide support for formal IDP camps and implemented community-based services for IDPs residing outside of camps to limit strain on host community resources.
In some areas violence, insecurity, and long-standing political, tribal, and ethnosectarian tensions hampered progress on national reconciliation and political reform, complicating the protection environment for IDPs. Thousands of families faced secondary displacement due to economic and security concerns. Forced displacements strained the capacity of local authorities in areas with higher concentrations of IDPs. Families returning to their place of origin faced a lack of shelter, access to services, and livelihood opportunities. Displaced families, especially those with perceived ties to ISIS, were often unable to obtain or replace vital civil status documents, without which they were not able to work, go to school, or move about freely.
Government assistance focused on financial grants to returnees, but payments were sporadic and there was a large backlog in responding to applications. Faced with large movements of IDPs across the country, the government provided food, water, and financial assistance to some but not all IDPs, including in the IKR. Many IDPs lived in informal settlements without access to adequate water, sanitation, or other essential services.
All citizens were eligible to receive food under the Public Distribution System (PDS), but authorities implemented the PDS sporadically and irregularly, with limited access in areas that were among the last to be liberated. Authorities did not distribute all commodities each month, and not all IDPs could access the PDS in each province. Low oil prices reduced government revenues and further limited funds available for the PDS. There were reports of IDPs losing access and entitlement to PDS distributions and other services due to requirements that citizens could redeem PDS rations or other services only at their registered place of residence.
Local authorities often determined whether IDPs would have access to local services. KRG officials asserted that all IDPs and refugees in the Kurdistan Region benefited from access to public services and infrastructure (such as drinking water, electricity, education, health care, roads, and irrigation system) on an equal basis with the local population, which they stated was a reflection of the KRG’s commitment to safeguard fundamental human rights and human dignity under pressing circumstances.
To support humanitarian standards and serve displaced populations, KRG officials reported they had allocated land for construction of camps; contributed to the construction of camps and connecting camps to power grids and local infrastructure; introduced civil administration in the camps and provided security services; reinforced technical and legal services to combat sexual and gender-based violence in and outside the camps; opened additional shifts at local schools to make schooling in Arabic available to displaced children (58 percent of refugees’ children and 91 percent of IDPs children were enrolled in formal and informal education); facilitated reunification of children with their families; granted access for all IDPs and refugees to public health services, including mobilizing emergency mobile clinics and medical teams; introduced simplified procedures for free movement of humanitarian personnel; introduced exemption from customs duty and mechanisms to fast-track customs clearance for humanitarian supplies; and publicly called on local communities and all sections of society to welcome and assist IDPs as their guests.
The KRG was host to almost two million IDPs, including a large percentage of Christian, Yezidi, Shabak, Kaka’i, and other ethnic and religious groups from the Ninewa Plain. Despite the dire economic situation and security difficulties that occurred in the region, KRG officials reported they focused on preserving the rights of these minorities as a top priority.
Households with perceived ties to ISIS faced stigma and were at increased risk of being deprived of their basic rights. Government officials frequently denied security clearances for displaced households with perceived ISIS affiliation to return to areas of origin. Because of this perceived affiliation, these households faced problems obtaining civil documentation and had limited freedom of movement, including the ability to seek medical treatment, due to the risk of arrest or inability to reenter the camps where they resided. Humanitarian organizations reported that women heads of household in multiple IDP camps struggled to obtain permission to move and were subject to verbal and physical harassment, including rape, sexual assault, and exploitation, by government forces and camp residents.
IKR-based NGOs documented numerous cases of women, who, forced to marry ISIS fighters, subsequently became widows with children but lacked marriage and birth certificates required to obtain legal documentation for these children. These women and children were stigmatized because of their association with ISIS, leaving them at heightened risk of suicide, retaliation, and sexual exploitation. Although some communities issued edicts and took steps to absolve women of perceived guilt associated with their sexual exploitation by ISIS fighters, honor killings remained a risk. Communities generally did not accept children born to ISIS fighters. NGO partners reported that some Yezidi community representatives pressured women to abandon their children or place them in orphanages as a condition for being accepted back into the Yezidi community.
In October the minister of displacement and migration announced a new three-phase plan to close all of the country’s IDP camps and immediately launched a series of sudden camp closures in Anbar, Baghdad, Diyala, Karbala, Kirkuk, and Ninewa provinces, affecting more than a thousand families. By late November the ministry had closed 11 displacement sites–eight formal IDP camps and three informal sites–across federal Iraq, affecting more than 25,000 IDPs. These closures were not coordinated with relevant local authorities or with humanitarian actors, not all IDPs were able or willing to return to their place of origin, and there were reports that up to 50 percent of IDPs could end up in secondary displacement as a consequence. IDP camp managers and NGOs reported government officials did not always give IDPs at closed camps the choice of where to proceed, resulting in involuntary, unsafe, and undignified returns and movements.
There were numerous reports that IDPs, particularly those suspected of ISIS affiliation, faced hostility from local government officials and populations, as well as expulsion when they attempted to return to areas of origin. In liberated areas of Anbar, Duhok, Kirkuk, Ninewa, and Salah al-Din provinces, humanitarian agencies reported movement restrictions for families with relatives suspected of ISIS affiliation. An Interior Ministry official estimated the number of those with perceived ISIS affiliation at 250,000. Tribal leaders and humanitarian actors reported that fabricated accusations of ISIS affiliation led to the stigmatization of IDPs, particularly those living in camps, who were being isolated and whose movements in and out of camps were increasingly restricted. Following IDP camp closures starting in October, many IDPs with perceived ISIS affiliation reported being rejected by local communities in areas of return, forcing them either to return to their former camps or to proceed elsewhere. Tribal pacts called for punishing false accusations of ISIS affiliation, but they also prohibited legal defense for those affiliated with ISIS. IDPs were also often the targets of stigmatization or discrimination because of familial rivalries or economic reasons, rather than affiliation with ISIS.
Many Christian IDPs refused to return to the town of Tal Kayf, citing fear of the PMF 50th Brigade that occupied it and the presence of the Tesferat detention center and court, which the International Committee of the Red Cross reported could hold women and minors suspected of being ISIS family members. Prior to 2002, there were between 800,000 and 1.4 million Christians in the region, but that figure had reportedly fallen to below 150,000. Only a very small number of the country’s population of 400,000 to 500,000 Yezidis had returned to their homes. Many chose to stay in camps, saying a lack of a reconstruction plans or public services, as well as insecurity, had discouraged them from returning home. In June, however, Yezidis began returning to the Sinjar district in Ninewa Province for a variety of reasons, including fear of COVID-19 in camp settings, and as of late October more than 30,000 had returned.
In October the Iraqi government and the KRG signed a comprehensive agreement that called for a new mayor and administrative committees to oversee Sinjar district, a local security force consisting of Yezidis, removal of PKK and PMF militias, and expanded reconstruction efforts to support voluntary returns of Yezidis still displaced in the IKR and abroad.
f. Protection of Refugees
The government generally cooperated with UNHCR, IOM, and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to IDPs, returning refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons, or other persons of concern. The government did not have effective systems to assist all of these individuals, largely due to funding shortfalls and lack of capacity.
Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: Humanitarian protection experts assessed that conditions in IDP camps were highly susceptible to sexual exploitation and abuse of residents, further exacerbated by COVID-19-related movement restrictions. Refugees and IDPs reported frequent sexual harassment, both in camps and cities in the IKR. Local NGOs reported cases in which camp management and detention employees subjected IDPs and refugees to various forms of abuse and intimidation.
Access to Asylum: The law provides for the granting of asylum or refugee status, and the government has established a system for providing protection to refugees. Syrians made up the vast majority of the refugee population, and almost all refugees resided in the IKR. The KRG generally cooperated with UNHCR and other humanitarian organizations to provide protection and assistance to refugees in the country.
According to the KRG Ministry of Interior, 259,496 refugees resided in the IKR as of September. More than one-half of these refugees lived outside of camps. The KRG cooperated with UNHCR in allowing these individuals to seek refuge in camps and receive basic assistance. The KRG allowed Syrian refugees with family in the IKR to live outside of camps.
Freedom of Movement: Syrian refugees continued to face restrictions on residence and movement outside the IKR. KRG authorities noted IDPs and refugees had freedom of movement within the IKR. There are provisions to allow family visits to Syria. The KHRW confirmed the restrictions on residence and movement outside the IKR.
Employment: Refugees and asylum seekers are legally entitled to work in the private sector. The central government does not recognize the refugee status of Palestinians. In the KRG Palestinians are allowed to work in the private sector but are required to renew their refugee status annually. Syrian refugees were able to obtain and renew residency and work permits both in refugee camps and in the IKR, although not in the rest of the country. Central government authorities arrested refugees with IKR residence permits who sought work outside the region and returned them to the IKR. A UNHCR survey of Syrian refugees in the IKR between April and June showed that 89 percent of the refugee families had at least one family member regularly employed in some form of livelihood activity.
g. Stateless Persons
UNHCR estimated there were more than 47,000 stateless individuals in the country as of August. An estimated 45,000 displaced children in camps were missing civil documentation and faced exclusion from local society, including being barred from attending school, lacking access to health care, and being deprived of basic rights. Many of these children, born under ISIS rule, were issued birth certificates that were considered invalid by the Iraqi government. They faced extreme difficulties in obtaining civil documentation due to perceived ISIS affiliation.
Absent a countrywide, consistent plan to document children of Iraqi mothers and ISIS fathers, those children were at risk of statelessness. The Yezidi community more willingly welcomed back Yezidi women who survived ISIS captivity but not children fathered through rape by ISIS fighters. The Yezidi community frequently forced women to give up such babies and minor children to orphanages under threat of expulsion from the community.
International NGOs provided shelter referrals to some Yezidi women and, in some cases, assisted mothers in finding homes for forcibly abandoned children. Those children that did not receive assistance were without parents, identification, clear country of birth, or settled nationality.
As of 2006, the latest year for which data was available, an estimated 54,500 Bidoon (stateless) individuals, living as nomads in the desert in or near the southern provinces of Basrah, Dhi Qar, and Qadisiyah, remained undocumented and stateless descendants of individuals who never received Iraqi citizenship upon the state’s founding. Prolonged drought in the south of the country forced many individuals from these communities to migrate to city centers, where most obtained identification documents and gained access to food rations and other social benefits. Other communities similarly at risk of statelessness included the country’s Romani (Dom) population; the Ahwazi, who are Shia Arabs of Iranian descent; the Baha’i religious minority; inhabitants of the southern marshlands; members of the Goyan and Omariya Turkish Kurdish tribes near Mosul; and nationals of South Sudan.
A UNHCR-funded legal initiative secured nationality for hundreds of formerly stateless families, giving them access to basic rights and services. Since 2017 lawyers worked to help Bidoons and other stateless persons acquire nationality, assisting an average of 500 individuals per year.