Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:
There were several reports that the government or its agents committed arbitrary or unlawful killings. From January 1 to September 30, UNAMA reported an overall increase in civilian deaths over the same period for 2017, from 2,666 to 2,798. The number of civilian deaths attributed to progovernment forces increased from 560 to 761. The total number of civilian casualties decreased from 8,084 to 8,050.
According to the annual report UNAMA released in February, Afghan Local Police (ALP) in Zurmat District, Paktiya Province, killed a civilian and injured two others during an attempted home invasion and robbery in September 2017. Although the government investigated and prosecuted some cases of extrajudicial killing, an overall lack of accountability for security force abuses remained a problem, particularly with the ALP.
There were numerous reports of politically motivated killings or injuries by the Taliban, ISIS-K, and other insurgent groups. UNAMA reported 1,743 civilian deaths due to antigovernment and terrorist forces in the first nine months of the year. These groups caused 65 percent of total civilian casualties, compared with 64 percent in 2017. On August 15, ISIS-K killed 48 individuals and injured 67 in a bombing that targeted students in a Kabul classroom.
There were reports of disappearances committed by security forces and antigovernment forces alike.
UNAMA, in its biannual Report on the Treatment of Conflict-Related Detainees, reported multiple allegations of disappearances by the ANP in Kandahar.
Two professors, working for the American University of Afghanistan and kidnapped by the Taliban in 2016 in Kabul, remained in captivity.
Although the constitution and law prohibit such practices, there were numerous reports that government officials, security forces, detention center authorities, and police committed abuses.
NGOs reported security forces continued to use excessive force, including torturing and beating civilians. On April 17, the government approved the UN Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, building on the prior year’s progress in passing the Antitorture Law. Independent monitors, however, continued to report credible cases of torture in detention centers.
UNAMA, in its April 2017 Report on the Treatment of Conflict-Related Detainees, stated that of the 469 National Directorate for Security (NDS), ANP, and Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF) detainees interviewed, 39 percent reported torture or other abuse. Types of abuse included severe beatings, electric shocks, prolonged suspension by the arms, suffocation, wrenching of testicles, burns by cigarette lighters, sleep deprivation, sexual assault, and threats of execution.
The Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC) stated in its June report on the use of torture in detention centers that of the 621 detainees they interviewed, 79 persons, or 12 percent, reported being tortured, for the purpose of both eliciting confessions as well as punishment. The AIHRC reported that of these 79 cases, the ANP perpetrated 62 cases, with the balance by the NDS and ANDSF.
In November 2016, first vice president General Abdul Rashid Dostum allegedly kidnapped Uzbek tribal elder and political rival Ahmad Ishchi. Before detaining Ishchi, Dostum let his bodyguards brutally beat him. After several days in detention, Ishchi alleged he was beaten, tortured, and raped by Dostum and his men. Dostum returned in July and resumed his duties as first vice president after more than a year in Turkey. As of August there was no progress on the case brought by Ishchi.
There were numerous reports of torture and cruel, inhuman, and degrading punishment by the Taliban, ISIS-K, and other antigovernment groups. The AIHRC and other organizations reported summary convictions by Taliban courts that resulted in executions by stoning or beheading. According to media reports, Taliban in Kohistan District, Sar-e Pul Province, stoned a man to death in February on suspicion of zina (extramarital sex). There were other reports of ISIS-K atrocities, including the beheading of a 12-year-old child in Darzab District, Jowzjan Province, in April, the beheading of three medical workers in Chaparhar District, Nangarhar Province, in April, and stoning of a man in Nangarhar in February.
Prison and Detention Center Conditions
Prison conditions were difficult due to overcrowding, unsanitary conditions, and limited access to medical services. The General Directorate of Prisons and Detention Centers (GDPDC), part of the Ministry of Interior, has responsibility for all civilian-run prisons (for both men and women) and civilian detention centers, including the large national prison complex at Pul-e Charkhi. The Ministry of Justice’s Juvenile Rehabilitation Directorate is responsible for all juvenile rehabilitation centers. The NDS operates short-term detention facilities at the provincial and district levels, usually collocated with their headquarters facilities. The Ministry of Defense runs the Afghan National Detention Facilities at Parwan. There were credible reports of private prisons run by members of the ANDSF and used for abuse of detainees. The Taliban also maintain illegal detention facilities throughout the country. The ANDSF discovered and liberated several Taliban detention facilities during the year and reported that prisoners included children and Afghans accused of moral crimes or association with the government.
Physical Conditions: Overcrowding in prisons continued to be a serious, widespread problem. Based on standards recommended by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), 28 of 34 provincial prisons for men were severely overcrowded. The country’s largest prison, Pul-e Charkhi, held 13,118 prisoners, detainees, and children of incarcerated mothers as of October, 55 percent more than it was designed to hold. In August more than 500 prisoners at Pul-e Charkhi participated in a one-week hunger strike to protest prison conditions, particularly for elderly and ill inmates, and the administration of their cases.
Authorities generally lacked the facilities to separate pretrial and convicted inmates or to separate juveniles according to the seriousness of the charges against them. Local prisons and detention centers did not always have separate facilities for female prisoners.
According to NGOs and media reports, children younger than age 15 were imprisoned with their mothers, due in part to a lack of capacity among Children’s Support Centers. These reports documented insufficient educational and medical facilities for these minors.
Access to food, potable water, sanitation, heating, ventilation, lighting, and medical care in prisons varied throughout the country and was generally inadequate. The GDPDC’s nationwide program to feed prisoners faced a severely limited budget, and many prisoners relied on family members to provide food supplements and other necessary items. In November 2017 the local NGO Integrity Watch Afghanistan reported that Wardak Prison had no guaranteed source of clean drinking water and that prisoners in Pul-e Charkhi, Baghlan, and Wardak had limited access to food, with prisoners’ families also providing food to make up the gap.
Administration: The law provides prisoners with the right to leave prison for up to 20 days for family visits. Most prisons did not implement this provision, and the law is unclear in its application to different classes of prisoners.
Independent Monitoring: The AIHRC, UNAMA, and the ICRC monitored the NDS, Ministry of Interior, Ministry of Justice, and Ministry of Defense detention facilities. NATO Mission Resolute Support monitored the NDS, ANP, and Defense Ministry facilities. Security constraints and obstruction by authorities occasionally prevented visits to some places of detention. UNAMA and the AIHRC reported difficulty accessing NDS places of detention when they arrived unannounced. The AIHRC reported NDS officials usually required the AIHRC to submit a formal letter requesting access at least one to two days in advance of a visit. NDS officials continued to prohibit AIHRC and UNAMA monitors from bringing cameras, mobile phones, recording devices, or computers into NDS facilities, thereby preventing AIHRC monitors from properly documenting physical evidence of abuse, such as bruises, scars, and other injuries. The NDS assigned a colonel to monitor human rights conditions in its facilities.
The law prohibits arbitrary arrest and detention, but both remained serious problems. Authorities detained many citizens without respecting essential procedural protections. According to NGOs, law enforcement officers continued to detain citizens arbitrarily without clear legal authority or due process. Local law enforcement officials reportedly detained persons illegally on charges not provided under local criminal law. In some cases authorities improperly imprisoned women because they deemed it unsafe for the women to return home or because women’s shelters were not available to provide protection in the provinces or districts at issue (see section 6, Women). The law provides a defendant the right to object to his or her pretrial detention and receive a court hearing on the matter, but authorities generally did not observe this requirement.
ROLE OF THE POLICE AND SECURITY APPARATUS
Three ministries have responsibility for law enforcement and maintenance of order in the country: the Ministry of Interior, the Ministry of Defense, and the NDS. The ANP, under the Ministry of Interior, has primary responsibility for internal order and for the Afghan Local Police (ALP), a community-based self-defense force. The Major Crimes Task Force (MCTF), also under the Ministry of Interior, investigates major crimes including government corruption, human trafficking, and criminal organizations. The Afghan National Army, under the Ministry of Defense, is responsible for external security, but its primary activity is fighting the insurgency internally. The NDS functions as an intelligence agency and has responsibility for investigating criminal cases concerning national security. The investigative branch of the NDS operated a facility in Kabul, where it held national security prisoners awaiting trial until their cases went to prosecution. Some areas were outside of government control, and antigovernment forces, including the Taliban, oversaw their own justice and security systems.
There were reports of impunity and lack of accountability by security forces throughout the year. According to observers, ALP and ANP personnel were largely unaware of their responsibilities and defendants’ rights under the law. Accountability of the NDS, ANP, and ALP officials for torture and abuse was weak, not transparent, and rarely enforced. Independent judicial or external oversight of the NDS, MCTF, ANP, and ALP in the investigation and prosecution of crimes or misconduct, including torture and abuse, was limited or nonexistent.
ARREST PROCEDURES AND TREATMENT OF DETAINEES
UNAMA, the AIHRC, and other observers reported arbitrary and prolonged detention frequently occurred throughout the country. Authorities often did not inform detainees of the charges against them.
The new Penal Code, which took effect in February, modernizes and consolidates criminal laws incorporating new provisions, including the introduction of alternatives to incarceration for adults. Understanding and knowledge of the new code among justice-sector actors and the public was not widespread, but a UNAMA “Survey and Preliminary Findings on Implementation of the 2017 Penal Code (RPC) in Afghanistan”, conducted between April and July, found that courts generally were applying the new Penal Code and were aware of when it should be applied.
Existing law provides for access to legal counsel and the use of warrants, and it limits how long authorities may hold detainees without charge. Police have the right to detain a suspect for 72 hours to complete a preliminary investigation. If police decide to pursue a case, they transfer the file to the Attorney General’s Office. After taking custody of a suspect, the Attorney General’s Office can issue a detention warrant for up to seven days for a misdemeanor and 15 days for a felony. With court approval, the investigating prosecutor may continue to detain a suspect while continuing the investigation, with the length of continued detention depending on the severity of the offense. The investigating prosecutor may detain a suspect for a maximum of 10 days for a petty crime, 27 days for a misdemeanor, and 75 days for a felony. The prosecutor must file an indictment or release the suspect within those deadlines; there can be no further extension of the investigatory period if the defendant is already in detention. Prosecutors often ignored these limits. In addition there were multiple reports that judges often detained prisoners after sentences were completed because a bribe for release had not been paid. Incommunicado imprisonment remained a problem, and prompt access to a lawyer was rare. Prisoners generally were able to receive family visits.
The criminal procedure code, although rarely used, provides for release on bail. Authorities at times remanded “flight risk” defendants pending a prosecutorial appeal despite the defendants’ acquittal by the trial court. In other cases authorities did not rearrest defendants released pending appeal, even after the appellate court convicted them in absentia.
According to international monitors, prosecutors filed indictments in cases transferred to them by police, even where there was a reasonable belief no crime occurred.
According to the juvenile code, the arrest of a child “should be a matter of last resort and should last for the shortest possible period.” Reports indicated children in juvenile rehabilitation centers across the country lacked access to adequate food, health care, and education. Detained children frequently did not receive the presumption of innocence, the right to know the charges against them, access to defense lawyers, and protection from self-incrimination. The law provides for the creation of special juvenile police, prosecution offices, and courts. Due to limited resources, special juvenile courts functioned in only six provinces (Kabul, Herat, Balkh, Kandahar, Nangarhar, and Kunduz). Elsewhere, children’s cases went to ordinary courts. The law mandates authorities handle children’s cases confidentially.
Some children in the criminal justice system were victims rather than perpetrators of crime. In the absence of sufficient shelters for boys, authorities detained abused boys and placed them in juvenile rehabilitation centers because they could not return to their families and shelter elsewhere was unavailable.
Police and legal officials often charged women with intent to commit zina (sex outside marriage) to justify their arrest and incarceration for social offenses, such as running away from their husband or family, rejecting a spouse chosen by their families, and fleeing domestic violence or rape, or eloping to escape an arranged marriage. The constitution provides that in cases not explicitly covered by the provisions of the constitution or other laws, courts may, in accordance with Hanafi jurisprudence (a school of Islamic law) and within the limits set by the constitution, rule in a manner that best attains justice in the case. Although observers stated this provision was widely understood to apply only to civil cases, many judges and prosecutors applied this provision to criminal matters. Observers reported officials used this article to charge women and men with “immorality” or “running away from home”, neither of which is a crime. Police often detained women for zina at the request of family members.
Authorities imprisoned some women for reporting crimes perpetrated against them and detained some as proxies for a husband or male relative convicted of a crime on the assumption the suspect would turn himself in to free the family member.
Authorities placed some women in protective custody to prevent violence by family members. They also employed protective custody (including placement in a detention center) for women who had experienced domestic violence, if no shelters were available to protect them from further abuse. The 2009 Elimination of Violence Against Women (EVAW) presidential decree–commonly referred to as the EVAW law–obliges police to arrest persons who abuse women. Implementation and awareness of the EVAW law was limited, however. In March, President Ghani issued a decree amending the new Penal Code to reinforce EVAW as a stand-alone law.
Arbitrary Arrest: Arbitrary arrest and detention remained a problem in most provinces. Observers reported some prosecutors and police detained individuals without charge for actions that were not crimes under the law, in part because the judicial system was inadequate to process detainees in a timely fashion. Observers continued to report those detained for moral crimes were primarily women.
Pretrial Detention: The law provides a defendant the right to object to his or her pretrial detention and receive a court hearing on the matter. Nevertheless, lengthy pretrial detention remained a problem. Many detainees did not benefit from the provisions of the criminal procedure code because of a lack of resources, limited numbers of defense attorneys, unskilled legal practitioners, and corruption. The law provides that, if there is no completed investigation or filed indictment within the code’s 10-, 27-, or 75-day deadlines, judges must release defendants. Judges, however, held many detainees beyond those periods, despite the lack of an indictment.
Amnesty: In January the government released 75 Hezb-e Islami Gulbuddin (HIG) political detainees as follow-up to a September 2016 peace accord with the HIG that included amnesty for past war crimes for HIG members including its leader, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar.
The law provides for an independent judiciary, but the judiciary continued to be underfunded, understaffed, inadequately trained, largely ineffective, and subject to threats, bias, political influence, and pervasive corruption.
Judicial officials, prosecutors, and defense attorneys were often intimidated or corrupt. In May, UNAMA reported that the Anticorruption Justice Center, established in 2016 to combat corruption, has thus far indicted 142 cases, including charges of misuse of authority, embezzlement, bribery, forgery of documents, and money laundering. Bribery and pressure from public officials, tribal leaders, families of accused persons, and individuals associated with the insurgency impaired judicial impartiality. Most courts administered justice unevenly, employing a mixture of codified law, sharia, and local custom. Traditional justice mechanisms remained the main recourse for many, especially in rural areas. Corruption was common within the judiciary, and criminals often paid bribes to obtain their release or a sentence reduction (see section 4).
There was a widespread shortage of judges, primarily in insecure areas, leading to the adjudication of many cases through informal, traditional mediation. A shortage of women judges, particularly outside of Kabul, limited access to justice for women. Many women cannot and do not use the formal justice system because cultural norms preclude their engagement with male officials. Only 234 of 2162, or 12 percent, of judges are women. The formal justice system was stronger in urban centers, closer to the central government, and weaker in rural areas. Courts and police forces continued to operate at less than full strength nationwide. The judicial system continued to lack the capacity to absorb and implement the large volume of new and amended legislation. A lack of qualified judicial personnel hindered the courts. Some municipal and provincial authorities, including judges, had minimal training and often based their judgments on their personal understanding of sharia without appropriate reference to statutory law, tribal codes of honor, or local custom. The number of judges who graduated from law school continued to increase. Access to legal codes and statutes increased, but their limited availability continued to hinder some judges and prosecutors. UNAMA found during an April to July survey that judges did not have sufficient copies of the new Penal Code.
During the year an investigatory committee, formed by President Ghani in 2016, closed its inquiry into the Farkhunda case, which involved the 2015 death of a woman killed by a mob. The committee report described deficiencies in responses by the police, prosecutors, and the courts. The investigation was closed during the year without further action.
In major cities courts continued to decide criminal cases as mandated by law. Authorities frequently resolved civil cases using the informal system, the government mediation mechanism through the Ministry of Justice Huquq office, or, in some cases, through negotiations between the parties facilitated by judicial personnel or private lawyers. Because the formal legal system often was not present in rural areas, local elders and shuras (consultative gatherings, usually of men selected by the community) were the primary means of settling both criminal matters and civil disputes. They also imposed punishments without regard to the formal legal system. UNAMA and NGOs reported several cases where perpetrators of violence against women crimes that included domestic abuse reoffended after their claims were resolved by mediation. For example, UNAMA cited a case where a Taliban court’s mediation sent a victim of spousal abuse back to her home, only for her husband to cut off her nose afterwards.
In some areas the Taliban enforced a parallel judicial system based on a strict interpretation of sharia. Punishments included execution and mutilation. According to media reporting, in February a Taliban court in Obe District, Herat Province, cut off a man’s hand and leg as a sentence for robbery.
The constitution provides the right to a fair and public trial, but the judiciary rarely enforced this provision. The administration and implementation of justice varied in different areas of the country. The government formally uses an inquisitorial legal system. By law all citizens are entitled to a presumption of innocence, and those accused have the right to be present at trial and to appeal, although the judiciary did not always respect these rights. Some provinces held public trials, but this was not the norm. The law requires judges to provide five days’ notice prior to a hearing, but this requirement was not always followed.
Three-judge panels decide criminal trials, and there is no right to a jury trial under the constitution. Prosecutors rarely informed defendants promptly or in detail of the charges brought against them. Indigent defendants have the right to consult with an advocate or counsel at public expense when resources allow. The judiciary applied this right inconsistently, in large part due to a severe shortage of defense lawyers. Citizens were often unaware of their constitutional rights. Defendants and attorneys are entitled to examine physical evidence and documents related to a case before trial, although observers noted court documents often were not available for review before cases went to trial, despite defense lawyers’ requests.
Criminal defense attorneys reported the judiciary’s increased respect and tolerance for the role of defense lawyers in criminal trials, but defendants’ attorneys continued to experience abuse and threats from prosecutors and other law enforcement officials.
The criminal procedure code establishes time limits for the completion of each stage of a criminal case, from investigation through final appeal, when the accused is in custody. The code also permits temporary release of the accused on bail, but this was rarely honored. An addendum to the code provides for extended custodial limits in cases involving crimes committed against the internal and external security of the country. Courts at the Justice Center in Parwan regularly elected to utilize the extended time periods. If the judiciary does not meet the deadlines, the law requires the accused be released from custody. Often courts did not meet these deadlines, but detainees nevertheless remained in custody.
In cases where no clearly defined legal statute applied, or where judges, prosecutors, or elders were unaware of the statutory law, judges and informal shuras enforced customary law. This practice often resulted in outcomes that discriminated against women.
POLITICAL PRISONERS AND DETAINEES
There were no reports the government held political prisoners or detainees.
CIVIL JUDICIAL PROCEDURES AND REMEDIES
Corruption and limited capacity restricted citizen access to justice for constitutional and human rights violations. Citizens submit complaints of human rights violations to the AIHRC, which reviews and submits credible complaints to the Attorney General’s Office for further investigation and prosecution.
The law prohibits arbitrary interference in matters of privacy, but authorities did not always respect its provisions. The criminal procedure code contains additional safeguards for the privacy of the home, prohibiting night arrests, requiring the presence of a female officer during residential searches, and strengthening requirements for body searches. The government did not always respect these prohibitions.
Government officials continued to enter homes and businesses of civilians forcibly and without legal authorization. There were reports that government officials monitored private communications, including telephone calls and other digital communications, without legal authority or judicial warrant.
Media and the government reported that the Taliban routinely used civilian homes as shelters and bases of operation, including in their attacks on Farah in May and Ghazni in August. There were also reports that the Taliban and ISIS-K used schools for military purposes.
Continuing internal conflict resulted in civilian deaths, abductions, prisoner abuse, property damage, displacement of residents, and other abuses. The security situation remained a problem due to insurgent attacks. Terrorist groups caused the vast majority of civilian deaths.
Killings: During the first nine months of the year, UNAMA counted 2,798 civilian deaths due to conflict, an increase of 5 percent from the same period in 2017. UNAMA noted an increase in indiscriminate suicide attacks by antigovernment forces, particularly in Nangarhar Province, where civilian casualties more than doubled compared with the same period in 2017. UNAMA attributed 65 percent of civilian casualties to antigovernment forces, including the Taliban and ISIS, and 22 percent to progovernment forces. UNAMA documented 649 civilian casualties from airstrikes in the first nine months of the year, a 39 percent increase over the same period in 2017. The AIHRC, in its annual report of civilian casualties, reported 3,239 civilians killed from March 2017 to March 2018, a 15 percent increase over the prior year. The AIHRC attributed 65 percent of civilian casualties to antigovernment forces.
On April 2, Afghan Air Force helicopters struck a madrassa in Dasht-e Archi District, Kunduz Province, in an operation targeting Taliban forces. The strike caused at least 107 casualties, according to UNAMA, including 81 children.
UNAMA documented an increase in attacks by antigovernment forces against religious leaders, recording 27 targeted killings in 2016 and 2017, most of which were attributed to the Taliban. On August 3, ISIS-K targeted a Shia mosque in Gardez, Paktia Province, in a suicide bombing that killed 39 civilians during Friday prayers.
Antigovernment elements also continued to attack religious leaders who spoke against the Taliban. On March 7, a suicide bombing killed Mullah Abdul Zahir Haqani, the Ministry of Hajj and Religious Affairs director for Nangarhar Province. On June 4, ISIS-K targeted a gathering of religious scholars in Kabul with a suicide bombing, killing 14 after the scholars issued a religious declaration condemning suicide attacks, and a bomb attack on another religious gathering killed at least 55 persons on November 20.
During the year antigovernment groups continued to perpetrate complex suicide attacks targeting civilians. On September 11, a suicide attack targeting a protest in Nangarhar Province killed approximately 68 and wounded 165. On January 27, the Taliban killed more than 100 individuals in Kabul with a vehicle-borne IED hidden in an ambulance. On January 20, the Taliban attacked the Inter-Continental Hotel in Kabul, killing 42, including 17 foreign nationals.
Antigovernment elements also continued to target government officials and entities, as well as political candidates, throughout the country. On July 31, attackers assaulted the offices of the Ministry of Refugees and Repatriation in Jalalabad, Nangarhar Province, killing at least 15. On April 12, the governor of Khawaja Omari District, Ghazni Province, was killed when the Taliban attacked the district headquarters, leaving more than 12 dead.
Abductions: UNAMA documented 255 cases of conflict-related abductions involving 1,005 abducted civilians in 2017, of which 215 cases were attributed to the Taliban. In June the Taliban abducted 44 construction workers in Kandahar Province, eventually releasing them in August after mediation by local elders.
Physical Abuse, Punishment, and Torture: An April 2017 report by UNAMA documented the highest levels of torture of conflict-related detainees in police custody since 2010. According to the report, the Kandahar police tortured 91 percent of detainees by forcibly pumping water into their stomachs, crushing their testicles with clamps, suffocating them to the point of losing consciousness, or applying electric current to their genitals. In July Afghan security forces arrested Nizamuddin Qaisari, a local militia commander and district police chief. A widely released video showed the arresting forces beating Qaisari’s restrained security detail, leading to several days of protests.
Antigovernment elements continued to punish civilians. In August 2017 Taliban and ISIS-K members killed approximately 36 individuals, including civilians, at Mirza Olang village, Sayyad District, Sar-e Pul Province, accusing them of supporting the government. Shortly after voting in the October parliamentary elections, Taliban combatants kidnapped an individual and cut off the finger he had dipped in ink following voting, a common practice after voting to prevent duplicate voting.
Antigovernment groups regularly targeted civilians, including using indiscriminate IEDs to kill and maim them. Land mines, unexploded ordnance, and explosive remnants of war (ERW) continued to cause deaths and injuries. The ANP reported that unexploded ordnance (UXO) killed 140 individuals per month. Media regularly reported cases of children killed and injured after finding UXO. The Ministry of Education and NGOs continued to conduct educational programs and mine awareness campaigns throughout the country. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees and the International Organization for Migration provided mine-risk education for refugees and undocumented returnees.
In 2017 civilian casualties from ERW decreased by 12 percent compared with 2016. Child casualties accounted for 81 percent of all civilian casualties caused by ERW in 2017. ERW caused 518 child casualties (142 deaths and 376 injured). Overall in 2017, UNAMA documented 639 civilian casualties (164 deaths and 475 injuries) from ERW.
Child Soldiers: There were reports the ANDSF, particularly the ANP and ALP, and progovernment militias recruited children. The AIHRC reported that government security forces in Kandahar Province used child recruits. UNAMA verified or documented credible allegations of the recruitment and use of six boys by security forces during the first six months of the year. The government expanded child protection units to all 34 provinces; however, some NGOs reported these units were not sufficiently equipped, staffed, or trained to provide adequate oversight.
Under a government action plan, the ANP took steps that included training staff on age-assessment procedures, launching an awareness campaign on underage recruitment, investigating alleged cases of underage recruitment, and establishing centers in some provincial recruitment centers to document cases of attempted child enlistment. Recruits underwent an identity check, including an affidavit from at least two community elders that the recruit was at least 18 years old and eligible to join the ANDSF. The Ministries of Interior and Defense also issued directives meant to prevent the recruitment and sexual abuse of children by the ANDSF. Media reported that in some cases ANDSF units used children as personal servants, support staff, or for sexual purposes.
According to UNAMA, the Taliban and ISIS-K continued to use children for front-line fighting and setting IEDs. On August 1, an ISIS-K group numbering more than 200 surrendered to the government in Jowzjan Province. According to some reports, the group included several dozen children, including at least four younger than age 12, many of whom were child combatants. While the law protects trafficking victims from prosecution for crimes committed as a result of being subjected to trafficking, it was unclear if the government would treat the child ex-combatants as trafficking victims or penalize them as combatants.
UNAMA verified or documented credible allegations of the recruitment of 23 boys by antigovernment elements in the first six months of the year (17 by Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, two by ISIS-K, and four by the Taliban). In some cases the Taliban and other antigovernment elements used children as suicide bombers, human shields, and IED emplacers, particularly in southern provinces. Media, NGOs, and UN agencies reported the Taliban tricked children, promised them money, used false religious pretexts, or forced them to become suicide bombers.
See also the Department of State’s annual Trafficking in Persons Report at www.state.gov/j/tip/rls/tiprpt/.
Other Conflict-related Abuse: The security environment continued to have a negative effect on the ability of humanitarian organizations to operate freely in many parts of the country. Violence and instability hampered development, relief, and reconstruction efforts. Insurgents deliberately targeted government employees and aid workers. NGOs reported insurgents, powerful local individuals, and militia leaders demanded bribes to allow groups to bring relief supplies into the country and distribute them. Antigovernment elements continued their targeting of hospitals and aid workers. According to media reports through August, 23 aid workers were killed, 37 injured, and 74 abducted. During 2017, UNAMA documented 75 incidents targeting health-care facilities and health-care workers, resulting in 65 civilian casualties (31 deaths and 34 injured) compared with 120 incidents during 2016 that caused 23 civilian casualties (10 deaths and 13 injured). On January 24, ISIS-K assaulted the Jalalabad office of Save the Children, killing three. In August the Taliban threatened the ICRC by rescinding guarantees for the security of its workers.
In the south and east, the Taliban and other antigovernment elements frequently forced local residents to provide food and shelter for their fighters. The Taliban also continued to attack schools, radio stations, and government offices. During the year the Taliban continued to threaten and shut down hundreds of schools, often in an attempt to extort revenue from Ministry of Education payrolls, according to media reports. In June more than 2,000 Islamic scholars, members of a group known as the Ulema Council, convened on the campus of the Polytechnic University of Kabul. On the morning of June 4, the group of scholars issued a fatwa, or religious edict, stating that the insurgency by extremist groups had no religious basis and that suicide bombings were forbidden by Islam. Shortly thereafter, a bomber detonated an explosive device outside the tent where the council had met, killing 14 of its members and injuring at least 20. On August 15, another bomber detonated an explosive device at the Mowud Education Center (MEC) in Kabul’s Dasht-e-Barchi District. As many as 500 students in their teens and twenties were studying for university entrance exams at MEC at the time of the attack, which left 34 dead and at least 57 injured. On August 16, the Islamic State claimed responsibility for the attack. The education center is largely attended by Kabul’s minority Shiite Hazara community. Reports suggested that the attack was part of a pattern of violence against the Hazara community.
Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:
There were numerous reports that some government forces, including the PMF and Asayish, committed arbitrary or unlawful killings, as did ISIS and other terrorist groups (see section 1.g.). During the year the security situation remained unstable in some areas, due to: regular raids and attacks by ISIS and their affiliated cells, particularly in remote areas; sporadic fighting between the ISF and ISIS holdouts in remote areas; the presence of militias not fully under the control of the government, including certain PMF units, in many liberated areas; and sectarian, ethnic, and financially motivated violence. From January 1 to August 31, the UN Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI) reported more than 700 civilians killed in the country.
Government security forces reportedly committed extrajudicial killings. The government rarely made public its identification and prosecution of specific perpetrators of abuses and atrocities. Human rights organizations reported that both Ministry of Interior and Ministry of Defense personnel tortured detainees to death. For example, Human Rights Watch (HRW) reported in August that at least three individuals died from torture in the Mosul police station and Faisaliya Prison in east Mosul. The August report details the experiences of “Mahmoud,” who reportedly was detained and tortured at Faisaliya Prison from January to May and who recounted the death of a cousin of another detainee named “Ammar.” “Mahmoud” reportedly heard screams as prison officers beat “Ammar’s” cousin unconscious on two consecutive nights. After the second night, “Mahmoud” recounted taking off the man’s clothes to care for him, finding he had two big bruises to his waist on either side, green bruises on his arms, and a long red burn down the length of his penis.
Security forces fired upon and beat demonstrators protesting unemployment and poor public services related to water and electricity in Basrah Governorate and elsewhere in southern Iraq between July and September. HRW reported that the security forces, largely from the Ministry of Interior, used excessive and unnecessary lethal force in controlling protests that at times turned violent. Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and media reported at least eight deaths related to the protests in July. On September 5, at least seven died in clashes with security forces during protests in Basrah. Some demonstrators also turned to violence and set fire to government buildings, the Iranian Consulate, and the offices of pro-Iran militias and political parties. Local and international human rights organizations accused ISF, including Asaib Ahl al-Haq (AAH) PMF units, of using excessive force, including live ammunition, against the protesters and called for the government to conduct an investigation into the deaths and violence during the protests.
In response to the protests, Prime Minister Abadi dismissed the head of Basrah’s military operations. As of October, the government had not reported any progress in investigating the killing of the protesters.
In 2017 the Office of the Prime Minister announced the establishment of a committee to investigate allegations of ISF abuse during the operation to retake Mosul from ISIS. It stated the government had arrested, and planned to prosecute, several ISF officers. HRW reported in April that the government disposed of evidence of a potential war crime committed against members of ISIS, removing an estimated 80 bodies from a damaged house in Mosul and burning the house. HRW added that at least one of the bodies appeared to have its legs bound, that there was no indication that the government was collecting evidence, and that government officials refused to tell its researchers where they were taking the bodies. As of October the government had not published specific information on judicial proceedings against any members of the security forces.
Human rights organizations reported that Iran-aligned PMF militia groups engaged in killing, kidnapping, and extortion throughout the country, particularly in ethnically and religiously mixed governorates. Media reported that in April members of the Peace Brigades PMF militia and Federal Police killed Brigadier General Shareef Ismaeel al-Murshidi, a brigade commander whose forces were tasked with protecting the prime minister and Baghdad’s Green Zone, as well as two of his guards at a PMF checkpoint in Samarra, Salah al-Din Governorate. Media reported in August that members of the Banu al-Khazraj tribe in Dujail, Salah al-Din Governorate, alleged that AAH kidnapped and killed three tribal sheikhs in August the week after clashes between the two groups.
Civil society activists said Iran-aligned militias, specifically AAH, were also responsible for several attacks against prominent women. Human rights organizations reported that militia groups and their supporters posted threats on social media against specific female activists participating in protests in Basrah in September, and on September 25, activist Suad al-Ali was shot and killed in Basrah. Human rights activists stated they believed AAH was responsible, although police were also investigating the woman’s former husband. On September 27, armed gunmen shot and killed Iraqi social media star and model Tara Fares in Baghdad. Civil society groups said they believed an Iran-aligned militia, most likely AAH, killed Fares as well as the owners of three beauty centers in August and October (see section 6, Women).
Terrorist violence continued throughout the year, including ISIS attacks (see section 1.g.).
Unlawful killings by unidentified gunmen and politically motivated violence frequently occurred throughout the country. For example, in May police reported two unknown masked gunmen killed three people in a drive-by shooting in Basrah, and unidentified attackers shot and killed the mayor of Hammam al-Alil, near Mosul, as he left his home.
Ethnic and sectarian-based fighting continued in mixed governorates, although at lower rates than in 2017. While minority advocacy groups reported threats and attacks targeting their communities, it was difficult to categorize many incidents as based solely on ethnic or religious identity because religion, politics, and ethnicity were often closely linked.
On July 23, three gunmen, whom KRG authorities said had links to a terrorist group, forcibly entered a government building in central Erbil and killed a Christian employee. Authorities stated they believed the attackers, whom police eventually killed, targeted the victim because of his religion.
There were frequent reports of enforced disappearances by or on behalf of government forces, including ISF, Federal Police, PMF, Peshmerga, and Asayish, as well as by nongovernment militias and criminal groups. ISIS, however, was responsible for most attributable disappearances. The International Commission on Missing Persons estimated 250,000 to a million persons remained missing from decades of conflict and human rights abuses.
Many suspected members of ISIS and individuals close to them were among those subject to forced disappearance. In April Amnesty International alleged that government forces (both central government and KRG) were responsible for the forced disappearance of thousands of men and boys since 2014. Amnesty reported that, in and around Mosul, the majority of arbitrary arrests and enforced disappearances originated at screening sites near battle front lines overseen by government forces, including the ISF, PMF, and Peshmerga, and lacked safeguards and due process. A September HRW report documented 74 specific cases of men and four additional cases of boys reportedly forcibly disappeared by government forces between April 2014 and October 2017. HRW attributed responsibility for 28 disappearances to the Iran-aligned terrorist PMF group Kata’ib Hezbollah (KH), 14 to the “Prime Minister’s Special Forces,” and 12 to the National Security Service (NSS).
In its September report, HRW detailed a case in which a man from al-Qaim said his sons’ wives told him that KH detained his sons at al-Razzazza checkpoint in Karbala Governorate in 2016 as they were traveling with their families to Baghdad. The man said KH released the women but provided no reason for detaining the two men, who remained missing.
Individuals, militias, and organized criminal groups carried out abductions and kidnappings for personal gain or for political or sectarian reasons. Media reported that on June 8, unknown gunmen reportedly abducted a retired army officer who was working in the market in Mahaweel, Babil Governorate.
Although the constitution and law prohibit such practices, neither defines the types of conduct that constitute torture, and the law gives judges full discretion to determine whether a defendant’s confession is admissible. There were numerous reports that government officials employed torture and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment, and that courts routinely accepted forced confessions as evidence, which was often the only evidence in ISIS-related counterterrorism cases.
As in previous years, there were credible reports that government forces, including Federal Police, NSS, PMF, and Asayish, abused and tortured individuals–particularly Sunni Arabs–during arrest, 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, as well as in facilities under KRG control.
In an August report, HRW documented details of torture and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment of detainees in custody in facilities run by the Ministry of Interior in the Mosul area. These included the Mosul police office and the Intelligence and Counter-Terrorism Office’s Faisaliya Prison in east Mosul as well as Qayyarah Prison, which reportedly consisted of a group of three abandoned and dilapidated houses south of Mosul. According to HRW, one interviewee reportedly witnessed or experienced repeated torture during interrogations at Faisaliya Prison from January to May, including: hanging from the hands bound behind the back; beatings with plastic and metal pipes and cables, including on the soles of the feet; burning of the penis and testicles with a hot metal ruler; hanging by a hook and tying a one-quart water bottle to the penis; and kneeling with the hands tied together behind the back. The May report also cited a man who reportedly saw other men returning from interrogations with physical signs of abuse during his year in detention at Qayyarah and Faisaliya Prisons. HRW stated the government’s failure to investigate the reports properly led to a culture of impunity among security forces. In September the government reported it had started an investigation committee to look into the accusations.
Denial of access to medical treatment was also a problem. Local human rights organizations reported that government forces in Basrah Governorate prevented hospitals from treating people injured in protests against the government in September.
In May a video circulated among local human rights civil society organizations (CSOs) in which Rayan al-Kildani, leader of the Iran-aligned Babylon Brigade PMF group, cut off the ear of a handcuffed detainee.
Instances of abusive interrogation also reportedly occurred in some detention facilities of the KRG’s Asayish internal security unit and the intelligence services of the major political parties–the Kurdistan Democratic Party’s (KDP) Parastin, and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan’s (PUK) Zanyari. According to local and international human rights organizations, mistreatment of prisoners and detainees in the KRG typically occurred before their arrival at official detention facilities.
The Independent Human Rights Commission of the Kurdistan Region (IHRCKR) reported in September that the KRG held 56 boys in an Erbil juvenile detention facility on ISIS-related accusations, of whom 42 were convicted of crimes and 14 were still awaiting trial. Most of the boys alleged both PMF and KRG security forces subjected them to various forms of abuse, including beatings. In August, HRW reported that virtually all of the abuse alleged by these boys occurred between their arrest and their arrival at long-term detention facilities, rather than at the detention facilities themselves.
Prison and Detention Center Conditions
Prison and detention center conditions were harsh and life threatening due to food shortages, gross overcrowding, physical abuse, and inadequate sanitary conditions and medical care.
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 year. 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, were not operational due to the security situation.
Al-Nasiriyah Central Prison, also known as al-Hoot Prison, in Dhi Qar Governorate, was designed to hold 2,400 prisoners, but Iraq High Commission for Human Rights (IHCHR) observers reported in July that the prison held approximately 9,000 prisoners.
Overcrowding exacerbated corruption among some police officers and prison administrators, who reportedly took bribes to reduce or drop charges, cut sentences, or release prisoners early.
Authorities separated detainees from convicts in most cases. Prisoners facing terrorism charges were isolated from the general detainee population and were more likely to remain in Ministry of Interior or Ministry of Defense detention for longer periods.
Although the government held most juvenile pretrial detainees and convicts in facilities operated by the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs, there were reports that Ministry of Justice-administered prisons, Ministry of Interior police stations, and other Ministry of Interior detention facilities held some juveniles in separate facilities or mixed with adult prisoners.
The Ministry of Justice reported there were no accommodations for inmates with disabilities, and a previously announced ministry initiative to establish facilities for such detainees was not fully implemented as of August.
Inmates in government-run prisons and detention centers often lacked adequate food, potable water, sanitation, ventilation, lighting, and medical care. Some detention facilities did not have an onsite pharmacy or infirmary, and authorities reported that even when they existed, pharmacies were often undersupplied and government officers reportedly withheld medication or medical care from prisoners and detainees. Women’s prisons often lacked adequate child-care facilities for inmates’ children, whom the law permits to remain with their mothers until age four. Limited and aging infrastructure worsened sanitation, limited access to potable water, and led to preparation of poor-quality food in many prison facilities. Authorities reportedly kept prisoners confined in their cells for long periods without an opportunity for exercise or use of showers or sanitary facilities.
HRW reported in July that NSS admitted detaining more than 400 individuals (many unlawfully) in a secret detention facility in east Mosul. The facility was a two-story house next to the NSS office in al-Shurta neighborhood. There appeared to be no legal mandate for this facility, and its existence previously was denied. After being detained there in April, Faisel Jeber told HRW that he was one of almost 80 detainees in a room 13 feet by 16 and a half feet with one window and a small ventilator. According to Jeber, half the prisoners were standing and the other half sitting because there was not enough room for everyone to sit at the same time. Jeber said that on his first night, someone died from torture and another had an epileptic seizure but received no medical attention. Some bribed guards to communicate with their families indirectly, but reportedly no one was allowed a family visit even after two years in detention. HRW reported conditions in al-Shurta were similar to facilities in Qayyarah and Hammam al-Alil, facilities HRW visited in 2017.
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 authorities housed more than 40 minors, with ages ranging from six months to 12 years, in Erbil prisons with their convicted mothers, as of November. UNICEF funded a separate annex to the prison for these minors, but they continued to lack access to education. After reports of poor quality food in prisons, the mayor of Erbil replaced the companies contracted to provide food services in Erbil prisons and ensured new contracts included strict quality standards.
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. Several human rights organizations stated that the country’s judges frequently failed to investigate credible allegations that security forces tortured terrorism suspects and often convicted defendants based (often solely) on allegedly coerced confessions.
Prison and detention center authorities reportedly 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 for release at the end of their sentence. International and local human rights groups reported that authorities in numerous instances denied family visits to detainees and convicts. Guards allegedly often demanded bribes or beat detainees when detainees asked to call their relatives or legal counsel. A Ninewa Governorate official said PMF released arrestees and detainees suspected of having ISIS ties after they paid bribes.
The KRG had no uniform policy for addressing allegations of abuse by KRG Ministry of Interior officers or the Asayish. In a March report on prison conditions across the IKR, the IHRCKR stated 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, such as separating drug dealers and drug users. In May, seven inmates were killed and 18 injured in a fire set during a riot inside Zarka Prison in Duhok Governorate.
Independent Monitoring: Iraqi Corrections Service prisons allowed regular visits by independent nongovernmental observers. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) reported the Ministries of Justice, Interior, Defense, and Labor and Social Affairs largely permitted them access to prisons and detention facilities. Authorities also granted UNAMI access to Ministry of Justice prisons and detention facilities in Baghdad. There were reports of some institutional interference in prison visits, and in some cases institutions required advance notification to wardens and prison officials for outside monitor visits. The government denied the existence of some secret detention centers but admitted the existence of an NSS detention center in al-Shurta, east Mosul, despite previous denials, and permitted monitoring of a replacement facility.
The KRG generally allowed international human rights NGOs and intergovernmental organizations to visit convicted prisoners and pretrial detainees, but occasionally authorities delayed or denied access to some individuals, usually in cases involving terrorism. The United Nations and the ICRC had regular access to IKR prisons and detention facilities. Local CSO Kurdistan Human Rights Watch (KHRW) reported that, although they were previously able to access any IKR prison without notice, they increasingly had to request permission in advance to gain access. They usually received permission, but typically at a higher rate and more quickly at Ministry of Social Affairs prisons than those run by the Asayish. KHRW also stated the Asayish sometimes denied holding prisoners to avoid granting independent organizations access to them. KHRW stated in July they had evidence that two Kurdish youth arrested in March on suspicion of drug trafficking remained in Asayish custody without trial, but Asayish authorities denied any knowledge of their cases.
The constitution and law 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 IDPs.
ROLE OF THE POLICE AND SECURITY APPARATUS
Numerous domestic security forces operated throughout the country. The regular armed forces and domestic law enforcement bodies maintained order within the country. The PMF, a state-sponsored umbrella military organization composed of approximately 60 militia groups, operated throughout the country. Some PMF groups, however, such as AAH and KH, often appeared to operate independently from Iraqi authorities and answer to Iranian authorities. They sometimes undertook operations independent of political leaders or military commanders and discounted the authority of commanders during sanctioned operations. Most PMF units were Shia Arab, reflecting the demographics of the country. Shia Arab militia operated across the country, while Sunni Arab, Yezidi, Christian, and other minority PMF units generally operated within or near their home regions. The Peshmerga, including militias of the KDP and PUK, maintained order in the IKR.
The ISF consists of security forces administratively organized within the Ministries of Interior and Defense, the PMF, and the 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 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 NSS intelligence agency also reports directly to the prime minister.
In March the prime minister issued a decree formalizing inclusion of the PMF in the security forces, granting them equivalent salaries and subjecting them to military service laws. While limited by law to operations in the country, in some cases units reportedly supported the Assad regime in Syria, acting independently of the Iraqi government’s authority. The government did not recognize these fighters as PMF even if their organizations were part of the PMF. All PMF units officially report to the national security advisor and are under the authority of the prime minister, but several units in practice were also responsive to Iran and Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. The prime minister, national security advisor, and ISF did not demonstrate consistent command and control over all PMF activities, particularly units aligned with Iran. Actions by disparate PMF units exacerbated security challenges and sectarian tensions, especially in diverse areas of the country such as Ninewa and Kirkuk Governorates.
The two main Kurdish political parties, the KDP and the PUK, each maintained an independent security apparatus. Under the federal constitution, the KRG has the right to maintain internal security forces, but the PUK and KDP separately controlled additional Peshmerga units. The KDP and PUK likewise maintained separate Asayish internal security services and separate intelligence services, nominally under the KRG Ministry of Interior.
KRG forces detained suspects in areas the regional government controlled. Poorly defined administrative boundaries and disputed territories between the IKR and the rest of the country led to confusion over the jurisdiction of security forces and the courts.
Government forces made limited efforts to prevent or respond to societal violence, including ethnosectarian violence that continued to flare in Kirkuk and Ninewa Governorates during the year.
Civilian authorities did not maintain effective control over some elements of the security forces, particularly certain Iran-aligned PMF units. Impunity was a problem. There were reports of torture and abuse throughout the country in facilities used by the Ministries of Interior and Defense, as well as PMF groups and the NSS. According to international human rights organizations, abuse took place primarily during detainee interrogations while in pretrial detention. Other problems persisted, including corruption, within the country’s provincial police forces. The military and Federal Police recruited and deployed soldiers and police officers on a nationwide basis, leading to complaints from local communities that members of the army and police were abusive because of ethnosectarian differences.
Investigators in the Ministry of Interior’s office of the inspector general were responsible for conducting investigations into human rights abuses by security forces, with a preliminary report due within 30 days. The minister of interior or the prime minister can also order investigations into high-profile allegations of human rights abuses, as occurred following reports of ISF abuses during September protests in Basrah. The government rarely made the results of investigations public or punished those responsible for human rights abuses.
The IHRCKR routinely notified the Kurdistan Ministry of Interior when it received credible reports of police human rights violations. The KRG High Committee to Evaluate and Respond to International Reports reviewed charges of Peshmerga abuses, largely against IDPs, and exculpated them in public reports, but human rights organizations questioned the credibility of those investigations.
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 detention 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, 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 July HRW reported that the NSS admitted detaining more than 400 individuals (many arbitrarily or unlawfully) for prolonged periods up to two years, despite not having a legal mandate to do so (see section 1.c.).
According to NGOs, detainees and prisoners whom the judiciary ordered released sometimes faced delays from the Ministry of Interior or other ministries to clear their record of other pending charges and release them from prison.
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 paid 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. There were numerous reports that defendants did not have access to legal representation during the investigation phase, appointed lawyers lacked sufficient time to prepare a defense, and that courts failed to investigate claims of torture while in detention.
In a July report, private defense attorneys told HRW that in terrorism cases they never seek permission to represent their clients at the initial investigative hearing out of concern that security forces and judges at the investigative court would label them “ISIS lawyers,” subjecting them to arrest. They instead wait for the court to appoint a lawyer and only step in after the case is transferred to the felony court, where the risk of harassment and threats is significantly lower. Private defense attorneys did not represent any of the terrorism defendants in the 18 felony trials HRW observed in Baghdad and Ninewa, and the state-appointed defense attorneys reportedly did not actively mount a defense or seek investigations into torture claims. A member of Iraq’s Bar Association in Baghdad told HRW that the government pays state-appointed defense attorneys 25,000 Iraqi dinars ($21) per case, regardless of the amount of time they spend, giving lawyers no incentive to meet their client before the investigative hearing, study the case file, or continue to represent them in subsequent hearings. Lawyers said this lack of representation leaves defendants more vulnerable to abuse.
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 or unlawful detention by government forces, including ISF, Federal Police, NSS, PMF, Peshmerga, and Asayish. There were no reliable statistics available regarding the 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, central government forces did not inform detainees of the reasons for their detention or the charges against them. Most reports of arbitrary or unlawful detention involved suspected members or supporters of ISIS and their associates and family members. Individuals arbitrarily or unlawfully detained were predominantly Sunni Arabs, including IDPs. There were reports of Iran-aligned PMF groups also arbitrarily or unlawfully detaining Kurds and Turkmen in Kirkuk and Christians and other minorities in western Ninewa and the Ninewa Plain. A Ninewa-based CSO reported that the proliferation of intelligence, police, and security agencies, including the PMF, making arrests in Mosul complicated the ability of detainees’ families to determine which agencies held their relatives. There were also reports that security forces beat suspects, destroyed their houses, and confiscated property and food rations during operations to detain those with tenuous family ties to ISIS.
A September HRW report detailed the experiences of a man who reportedly was arbitrarily detained by KH for four months in 2014 and whose son remained missing. The man said that he, his son, and their taxi driver were arrested by KH at a checkpoint in Hilla and held for three days in a nearby house used as an unofficial detention center. KH reportedly released the driver but accused the man and his son of being sympathetic to ISIS. The man described how KH frequently beat him and his son with sticks, metal cables, and their hands. KH reportedly moved the two men to a larger unofficial detention facility where they met 64 other detainees, most belonging to the same tribe. After more than four months in squalid conditions, the man said KH dumped him and two older men on a Baghdad highway after a doctor who visited them told KH the men would likely die. The man stated that, as far as he knows, the same facility still held his son.
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 action 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 a 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 both detention beyond judicial release dates and unlawful releases. The destruction of official detention facilities in the war against ISIS led to the use of temporary facilities; for example, the Ministry of Interior reportedly held detainees in homes rented from local residents in Ninewa Governorate.
The government did not publish comprehensive statistics on the status of the more than 1,400 non-Iraqi women and children it detained during military operations in Tal Afar, Ninewa Governorate, in August 2017. In February and June HRW reported problems relating to the detention and trial of those foreign women and children.
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. According to IKR judicial officials, IKR law permits extension of pretrial detention of up to six months under court supervision. According to local CSOs and the IHRCKR, however, some detainees were held more than six months without trial, and the IHRCKR was tracking the cases of four detainees held for at least four years.
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 reform 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 get 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.
Amnesty: In December 2017 the Iraqi Kurdistan Parliament (IKP) issued an amnesty reducing the sentence of prisoners on death row to 15 years in prison, except in cases of terrorism, threatening national security, or killing women in so-called honor killings. While some NGOs protested that such a crosscutting amnesty undermined the justice system, the IHRCKR said that the IKP consulted them and incorporated all of the commission’s recommendations for the law.
The 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 constitutionality, 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. For example, in April a group of armed individuals shot and wounded a judge in Maysan Governorate. The judge reportedly was overseeing the investigation of several official corruption complaints. Also in April, media reported that an IED killed the vice president of Diyala Governorate’s Court of Appeals.
Lawyers participated in protests demanding better protection from the government against threats and violence. In July a group of lawyers in Basrah Governorate protested the killing of a fellow lawyer who had been defending people involved in demonstrations demanding clean water and electricity. The lawyers demanded the government provide them better protection. In September, HRW reported that government forces threatened and arrested lawyers working in and around Mosul, Ninewa Governorate, whom the government forces perceived to be providing legal assistance to suspected members or supporters of ISIS and their associates and family members.
HRW reported in February and June that the government conducted rushed trials of foreign women and children on charges of illegal entry into the country and membership in or assistance to ISIS. Defense attorneys stated they rarely had access to their clients before hearings and were threatened for defending them. HRW alleged that judicial officials did not sufficiently take into account the individual circumstances in each case or guarantee the defendants a fair trial. Many of the foreign women received the death penalty or were sentenced to life in prison, and children older than age eight in some cases received sentences of up to five years in prison for ISIS membership and up to 15 years in prison for participating in violent acts. As of August at least 23 non-Iraqi women–including 17 from Turkey, two from Kyrgyzstan, two from Azerbaijan, and two from Germany–had received death sentences during the year for violating the counterterrorism law.
The Kurdistan Judicial Council is legally, financially, and administratively independent from the KRG Ministry of Justice, but the KRG executive reportedly influenced politically sensitive cases.
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 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 filial 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 charges against them. Trials were public, except in some national security cases. Numerous defendants experienced undue delays in reaching trial.
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’ insufficient access to defense attorneys was a serious defect in investigative, trial, and appellate proceedings. Many defendants met their lawyers for the first time during the initial hearing and had limited to no access to legal counsel during pretrial detention. This was particularly true 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 had the right, under law, to free assistance of an interpreter, if needed. The qualifications of interpreters reportedly varied greatly. Sometimes foreign consulates provided translators when their nationals were on trial, HRW reported in June; in other cases, the court found an ad hoc solution, for instance by asking a journalist in attendance to interpret for a defendant from Trinidad and Tobago. 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.
In a July report, HRW described how judges routinely failed to investigate and punish security forces alleged to have tortured suspects, particularly those accused of terrorism and affiliation with ISIS. Instead, judges frequently ignored allegations of torture and reportedly convicted defendants based on forced or coerced confessions. In some cases judges convicted defendants without a retrial even after medical examinations revealed signs of torture. Legal experts noted that investigative judges’ and police investigators’ lack of expertise in forensics and evidence management also contributed to their reliance on confessions.
The law provides the right to appeal, although there is a statute of limitations for referral; the Court of Cassation reviews criminal cases on appeal. The law provides for retrials of detainees convicted due to forced or coerced confessions or evidence provided by secret informants, and the Ministry of Justice reported authorities released almost 7,900 detainees from government custody between the law’s enactment in 2016 and July 31. Appellate courts sometimes upheld convictions reportedly based solely or primarily on forced or coerced confessions.
KRG officials noted that prosecutors and defense attorneys frequently encountered obstacles in carrying out their work and that prisoners’ trials were unnecessarily delayed for administrative reasons. According to the IHRCKR, detainees have remained in KRG internal security service facilities for extended periods even after court orders for their release. Lawyers provided by an international NGO continued to have access to and provide representation to any juvenile without a court-appointed attorney.
POLITICAL PRISONERS AND DETAINEES
The government did not consider any incarcerated persons to be political prisoners or detainees and stated that all individuals in prison or detention centers had been either convicted or charged under criminal law or were detained and awaiting trial while under investigation. 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.
There were isolated reports of political prisoners or detainees in the KRG. According to a human rights CSO in the IKR, in May KDP-aligned Asayish arrested and held for three months a former Peshmerga commander and prominent KDP member who had defected to an opposition party. In July the former mayor of Alqosh, Ninewa Governorate, claimed the Asayish detained, beat, threatened, and then released him to prevent him from reporting to work.
Niaz Aziz Saleh, convicted in 2012 of leaking KDP party information related to electoral fraud, remained in a KRG prison, despite the completion of his sentence in 2014.
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, coupled with an understaffed judiciary dependent on the executive.
Unlike federal law, KRG law provides for compensation to persons subject to unlawful arrest or detention; the KRG Ministry of Martyrs and Anfal Affairs handles such cases. The IHRCKR reported that, while approximately 5,000 cases (many historical) received approval for compensation consisting of a piece of land, 10 years’ salary, and college tuition for one family member, the government could not pay compensation due to budget constraints. The ministry stated there were 13,000 unlawful arrests pending compensation decisions.
The constitution and law prohibit the expropriation of property, except for the public benefit and in return for just compensation. Some government forces and officials, however, forced suspected ISIS members and supporters from their homes in several governorates, confiscating homes and property without due process or restitution.
HRW reported in April that some police and judicial officials in Ninewa Governorate believed the counterterrorism law allowed legal expropriation and transfer of a home or property if it is registered in the name of an individual ISIS member. The compensation commission of Mosul, Ninewa Governorate, stated that families of ISIS members could receive compensation if they obtain a security clearance to return home from the NSS, but HRW reported that all families of ISIS suspects were being denied clearance. According to the April report, there were 16 expropriations of homes registered to ISIS suspects or their relatives in Mosul, Ninewa Governorate, by PMF, Federal Police, or local police, or other families; in each case, the owners or their relatives were unable to retake the property, even when they sought judicial redress. Several local officials in Ninewa Governorate admitted that government forces were occupying or confiscating homes illegally in this manner.
Some home and property confiscations appeared to have ethnic or sectarian motives. For example, the 30th Shabak Brigade, an Iran-aligned PMF group operating east of Mosul, reportedly detained and harassed Christians and Kaka’i, including a Kaka’i man who was detained in July until he agreed to sell his house to a PMF leader. NGOs reported that judges and local officials often took bribes to settle such property disputes.
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.
There were numerous reports that government forces and local authorities punished family members of suspected ISIS members and supporters. In some instances local community leaders reportedly threatened to evict these family members from their homes forcibly, bulldoze the homes, and either injure or kill these relatives. International NGOs stated that PMF groups forcibly displaced hundreds of families, destroyed or confiscated some of their homes, forced some parents to leave their children, stole livestock, and beat some of the displaced persons. There were also regular reports of government forces, particularly the PMF but also the Federal Police and local police, refusing to allow IDPs to return to their homes, sometimes despite the IDPs having the necessary security clearances from the government allowing them to do so.
Killings: From January 1 to August 31, UNAMI reported more than 700 civilians killed and almost 1,300 injured, a decrease from approximately 2,800 killed and more than 3,700 injured during the same period in 2017. It was unclear how many were intentionally targeted.
Despite its territorial defeat in December 2017, ISIS remained the major perpetrator of abuses and atrocities. These abuses were particularly evident in Anbar, Baghdad, Diyala, Kirkuk, Ninewa, and Salah al-Din Governorates, where ISIS routinely killed and abducted civilians and attacked security forces. Throughout the year ISIS detonated vehicle-borne IEDs and suicide bombs.
On January 15, ISIS carried out a pair of suicide bomb attacks that killed at least 27 persons in Tayaran Square, an area in Baghdad where laborers gather to find work. ISIS also claimed responsibility for a May 23 suicide attack in Baghdad that killed at least four individuals and wounded 15. In August, ISIS suicide bombers attacked an al-Hal political party building in Heet, Anbar, killing three ISF and wounding nine civilians, including a female electoral candidate. On September 12, a suicide bomber killed at least six persons and injured 42 others at a restaurant near Tikrit, Salah al-Din; security personnel believed ISIS to be responsible. In addition, IEDs reportedly left by ISIS before its territorial defeat and other explosive remnants of war continued to cause civilian casualties.
In May the UN secretary-general appointed Karim Khan as special adviser and head of the Investigative Team for the Accountability of Daesh (ISIS), established pursuant to UN Security Council resolution 2379 to support domestic efforts to hold ISIS accountable. The Investigative Team–which was tasked with collecting, preserving, and storing evidence in Iraq of acts that may amount to war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide committed by ISIS–formally began its work in August.
Abductions: There were frequent reports of enforced disappearances by or on behalf of government forces, including ISF, Federal Police, PMF, Peshmerga, and Asayish, as well as by nongovernment militias and criminal groups. ISIS was responsible for most attributable disappearances and abductions, and frequently targeted government forces. The Mosul Police reported approximately 11,000 civilians were still missing in the city from the time of ISIS occupation and liberation.
ISIS claimed responsibility for a March 20 attack at a fake checkpoint on the highway between Baghdad and Kirkuk in Sarha District, Diyala Governorate, in which the attackers abducted eight Federal Police officers. ISIS published a video of their execution several days later.
As of September authorities reported more than 3,200 Yezidis, mainly women and children, remained in ISIS captivity in and outside the country, where they were subject to sexual slavery and exploitation, forced marriage, and other abuses. According to the KRG Ministry of Endowments and Religious Affairs, as of October more than 3,300 additional Yezidis had escaped, been rescued, or were released from ISIS captivity. As of August the KRG Yezidi Rescue Office, established by KRG Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani, had spent more than $10 million since 2014 to rescue captive Yezidis from ISIS.
In July the New York Times reported that a 16-year-old Yezidi girl named Souhayla had recently escaped from three years of ISIS imprisonment and sexual slavery in Iraq after an airstrike killed her captor.
IKR-based CSOs reported ISIS and organized criminal gangs had trafficked some captured Yezidi women and children internationally, primarily to Syria and Turkey, but also to Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States, Europe, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Russia’s Chechen Republic. This reportedly included organ trafficking as well.
The IHCHR reported in August that 600 Turkmen kidnapped by ISIS, including more than 120 children, remained missing, while a Turkmen CSO reported more than 1,300 Turkmen were still missing. The CSO claimed to have evidence that ISIS had trafficked Turkmen women to Turkey, Syria, and Russia’s Chechen Republic.
The KRG Ministry of Endowments and Religious Affairs also reported in October that 250 Christians had escaped, been rescued, or were released by ISIS, leaving an estimated 150 missing. According to the KRG Ministry of Peshmerga, more than 60 Peshmerga taken hostage 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. Followings its territorial defeat in December 2017, ISIS’ ability to capture prisoners was dramatically reduced.
Child Soldiers: There were no reports that the central government’s Ministries of Interior or Defense conscripted or recruited children to serve in the security services. The government and Shia religious leaders expressly forbid children younger than age 18 from serving in combat. Unlike in previous years, there was no evidence on social media of children serving in combat positions. The central government faced challenges, however, in exercising complete control over certain units of the PMF, limiting its ability to address and prevent the recruitment and use of children by these groups, including some units of the Iran-aligned AAH, Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba (HHN), and KH militias. In May the UN Task Force on Children and Armed Conflict reported concerns that in 2017 the government failed to prevent PMF units in southern Iraq, including Najaf and al-Qadisiyah Governorates, from engaging in child recruitment and sponsoring military training camps for high school students, which included some children younger than age 18. The UN Task Force on Children and Armed Conflict verified 10 incidents affecting 19 boys throughout the country during the first quarter of the year, which included five recruitments in Ninewa Governorate, four killings, and 10 other injuries resulting from explosive materials in Ninewa, Kirkuk, and Salah al-Din Governorates. Antitrafficking in persons NGOs reported that some PMF groups, including AAH and HHN, continued recruiting males younger than age 18 to fight in Syria and Yemen.
As of early 2018, multiple sources reported the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) People’s Defense Forces (HPG) and Shingal Resistance Units (YBS) Yezidi militia, operating in Sinjar, Ninewa Governorate, and the IKR, continued to recruit and use children. According to Yezidi NGO Yazda, of approximately 400 Yezidi children younger than age 18 recruited as child soldiers by PKK and YBS militias, an estimated 100 remained with the militias as of November, with many of the rest having subsequently returned to their families.
In previous years ISIS was known to recruit and use children. Due in part to ISIS’ territorial defeat in 2017, little information was available on its use of children in the country during the year.
In February the Washington Post reported the experience of one boy in Ninewa Governorate who was recruited by ISIS at age 17 to cook for fighters. A few months later, an uncle in the PMF reportedly recruited him to spy on ISIS and offered him three million Iraqi dinars ($2,514). ISIS reportedly imprisoned the boy after catching him taking photographs. The boy eventually escaped, only to be caught by KRG forces and reportedly sentenced to detention in a juvenile reformatory, where he remained.
Also see the Department of State’s annual Trafficking in Persons Report at www.state.gov/j/tip/rls/tiprpt/.
Other Conflict-related Abuse: Conflict disrupted the lives of hundreds of thousands of persons throughout the country, particularly in Baghdad, Anbar, and Ninewa Governorates.
Government forces, including the ISF, PMF, and Peshmerga, established or maintained roadblocks that impeded the flow of humanitarian assistance to communities in need, particularly in disputed territories such as Sinjar, Ninewa Governorate. The KRG, specifically KDP-run checkpoints, also restricted the transport of food, medicines and medical supplies, and other goods into some areas.
ISIS reportedly targeted civilian infrastructure, including several attacks on electricity and water infrastructure in Kirkuk and other governorates.
Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:
There were numerous reports the government and its agents, as well as other armed actors, committed arbitrary or unlawful killings in relation to the conflict (see section 1.g.).
According to the Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR), the conflict had killed at least 222,000 civilians from 2011 until September, including almost 6,400 civilians from January through October. The government continued its use of helicopters and airplanes to conduct aerial bombardment and shelling. The government continued to torture and kill persons in detention facilities. The UN Commission of Inquiry (COI) reported that the government assault on eastern Ghouta, a suburb of Damascus, killed hundreds of persons, with the SNHR reporting that more than 2,600 civilians died in eastern Ghouta in February and March. In June government and progovernment forces attacked the southwest Daraa governorate, with multiple sources reporting more than 230 civilian deaths.
Government and progovernment forces reportedly attacked civilians in hospitals, residential areas, schools, and settlements for internally displaced persons (IDPs) and refugee camps; these attacks included bombardment with improvised explosive devices, commonly referred to as “barrel bombs,” in addition to the use of chemical weapons. It used the massacre of civilians, as well as their forced displacement, rape, starvation, and protracted sieges that occasionally forced local surrenders, as military tactics.
Other actors in the conflict also were implicated in extrajudicial killings (see section 1.g.).
On November 23, unidentified gunmen assassinated activists and journalists, Raed Faris and Hamud Junaid, in Idlib Province. Faris and Junaid were prominent civilian leaders of the peaceful revolution that began in 2011. They spoke out against the abuses of the government and of the extremist elements of the opposition. As of late November, no group had taken responsibility for the assassinations, although media reports suggested an extremist group was responsible.
There were numerous reports of disappearances by or on behalf of government authorities. The UN COI reported the number of forced disappearances remained high. Human rights groups’ estimates of the number of disappearances since 2011 varied widely, but all estimates pointed to disappearances as a common practice. In August the SNHR attributed 86 percent of the estimated 95,000 forced disappearances from 2011 until August to the government. The government reportedly targeted critics, specifically journalists, medical personnel, antigovernment protesters, their families, and associates. The majority of disappearances reported by activists, human rights observers, and international nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) appeared to be politically motivated, and a number of prominent political prisoners remained missing (see section 1.e.).
In July the government began publishing notifications of thousands of deaths of detainees in government detention facilities. The SNHR reported the number of detainees certified as dead was unknown but estimated it to be in the thousands. The government did not announce publication of notifications on updated state registers. According to media reports, many families were unaware of the status of their detained family members and discovered relatives they believed to be alive had died months or years earlier.
For example, in 2011 the Air Force Security Branch detained Yahya Shurbaji, an activist known for his promotion of nonviolent protest. Shurbaji’s health and whereabouts remained unknown until July when his family received confirmation that he died at Sednaya Prison in 2013. The government claimed Shurbaji died of natural causes, but he shared the same date of death with at least three other detainees at Sednaya Prison, the subject of numerous reports of torture and extrajudicial killings since 2011.
The COI reported that fears of arbitrary arrests and detention prevented IDPs from returning to their homes in areas retaken by government forces. The COI noted that the families of disappeared persons often feared to approach authorities to inquire about the locations of their relatives; those who did so had to pay large bribes to learn the locations of relatives or faced systematic refusal by authorities to disclose information about the fate of disappeared individuals.
Armed groups not affiliated with the government also reportedly abducted individuals, targeting religious leaders, aid workers, suspected government affiliates, journalists, and activists (see section 1.g.).
The government made no efforts to prevent, investigate, or punish such actions.
The law prohibits torture and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment and provides up to three years’ imprisonment for violations. Human rights activists, the COI, and local NGOs, however, reported thousands of credible cases of government authorities engaging in frequent torture and abuse to punish perceived opponents, including during interrogations. Observers reported most cases of torture or mistreatment occurred in detention centers operated by each of the government’s security service branches. Human Rights Watch (HRW) and the COI reported regular use of torture against perceived government opponents at checkpoints and government facilities run by the Air Force, Political Security Division, General Security Directorate, and Military Intelligence Directorate. They identified specific detention facilities where torture occurred, including: the Mezzeh airport detention facility; Military Security Branches 215, 227, 235, 248, and 291; Adra and Sednaya Prisons; the Harasta Air Force Intelligence Branch; Harasta Military Hospital; Mezzeh Military Hospital 601; and Tishreen Military Hospital.
The COI also reported that the Counterterrorism Court (CTC) and courts-martial relied on forced confessions and information acquired through torture to obtain convictions. A large number of torture victims reportedly died in custody. The SNHR reported that more than 14,000 individuals died due to torture between 2011 and September and attributed approximately 99 percent of these cases to government forces (see section 1.a.). The SNHR attributed to the government more than 930 deaths due to torture in the first nine months of the year. Activists maintained that many instances of abuse went unreported. Some declined to allow reporting of their names or details of their cases due to fear of government reprisal.
The COI noted torture methods remained consistent. These included beatings on the head, bodies, and soles of feet (falaqua) with wooden and metal sticks, hoses, cables, belts, whips, and wires. Authorities also reportedly sexually assaulted detainees; administered electric shocks, including to their genitals; burned detainees with cigarettes; and placed them in stress positions for prolonged periods of time. A substantial number of detainees reported being handcuffed and then suspended from the ceiling or a wall by their wrists for hours.
Other reported methods of physical torture included removing nails and hair, stabbings, and cutting off body parts, including ears and genitals. Numerous human rights organizations reported other forms of torture, including forcing objects into the rectum and vagina, hyperextending the spine, and putting the victim onto the frame of a wheel and whipping exposed body parts. Additionally, officers reportedly continued the practice of shabeh, in which they stripped detainees naked, hung them for prolonged periods from the ceiling, and administered electrical shocks. In August Deutsche Welle reported the experiences of Mizyed Khalid Tahad, a regime prisoner who detailed his torture during detention at Sednaya during 2012-13, including electric shock, shabeh, beatings, lashings with a pipe, being squeezed into a tire, and malnourishment. During the year NGOs, including (Amnesty International) AI, Urnammu for Justice and Human Rights (Urnammu), and Save the Rest continued to report that large numbers of detainees at Sednaya Military Prison died after repeated torture and deprivation of food, water, ventilation, medicine, and medical care.
There is no indication government use of psychological torture decreased. One commonly reported practice was detention of victims overnight in cells with corpses of previous victims. The SNHR reported psychological torture methods included forcing prisoners to witness the rape of other prisoners, threatening the rape of family members (in particular female family members), forcing prisoners to undress, and insulting prisoners’ beliefs. For example, in March the COI reported a 2014 incident in which a government officer in Damascus took two girls, held their faces down on the desk, and raped them in turn. The girls reportedly tried to resist. The officer then reportedly told a male detainee, “You see what I am doing to them? I will do this to your wife and daughter.”
The COI and various NGOs, including HRW, AI, and the SNHR, continued to report widespread instances of rape and sexual abuse, including of minors. In March the COI reported government forces and affiliated militias raped and sexually abused women and girls, as well as men occasionally, during ground operations, house raids, and at checkpoints. One such example in the March COI report is that of a survivor of the al-Houla (Homs) massacre in 2012, who described how government forces entered her home and raped her daughter in front of her and her husband before shooting both her daughter and husband. Two soldiers then reportedly raped the mother.
The COI stated that government authorities subjected women and girls in detention to rape and gang rape in 20 government political and military institutions, while authorities raped men and boys and sometimes mutilated their genitals in 15 such branches. The March COI report detailed how in one such case at Branch 215 in 2012, an 18-year-old man from Daraa was severely beaten, threatened with the rape of his sisters, and then gang raped by five officers. One of the officers reportedly raped the detainee five more times over a month before authorities transferred the detainee to another detention facility. In another case the March COI report detailed how, over 10 consecutive days at the Hama State Security Branch in 2012, two officers, one of whom was a lieutenant colonel, raped two female detainees next to one another. On one occasion the same two officers reportedly raped the women in front of two naked male detainees whose hands and feet were tied in the shabeh position. In March the COI reported cases in 2012 in which perpetrators exploited blood relations by forcing male relatives to have intercourse with one another at the Damascus Political Intelligence Branch.
There were widespread reports that government security forces engaged in abuse and inhuman treatment of prisoners. According to the COI, most were civilians initially held at checkpoints or taken prisoner during military incursions. While the majority of accounts concerned male detainees, there were increased reports of female detainees suffering abuse in government custody. The COI assessed in March that the frequency, duration, and severity of the reported abuse suggested victims’ sustained long-term psychological and physical damage.
The COI reported that, beginning in 2011 and continuing throughout the conflict, security forces subjected detainees to mistreatment in military hospitals, often obstructing medical care or exacerbating existing injuries as a technique in abuse and interrogation. There were numerous reports of deaths in custody at the Mezzeh airport detention facility, Military Security Branches 215 and 235, and Sednaya Prison. Authorities consistently directed families of detainees seeking information to the Qaboun Military Police and Tishreen Military Hospital. In most cases authorities reportedly did not return the bodies of deceased detainees to their families. In July the government confirmed the death of activist Islam Dabbas in 2013 in Sednaya Prison, but they did not return his body.
There continued to be a significant number of reports of abuse of children by the government. The COI noted regular reports of detention and torture of children younger than age 13, in some cases as young as 11, in government detention facilities. Officials reportedly targeted and tortured children because of their familial relations, or assumed relationships, with political dissidents, members of the armed opposition, and activist groups. In March the UN Human Rights Council held a high-level panel discussion on human rights violations against children in Syria at which NGOs presented evidence of such abuses. The UN special representative for children and armed conflict reported that child detainees, largely boys, suffered similar or identical methods of torture practiced on adults. A May report from Urnammu, a NGO that focuses on the Syrian conflict, on abuses against children described usage of a torture wheel, shabeh, lynchings, beatings, rape, and forced sexual acts among children, among other abuses. For example, a May report from Urnammu detailed the experiences of Hamed, who was 15 years old when detained in 2014 in the Political Security branch in Latakia. Hamed described being tied to a torture wheel and being forced to confess to hiding weapons and tunneling, then being transferred to the Criminal Security branch where he reportedly was beaten and threatened with being shot. According to reliable witnesses, authorities continued to hold a number of children to compel parents and other relatives associated with opposition fighters to surrender to authorities.
Prison and Detention Center Conditions
Prison and detention center conditions remained harsh and in many instances were life threatening due to food shortages, gross overcrowding, physical and psychological abuse, and inadequate sanitary conditions and medical care.
Physical Conditions: Prison facilities were grossly overcrowded. Authorities commonly held juveniles, adults, pretrial detainees, and convicted prisoners together in inadequate spaces. The COI reported in March that authorities continued to hold children in prison with adults. In a report released in May, Urnammu documented the detention of more than 2,400 children, while the SNHR reported the regime detained more than 7,000 children from the start of the conflict in 2011 until March and more than 200 children during the first half of the year.
According to the COI, government detention facilities lacked food, water, space, hygiene, and medical care. Poor conditions were so consistent that the COI concluded they reflected state policy.
According to local and international NGOs, the government held prisoners and detainees in severely cramped quarters with little or no access to toilets, hygiene, medical supplies, or adequate food. In March the COI reported detainees in government detention facilities subsisted in severely inhuman conditions. A February COI report stated that authorities kept detainees in government facilities in overcrowded cells, lacking adequate sanitation, and suffering from lice infestations. In August CNN reported that malnourishment and denial of medical treatment continued to lead to the deaths of detainees.
Reports from multiple international NGO sources continued to suggest there were also many informal detention sites and that authorities held thousands of prisoners in converted military bases and in civilian infrastructure, such as schools and stadiums, and in unknown locations. Activists asserted the government also housed arrested protesters in factories and vacant warehouses that were overcrowded and lacked adequate sanitary facilities.
In some cases authorities transferred detainees from unofficial holding areas to intelligence services facilities. Detention conditions at security and intelligence service facilities continued to be the harshest, especially for political or national security prisoners. Facilities lacked proper ventilation, lighting, access to potable water or adequate food, medical staff and equipment, and sufficient sleeping quarters.
Inside prisons and detention centers, the prevalence of death from disease remained high due to unsanitary conditions and the withholding of food, medical care, and medication. Local NGOs and medical professionals reported authorities denied medical care to prisoners with pre-existing health needs, such as diabetes, asthma, and breast cancer, and denied pregnant women any medical care. Authorities retaliated against prisoners who requested attention for the sick. Released prisoners commonly reported sickness and injury resulting from such conditions. The May report from Urnammu included the example of Ali, a 14-year-old from Aleppo, who was arrested in 2014 and held incommunicado for 10 months. Ali described the abuse of a fellow child detainee, “B.K.” from Kafer Yabos, who authorities tortured until he could no longer control his bodily functions. Ali said B.K.’s entire body was infected and that the other young detainees cared for him, fed him, and cleaned him and his wounds until he died.
Information on conditions and care for prisoners with disabilities was unavailable.
Conditions in detention centers operated by various opposition groups were not well known, but the COI and local NGOs reported accounts of arbitrary detention, torture, inhuman treatment, and abuse. According to the COI, conditions in detention center run by nonstate actors such as HTS and ISIS violated international law (see section 1.g.).
Administration: There were no credible mechanisms or avenues for prisoners to complain or submit grievances, and authorities routinely failed to investigate allegations or document complaints or grievances. Activists reported there was no ombudsman to serve on behalf of prisoners and detainees. The law provides for prompt access to family members, but NGOs and families reported inconsistent application of the law, with some families waiting years to see relatives. The government continued to detain thousands of prisoners without charge and incommunicado in unknown locations.
In areas where government control was weak or nonexistent, localized corrections structures emerged. Reports of control and oversight varied, and both civilian and religious leaders were in charge of facility administration. Former police forces or members of armed opposition groups operated facilities in areas under the control of opposition forces. Nonstate actors often did not understand due process and lacked sufficient training to run facilities.
Independent Monitoring: The government prohibited independent monitoring of prison or detention center conditions, and diplomatic and consular officials had no greater access than in previous years. AI, for example, has attempted with little success to engage Syrian authorities on human rights concerns, including torture and other mistreatment, enforced disappearances, and deaths in custody, through various means since 2011. For example, in January 2017 AI sent a letter to authorities requesting clarifications regarding the numerous allegations documented in their report “Human Slaughter House,” and in February 2017 the government denied the claims.
Some opposition forces invited the COI to visit facilities they administered and allowed some international human rights groups, including HRW, to visit. The International Committee of the Red Cross and Red Crescent continued to negotiate with all parties, except ISIS, to gain access to detention centers across the country but was unable to gain access to any government-controlled facilities during the year.
The constitution prohibits arbitrary arrest and detention, but a 2011 decree allows the government to detain suspects for up to 60 days without charge if suspected of “terrorism” and related offenses. The law provides for the right of any person to challenge the lawfulness of his or her arrest or detention in court, but the government did not observe this requirement.
Arbitrary arrests continued according to local news sources, and several human rights organizations reported arbitrary detentions in the tens of thousands. The SNHR reported government forces and progovernment militias were responsible for more than 3,200 cases of arbitrary arrest in the first half of the year. Between the start of the conflict in 2011 and March, the SNHR reported almost 119,000 arbitrary arrests and forced disappearances; it attributed almost 90 percent of such cases to the government. A March COI report stated that government forces and affiliated militias continued to detain tens of thousands of persons arbitrarily or unlawfully in official and makeshift detention facilities. Government authorities held the vast majority without due process or access to legal representation or to their families. Victims endured brutal torture, and many died in detention or authorities summarily executed them. The COI report also concluded, “acts amounted to the crimes against humanity of extermination, murder, rape or other forms of sexual violence, torture, and imprisonment in the context of its widespread and systematic detentions. They have also amounted to the war crimes of murder, cruel treatment, torture, rape, sexual violence, and outrages upon personal dignity.”
HRW reported the government continued to use counterterrorism law to arrest and convict nonviolent activists on charges of aiding terrorists in trials that violated basic due process rights. Although authorities reportedly brought charges under the guise of countering violent militancy, allegations included peaceful acts such as distributing humanitarian aid, participating in protests, and documenting human rights abuses.
Government security forces failed to respond to or protect large regions of the country from violence. In February the COI reported some armed opposition groups maintained makeshift detention sites to hold civilians. The COI reported the SDF claimed to have detained nearly 1,400 terrorist fighters, the majority of whom were ISIS members but also included women and children associated with ISIS (see section 1.g.).
ROLE OF THE POLICE AND SECURITY APPARATUS
The government’s multiple security branches traditionally operated autonomously with no defined boundaries between their areas of jurisdiction. Military Intelligence and Air Force Intelligence reported to the Ministry of Defense, the Political Security Directorate reported to the Ministry of Interior, and the General Intelligence Directorate reported directly to the Office of the President. The Interior Ministry controlled the four separate divisions of police: emergency police, traffic police, neighborhood police, and riot police. Government-affiliated militia, such as the National Defense Forces (NDF), integrated with other government-affiliated forces and performed similar roles without defined jurisdiction.
Civilian authorities maintained effective control over the uniformed military, police, and state security forces, but did not maintain effective control over foreign and domestic military or paramilitary organizations. These included Russian armed forces, Hizballah, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, and nonuniformed progovernment militias, such as the NDF. Impunity continued to be a widespread problem. The General Command of the Army and Armed Forces may issue arrest warrants for crimes committed by military officers, members of the internal security forces, or customs police during their normal duties; military courts must try such cases. Nevertheless, security forces operated independently and generally outside the control of the legal system. There were no known prosecutions or convictions of security force personnel for abuse or corruption and no reported government actions to increase respect for human rights by the security forces.
Opposition forces established irregularly constituted courts and detention facilities in areas under their control, which varied greatly in organization and adherence to the rule of law. Some groups upheld the country’s law, while others followed a 1996 draft Arab League Unified Penal Code based on sharia or implemented a mix of customary law and sharia. The experience, expertise, and credentialing of opposition judges and religious scholars also varied widely, and dominant armed militias in the area often subjected them to their orders.
ISIS claimed that it based administration of justice in the territory it controlled on sharia. As detailed by the New York Times, ISIS reportedly authorized its police forces, known as “Hisbah,” to administer summary punishment for violations of ISIS’ morality code.
ARREST PROCEDURES AND TREATMENT OF DETAINEES
The law generally requires a warrant for arrest in criminal cases, but police often cited emergency or national security justifications for acting without a warrant, which was permitted under the law. Police usually brought arrested individuals to a police station for processing and detention until a trial date was set. The law limits the length of time authorities may hold a person without charge to 60 days, but according to various NGOs, activists, and former detainees, police held many individuals for longer periods or indefinitely. Civil and criminal defendants have the right to bail hearings and possible release from pretrial detention on their own recognizance, but the government applied the law inconsistently. At the initial court hearing, which can be months or years after the arrest, the accused may retain an attorney at personal expense or the court may appoint an attorney, although authorities did not assure lawyers access to their clients before trial. According to local human rights organizations, denial of access to a lawyer was common.
In cases involving political or national security offenses, authorities reportedly often made arrests in secret, with cases assigned in an apparently arbitrary manner to the CTC, courts-martial, or criminal courts. The government reportedly detained suspects incommunicado for prolonged periods without charge or trial and denied them the right to a judicial determination of their pretrial detention. In most cases authorities reportedly did not inform detainees of charges against them until their arraignment, often months or years after their arrest. Security detainees did not have access to lawyers before or during questioning, or throughout preparation and presentation of their defense.
The government often reportedly failed to notify foreign governments when it arrested, detained, released, or deported their citizens, especially when the case involved political or national security charges. The government also failed to provide consular access to foreign citizens known to be in its prisons and, on numerous occasions, claimed these individuals were not in its custody or even in the country.
Arbitrary Arrest: Security forces continued previous practices of arbitrary arrests, and detainees had inconsistent legal redress. Reports continued of security services arresting relatives of wanted persons to pressure individuals to surrender. Police rarely issued or presented warrants or court orders before an arrest. According to reports, the security branches secretly ordered many arrests and detentions. Activists and international humanitarian organizations stated that government forces continued to conduct security raids in response to antigovernment protests. In areas under government control, security forces engaged in arbitrary arrests. For example, the SNHR reported that on June 21, government forces raided a residence in the Jaloub al Mal’ab neighborhood of Hama, arrested 11 civilians, including two women and three children, and took them to an undisclosed location. The COI reported in March that authorities continued to arrest men and boys arbitrarily at some checkpoints. Often authorities cited no reason for arresting civilians.
Checkpoints operated by the government were a commonly reported location for arbitrary arrests, sometimes resulting in transfer to a long-term detention facility or disappearance. Government military and security forces reportedly arrested men at checkpoints solely for being of military age. According to the COI, there continued to be frequent accounts of enforced disappearances following arrest at checkpoints.
Multiple reports from local and international NGOs stated that the government prevented the majority of those detained from contacting their relatives or obtaining a lawyer. When authorities occasionally released detainees, it was often without any formal judicial procedures. Hundreds of detainees interviewed by human rights groups stated they had been arrested, detained, questioned, often tortured, and released after months or years of detention without seeing a judge or being sentenced.
There also were instances of nonstate armed groups reportedly engaging in arbitrary arrest and unlawful detention (see section 1.g.).
Pretrial Detention: Lengthy pretrial detention remained a serious problem. Authorities reportedly held thousands of detainees incommunicado for months or years before releasing them without charge or bringing them to trial. A shortage of available courts and lack of legal provisions for speedy trial or plea bargaining contributed to lengthy pretrial detentions. In previous years there were numerous reported instances when the length of detention exceeded the sentence for the crime. Percentages for prison/detainee population held in pretrial detention and the length of time held were not available during the year. Syrian human rights groups continued to highlight the plight of detainees and advocate for their release.
Detainee’s Ability to Challenge Lawfulness of Detention before a Court: By law persons arrested or detained regardless of whether on criminal or other grounds are entitled to challenge in court the legal basis or arbitrary nature of their detention and any delay in obtaining judicial process. If the court finds that authorities detained persons unlawfully, they are entitled to prompt release or compensation or both. Few detainees, however, had the ability to challenge the lawfulness of their detention before a court or obtain prompt release and compensation for unlawful detention.
Amnesty: In October the government granted amnesty to army deserters and civilians who avoided military duty, provided they reported for duty within four months if inside Syria and within six months if outside the country. The amnesty does not cover fighting against the government or joining the opposition, regarded by the government as terrorists. Media reported that refugees were skeptical, fearing forced conscription and imprisonment. Limited releases of detainees occurred within the framework of localized settlement agreements with the government. During the year there were increasing reports of government forces violating prior amnesty agreements by conducting raids and arrest campaigns concentrated against civilians and former affiliates of armed opposition factions in areas that previously signed settlement agreements with the government. For example, the SNHR reported that on August 14, government forces arrested 80 civilians in the al Lajat suburbs of Daraa.
The constitution provides for an independent judiciary, but authorities regularly subjected courts to political influence and prosecutors and defense attorneys to intimidation and abuse. Outcomes of cases with political context appeared predetermined, and defendants could sometimes bribe judicial officials and prosecutors. Government authorities detained without access to fair public trial tens of thousands of individuals, including those associated with NGOs, human rights activists, journalists, relief workers, religious figures, and medical providers.
The constitution provides for the right to a fair trial but not necessarily a public trial. The judiciary generally did not enforce this right, and the government did not respect judicial independence.
The constitution presumes defendants innocent until proven guilty, but numerous reports indicated that the CTC or courts-martial did not respect this right. Defendants have the right to prompt, detailed notification of the charges against them with interpretation as necessary, although authorities did not verifiably enforce this right, and a number of detainees and their families reported that the accused were unaware of the charges against them. Trials involving juveniles or sexual offenses, or those referred to the CTC or courts-martial, are held in camera. The law entitles defendants representation of their choice, but it does not permit legal representation for defendants accused of spying; the courts appoint lawyers for indigents. Defense attorneys often lacked adequate time and facilities to prepare a defense, as the International Legal Assistance Consortium (ILAC) and other NGOs reported authorities arbitrarily assigned defense attorneys to many defendants at the courthouse on the day of trial. Human rights lawyers reported that in some politically charged cases, the government provided prosecution case files to defense lawyers that did not include any evidence, if they provided anything at all. Defendants may present witnesses and evidence and confront the prosecution or plaintiff witnesses, but authorities often did not respect this right. Defendants may not legally be compelled to testify or confess guilt, but family members and NGOs routinely reported that judges accepted confessions of guilt elicited through torture or intimidation, as described in a March report by the COI and a May report by Urnammu. Convicted persons may appeal verdicts to a provincial appeals court and ultimately to the Court of Cassation.
The COI, AI, ILAC, and others have reported the lack of due process in the CTC and courts-martial. In trials reportedly lasting between one and three minutes, judges reportedly used coerced confessions obtained through torture as often the only evidence to sentence prisoners to summary execution. Multiple sources alleged the government killed as many as 50 detainees per day at Sednaya Prison, since 2011. AI reported in 2017 that at Sednaya Prison an execution panel including the director of Sednaya, the military prosecutor of the court-martial, and a representative from the intelligence agencies met prisoners sentenced to death by one of two courts-martial in the al-Qaboun neighborhood of Damascus, and then prison guards immediately hanged the prisoners. Although the government denied using a crematorium to dispose of prisoners, the government failed to return the bodies of thousands of deceased prisoners after releasing death notices during the year.
Not all citizens enjoyed these rights equally, in part because interpretations of religious law provide the basis for elements of family and criminal law and discriminate against women. Some personal status laws apply sharia regardless of the religion of those involved. Additionally, media and NGO reports suggested the government denied some, and in certain cases all, of these protections to those accused of political crimes, violence against the government, or providing humanitarian assistance to civilians in opposition-held areas. Sentences for persons accused of antigovernment activity tended to be harsh, if they reached trial, with violent and nonviolent offenders receiving similar punishments. For example, the government arrested internet activist Bassel Khartabil in March 2012. He was held for nine months of incommunicado detention, then subsequently moved to Adra Prison in Damascus, where his family was allowed to visit him. In October 2015 authorities moved Bassel to an unknown destination where he was later sentenced to death. According to the SNHR, the majority of those tried received five- to 20-year prison sentences. The government did not permit defendants before the CTC to have effective legal representation. Although activists reported individuals charged under the counterterrorism law could retain attorneys to move their trial date, according to the ILAC, authorities did not allow them to speak during proceedings or retain copies of documents on the court’s file.
In opposition-controlled areas, legal or trial procedures varied by locale and the armed group in control. Local human rights organizations reported that local governing structures assumed these responsibilities. HRW reported that civilians administered these processes employing customary sharia laws in some cases and national laws in others. Sentencing by opposition sharia councils sometimes resulted in public executions, without an appeals process or visits by family members.
According to local NGOs, opposition-run sharia councils continued to discriminate against women, not allowing them to serve as judges or lawyers or to visit detainees.
In the territories they controlled, Kurdish authorities created a legal code based on the “Social Charter.” Reports described the Social Charter as a mix of Syrian criminal and civil law with laws concerning divorce, marriage, weapons ownership, and tax evasion drawn from EU law, but without certain fair trial standards–such as the prohibition on arbitrary detention, the right to judicial review, and the right to appoint a lawyer–that are customary in western judicial systems. The justice system consisted of courts, legal committees, and investigative bodies. In May Urnammu reported arbitrary arrests increased and that some opponents of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) and their families were forcibly disappeared (see section 1.g.).
In March and August, the COI reported that HTS reportedly denied those arrested the opportunity to challenge in its sharia courts the legal basis or arbitrary nature of their detention, permitted confessions obtained through torture, and executed or forcibly disappeared perceived opponents and their families.
In the decreasing amount of territory it controlled, ISIS reportedly established courts to preside over its interpretation of sharia headed by judges with varied credentials. In February the COI reported that ISIS detained civilians in areas under its control accused of violating its rules or suspected of cooperating with enemy forces, members of minority religious groups, journalists, and activists accused of reporting on violations by the group, and frequently conducted public executions without proper judicial proceedings.
POLITICAL PRISONERS AND DETAINEES
There were numerous reports of political prisoners and detainees.
AI and other NGOs reported the systematic arrest of tens of thousands of citizens since 2011. At greatest risk were those perceived to oppose the government, including peaceful demonstrators, human rights activists, and political dissidents and their families. The four government intelligence agencies–Air Force Intelligence, Military Intelligence, Political Security, and General Intelligence–were responsible for most such arrests and detentions.
AI reported that the total number of political prisoners and detainees was difficult to determine in view of the lack of government information and absence of government transparency. Authorities continued to refuse to divulge information regarding numbers or names of persons detained on political or security-related charges, but they did release thousands of death notices of detainees during the year.
According to the Washington Post, lawyers familiar with the process said the Defense Ministry sent the names of detainees to civil registry offices across the country throughout the year and instructed that these prisoners be registered as dead. The deaths were registered across the provinces of Damascus, Homs, Hama, and Latakia.
The civil registry offices issued notices that were essentially executive summaries, reportedly listing few details about the deceased. Military hospitals issued other death notices, formal certificates, and medical reports. These routinely listed the cause of death as heart attack or stroke.
In March the SNHR reported that more than 104,000 persons remained in detention for reasons related to the conflict, including women and children, as well as doctors, humanitarian aid providers, human rights defenders, and journalists.
Prison conditions for political or national security prisoners, especially accused opposition members, reportedly continued to be much worse than those for common criminals. According to local NGOs, authorities deliberately placed political prisoners in crowded cells with convicted and alleged felons and subjected them to verbal and physical threats and abuse. Political prisoners also reported they often slept on the ground due to lack of beds and faced frequent searches. According to reports from families, particularly the Families for Freedom collective, authorities refused many political prisoners access to family and counsel. Some former detainees and human rights observers reported the government denied political prisoners access to reading materials, including the Quran, and prohibited them from praying in their cells.
Many prominent civilian activists and journalists detained or forcibly disappeared following the 2011 protests reportedly remained in detention. While the government released thousands of detainee death notices during the year, there were no known developments in the majority of cases of reported disappearances from prior years, including the following persons believed forcibly disappeared by government forces: nonviolent protester Abdel Aziz Kamal al-Rihawi; Alawite opposition figure Abdel Aziz al-Khair; Kurdish activist Berazani Karro; Yassin Ziadeh, brother of dissident Radwan Ziadeh; human rights lawyer Khalil Ma’touq and his assistant, Mohamed Zaza; human rights activist Adel Barazi; and peace activist and theater director Zaki Kordillo and his son, Mihyar Kordillo.
HRW reported that courts continued to detain activists under the counterterrorism law, referring detainees arbitrarily to the CTC, courts-martial, or criminal courts, if at all. Authorities continued to re-arrest many of those released under earlier amnesties and those who previously signed settlement agreements with the government.
There were few updates in the kidnappings of many persons believed abducted by ISIS, armed opposition, or unidentified armed groups. As of March 2017, the SNHR attributed several thousand arbitrary arrests and forced disappearances to armed opposition groups (see section 1.g.).
CIVIL JUDICIAL PROCEDURES AND REMEDIES
Government civil remedies for human rights violations were functionally nonexistent. In areas under their control, opposition groups did not organize consistent civil judicial procedures. ISIS and other extremist groups had no known civil judicial mechanisms in the territories they controlled.
In the Kurdish-administered parts of northeastern Syria, civilian peace and reconciliation committees reportedly resolved civil disputes before elevating them to a court.
Government security forces routinely seized detainees’ property, personal items, and electronics. The law also provides for the confiscation of movable and immovable property of persons convicted of terrorism, a common charge for political opponents and other detainees since 2012. Security forces did not catalog these items in accordance with the law and, although detained individuals had the right to retrieve their confiscated belongings after release, authorities often did not return the property. According to media reports and activists, government forces also seized property left by refugees and IDPs. The CTC can try to convict cases in the absence of the defendant, thus providing legal cover for confiscation of such property left by refugees and IDPs. The situation was further complicated due to the destruction of court records and property registries in opposition-held areas in the years following the 2011 uprising.
Law No. 10, passed on April 2, allows the government to create “redevelopment zones” to be slated for reconstruction. Property owners are notified to provide documentary proof of property ownership or risk losing ownership to the state. If an individual does not claim ownership successfully during the one-year period, as amended by Law No. 42, the property reverts to the local government. An individual can prove ownership in person or through designated proxies.
In May HRW reported that the government’s adoption of Law No. 10 will lead to confiscation of property without due process or compensation and will create a major obstacle for refugees and IDPs to return home. HRW said that it will be nearly impossible for thousands of refugees and IDPs to claim their property and that the procedural requirement of the law, coupled with the political context, created significant potential for abuse and discrimination, particularly toward the Sunni population. Subsequently, in an October report, HRW detailed how the government began preventing displaced residents from former antigovernment-held areas in Darayya and Qaboun from returning to their properties, including by demolishing their properties with no warning and without providing alternative housing or compensation. The government amended the law on November 7 to add an appeals process, but NGOs continued to express serious concern the law would be implemented in an arbitrary and discriminatory manner.
The constitution and law prohibit arbitrary searches, but the government routinely failed to respect these prohibitions. Police and other security services frequently bypassed search warrant requirements in criminal cases by citing security reasons or emergency grounds for entry into private property. Arbitrary home raids occurred in large cities and towns of most governorates where the government maintained a presence, usually following antigovernment protests, opposition attacks against government targets, or resumption of government control.
The government continued to open mail addressed to both citizens and foreign residents and routinely monitored internet communications, including email (see section 2.a.).
As described in the February and March COI reports and the May Urnammu report, the government employed informer systems against political opponents and perceived national security threats.
The government continued to bar membership in some political organizations, including Islamist parties and often arrested their members (see section 3).
The government reportedly punished large numbers of family members for offenses allegedly committed by their relatives, as indicated in the March COI report. In May a report by Urnammu included the example of a fighter from Idlib; government forces arrested his mother (Bahia) in 2012, as well as his sister (Misa) and 15-year-old nephew (Salim) in 2015, to pressure him to surrender; the three family members remained in detention as of May.
The government, nongovernment militias such as the National Defense Forces, opposition groups, the SDF, and extremist groups such as HTS and ISIS continued to participate in armed combat throughout the year. The government of Turkey participated in armed combat in the northwest of the country. The governments of Russia and Iran, as well as Hizballah, supported government forces across the country. The most egregious human rights violations and abuses stemmed from the government’s systemic disregard for the safety and well-being of its people. These abuses manifested themselves in a complete denial of citizens’ ability to choose their government peacefully, a breakdown in the ability of law enforcement authorities to protect the majority of individuals from state and nonstate violence, and the use of violence against civilians and civilian institutions. Numerous reports such as those by the COI in February and March indicated that the government arbitrarily and unlawfully killed, tortured, and detained persons on a large scale. Attacks against schools, hospitals, places of worship, water and electrical stations, bakeries, markets, civil defense force centers, densely populated residential areas, and houses were common throughout the country. In May the COI concluded that the methods employed in Syria to carry out sieges, as documented by the COI since 2012, amounted to egregious violations of international human rights and international humanitarian law and, in some instances, to war crimes.
As of October there were more than 5.6 million Syrian refugees registered with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in neighboring countries and 5.9 million IDPs. The government frequently blocked access for humanitarian assistance and removed items such as medical supplies from convoys headed to civilian areas, particularly areas held by opposition groups.
Media sources and human rights groups varied in their estimates of how many persons have been killed since the beginning of the conflict in 2011. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) documented almost 365,000 conflict-related deaths and estimated 522,000 total conflict-related deaths from 2011 until September, while the SNHR estimated more than 220,000 civilians were killed during the same time. The SNHR attributed 89 percent of civilian deaths to government forces and Iranian militias.
Killings: The government reportedly committed the majority of killings throughout the year (see section 1.a.).
Reports from NGOs, including reports cited by the United Nations, indicated that the government siege and recapture of eastern Ghouta resulted in mass civilian casualties. The SNHR compiled a list of almost 1,500 civilians killed in the offensive. The COI reported in February, May, and August that government and progovernment forces attacked civilian infrastructure, including temporary shelters, and both makeshift and formal hospitals. Media and NGOs widely reported aerial bombardments that they characterized as indiscriminate, including with “barrel bombs.”
The COI concluded in an August report that progovernment militias committed war crimes on April 8 and 23 by launching attacks killing six civilians near Makramiyah village and the Dhahabiyah IDP site.
The COI also reported in February and August that armed rebel groups launched counterattacks from eastern Ghouta; these counterattacks, in the view of the COI, were not directed against military objectives. For example, in February the COI concluded that Jaysh al-Islam and Faylaq ar-Rahman committed a war crime by launching what it described as indiscriminate attacks against Damascus city with unguided mortars that killed dozens of civilians. The SNHR attributed 30 civilian deaths to armed opposition groups in the first half of the year.
In August the COI concluded that on January 18, Kurdish forces committed a war crime by launching an attack it characterized as indiscriminate by shelling a psychiatric hospital in Azaz and killing a woman. The SNHR attributed more than 110 civilian deaths to the Kurdish forces (mainly YPG) in the first half of the year.
Lebanese Hezbollah (LHZ) reportedly committed numerous abuses and violations throughout the conflict. For example, according to multiple news outlets, during government-led military operations to capture Daraa, LHZ field officer Major Wassim Hourur executed 23 soldiers from the Ninth Armored Division in the Zanamin area after they refused his order to board vehicles and deploy to Daraa.
Violent extremist and terrorist groups HTS and ISIS reportedly committed abuses and violations.
The SNHR attributed 23 civilian deaths to the HTS in the first half of the year. The COI concluded in August that Faylaq ar-Rahman and/or the HTS and Ahrar al-Sham were responsible for war crimes as well as intending to spread terror among civilians with mortar attacks it characterized as indiscriminate and which killed civilians in Damascus on January 22, February 1, and February 6.
Media outlets reported that ISIS killed more than 250 persons in July in Sweida Province, killing persons in their homes and killing others with two suicide-bombing attacks in the Druze-majority Sweida city. Media and HRW reported ISIS kidnapped at least 27 persons during these attacks and cited reports from local media that two of those kidnapped died, including one by beheading. In November government forces negotiated the release of the remaining 19 hostages in Palmyra.
Foreign powers also were implicated in deaths reportedly resulting from indiscriminate use of force.
The SNHR attributed almost 400 civilian deaths to Russia in the first half of the year and more than 6,200 since entry into the conflict. In its February report, the COI implicated Russian forces in a continued pattern of attacks affecting crowded marketplaces. For example, the February COI report detailed how in November 2017, minutes after 2 p.m., a series of airstrikes hit the main market, surrounding houses, and the Free Syrian police station in a densely civilian-populated area of Atarib, Aleppo, killing at least 84 persons, including six women and five children. The COI reported that all information available indicated that a Russian fixed-wing aircraft conducted the strikes and concluded that the attack may amount to a war crime.
There were reports Turkish armed forces killed civilians during the capture of Afrin. For example, in August the COI reported that on March 16, the Turkish air force and affiliated Free Syrian Army (FSA) units continued to escalate bombardments over Afrin city. Witnesses observed fighter jets circling above the Al-Mahmoudiyah neighborhood and described an attack launched opposite a cattle market, where dozens of civilians reportedly had queued in vehicles, waiting to leave the city. The strike reportedly killed at least 20 civilians, including women, children, and elderly persons. The COI assessed that, in conducting airstrikes beginning on January 20, the Turkish air force may have failed to take all feasible precautions prior to launching certain attacks, which it asserted was a violation of international humanitarian law.
Abductions: Government and progovernment forces reportedly were responsible for the vast majority of disappearances during the year (see section 1.b.). In August the SNHR reported approximately 95,000 forcibly disappeared since 2011, asserting that the government disappeared 86 percent of them.
Armed groups not affiliated with the government also reportedly abducted individuals, targeting religious leaders, aid workers, suspected government affiliates, journalists, and activists. As of March the SNHR attributed more than 2,400 ongoing arbitrary arrests and forced disappearances to Kurdish forces (mainly YPG), more than 2,500 to other armed opposition groups, almost 1,700 to HTS, and more than 8,100 to ISIS.
In March the COI reported that members of armed groups detained women and girls belonging to minority religious groups to use them as bargaining chips for initiating prisoner swaps with commanders detained by government forces. The March COI report described a 2013 raid in which Jaysh al-Islam, Ainad al-Sham, and other armed groups took hostage numerous Alawite families and some Ismaili, Shia, Druze, and Christian families from Adra al-Omaliyah, Damascus, and moved them to Douma. The Atlantic reported that government forces secured the release of 200 Alawite hostages from Jaysh al-Islam during the recapture of Douma in April. The COI relayed in August that residents in Afrin reported patterns of arbitrary arrests and detention, beatings, and kidnappings by armed groups affiliated with the FSA beginning with their takeover of certain areas. For example, the COI reported the arrest and disappearance of 29 young men in the villages of Maidanu and Sotio by armed groups. According to the COI, hundreds of members of religious minority groups, primarily women and girls, remained in the captivity of armed groups as of March, waiting to be exchanged for government prisoners.
Local media sources and human rights groups such as Syrians for Truth and Justice reported isolated instances of fighters associated with the YPG detaining some journalists, human rights activists, opposition party members, and persons who refused to cooperate with Kurdish armed groups. In some instances the location of the detainees remained unknown. In February the COI reported that elements associated with the SDF detained several relatives of wanted activists in territories under its control for periods of up to six weeks to obtain information about their whereabouts and pressure the activists to surrender. The SDF also arrested relatives of members of the FSA and ISIS for interrogation and alleged links to terrorist activity. According to the COI, several of those detained were women and children, including a 16-year-old girl and a 10-year-old boy. In March the COI reported that elements associated with the SDF and Asayish (Kurdish internal security forces) increased detentions of men for attempting to evade conscription. The COI also reported that some Kurdish forces continued to detain civilians supporting competing political parties or individuals perceived to be insufficiently loyal. The COI reported instances of torture of political opponents by elements associated with the SDF and YPG. In May Urnammu reported detentions in Kurdish-controlled territories increased and that at least two opponents of the PYD and their families had been abducted–a trend also noted by a September HRW report.
The location and status of Khalil Arfu and Sukfan Amin Hamza from Derek, al-Hasakah Governorate, and members of the Kurdistan Democratic Party reportedly abducted by Asayish associated with the rival PYD party in 2014, remained unknown.
According to the COI and NGOs, the HTS detained political opponents, perceived government supporters and their families, journalists, activists, and humanitarian workers critical of HTS or perceived as affiliated with other rebel groups at odds with the HTS in Idlib. For example, the March COI report described how in July 2017 HTS forces dragged two women from their apartment and down the stairs of their building in Atareb, Aleppo, because they were the mother and wife of a man wanted by the HTS for stealing one of their vehicles; the women remained in an HTS prison as of March.
Terrorist groups conducted kidnappings, particularly in the southwest where ISIS continued to target members of the Druze community and other religious minority groups. According to multiple media reports, in July ISIS kidnapped at least 20 women and 16 children, mostly belonging to the Druze community, one of whom ISIS later executed. The abductions came after a series of suicide bombings that reportedly killed nearly 200 Druze.
In 2014 ISIS abducted an estimated 6,000 women and children, mainly Yezidis, during attacks against northern Iraq and reportedly brought thousands of them to Syria, where they were sold as sex slaves, forced into nominal marriage to ISIS fighters, or given as “gifts” to ISIS commanders. NGOs and activists, such as Yazda and the Free Yezidi Foundation, reported that while more than 2,000 Yezidi women and children have since escaped, been liberated in SDF military operations, or been released from captivity, such returns dwindled during the year, and an estimated 3,000 remained missing. In March the COI reported that in 2016 ISIS began to allow its members who “owned” Yezidis to sell the Yezidi children separately, resulting in the separation of children from their mothers and subsequent sale of young boys as house servants and girls, as young as nine years old, as sex slaves. ISIS reportedly then gave such children Muslim names; consequently, identifying their ancestry remains difficult. Thousands of abducted girls and women, however, remained missing.
There were no updates in the kidnappings of the following persons believed to have been abducted by ISIS, armed opposition, or unidentified armed groups: activists Razan Zaitouneh, Wael Hamada, Samira Khalil, and Nazim Hamadi; religious leaders Bolous Yazigi and Yohanna Ibrahim; and peace activist Paulo Dall’Oglio. Terrorist group HTS released Japanese journalist Jumpei Yasuda in October after three years’ captivity. These individuals were among the estimated thousands of disappearances reported by activists and media.
Physical Abuse, Punishment, and Torture: According to the United Nations and reliable NGO reports, the government and its affiliated militias consistently engaged in physical abuse, punishment, and torture of opposition fighters and civilians (see sections 1.c. and 1.d.). The SNHR reported more than 14,000 individuals died due to torture between 2011 and September and that approximately 99 percent of these deaths were attributable to government forces. The SNHR attributed to the government more than 930 deaths due to torture in the first nine months of the year.
With regard to sexual and gender-based violence, such as rape or assault, as a tactic of war, the COI explained in its March report that during the earlier stages of the conflict, ground operations and house raids gave a greater range of scenarios for government forces to commit sexual and gender-based abuses. As armed groups proliferated and acquired heavy weaponry, government forces began to prioritize airstrikes, thus decreasing interaction between government forces and the wider population. As the conflict progressed, most sexual and gender-based abuses by government forces, therefore, occurred at checkpoints or in detention. When the number of former detainees crossing into neighboring countries decreased, so did the opportunity to establish a comprehensive picture of sexual and gender-based abuses occurring in government detention in 2016 and 2017. The COI added that persons in areas retaken by government forces, often using Shia militias, remained reluctant to discuss events occurring in these areas due to fear of reprisals.
Government forces reportedly continued to use prohibited chemical weapons and cluster munitions in densely populated areas and attacks against civilian and protected objects, including schools and hospitals. In its February and August reports, the COI included evidence that it determined indicated use of weaponized chlorine gas and organophosphorous pesticides. For example, the August COI report and a May report of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) described an alleged chemical weapons attack on Saraqeb. On February 4, at approximately 9 p.m., government helicopters reportedly dropped at least two barrels carrying chlorine in the Taleel area of Saraqeb. Victims reportedly described symptoms consistent with the use of chlorine, including shortness of breath, a burning throat, coughing, dilated pupils, and chest pain, and recalled a smell similar to household detergents. The attack reportedly injured at least 11 men, including three first responders. In its August report, the COI stated that documentary and material evidence confirmed the presence of helicopters in the area and the use of two yellow gas cylinders. Examining similar attacks in Douma, eastern Ghouta, on January 22 and February 1, the COI concluded that government forces, affiliated militias, or both committed war crimes by using prohibited weapons and launching attacks, which it characterized as indiscriminate, in civilian populated areas.
Numerous sources, including first responders from the Syria Civil Defense, reported signs of chemical weapons use in Douma on April 7. The COI reported that a gas cylinder containing a chlorine payload delivered by a government helicopter struck a multistory residential apartment building located near the southwest of Shohada Square. The COI, along with various human rights organizations, reported at least 49 confirmed deaths.
In a September report, the BBC determined there was enough evidence to be confident that at least eight chemical attacks occurred in the country during the year (seven in eastern Ghouta) and 106 since September 2013, when the Syrian president signed the international Chemical Weapons Convention and agreed to destroy the country’s chemical weapons stockpile. The OPCW Fact-Finding Mission in Syria and the now-disbanded OPCW-UN Joint Investigative Mechanism (JIM) concluded that 37 incidents between September 2013 and April have involved or were likely to have involved the use of chemical weapons. The COI and other UN-affiliated bodies concluded there were reasonable grounds to believe that chemical weapons were used in 18 other cases. The JIM concluded that ISIS carried out two attacks involving sulphur mustard, and the BBC reported that evidence suggested ISIS carried out three other reported attacks. The JIM and OPCW have so far not concluded that any armed opposition groups other than ISIS have carried out a chemical attack, and the BBC’s investigation found no credible evidence to suggest otherwise. Rather, the BBC accused the government of routinely employing chemical weapons as a tactic of war, including in at least 51 air-launched chemical weapon attacks, and likely responsible in the vast majority of the 106 cases since 2013.
In addition to chemical weapons, the government also reportedly employed prohibited cluster munitions. In its February report, the COI stated that progovernment forces continued to use cluster munitions, including in densely populated civilian areas on at least three occasions in November 2017 in eastern Ghouta. For example, in one incident three weapons struck a residential area in Hammourieh, eastern Ghouta. When rescuers were arriving at the hospital with those injured by the first weapon, a second weapon reportedly released numerous bomblets hitting the vicinity of the hospital, which was located in a residential area. The second incident killed one man and injured at least 25 persons, including three children. Images of weapons remnants taken at the scene reportedly show components of cluster bombs that Syrian and Russian forces possess. The COI concluded that, in such cases, the progovernment forces committed a war crime by launching attacks in a civilian populated area that it characterized as indiscriminate.
There were also instances of armed opposition groups reportedly engaging in unlawful detention, physical abuse, punishment, and treatment equivalent to torture, primarily targeting suspected government agents and collaborators, progovernment militias, and rival armed groups. Between 2011 and September, the SNHR attributed more than 40 deaths due to torture to armed opposition groups, more than 20 to HTS, and more than 30 to ISIS, including a child and 13 women. The SNHR attributed 35 deaths from torture to Kurdish forces. The COI, SNHR, and other NGOs acknowledged difficulties in obtaining accurate reporting on abuses committed by ISIS, creating an artificial reduction in ISIS abuses. In an August report, the COI stated that significant challenges continued to arise, including: how ISIS prevented civilians from documenting attacks as a matter of policy; how chaos often left victims and witnesses unable to identify whether a given attack was carried out by aerial or ground operations; and how ISIS terrorists embedded themselves and their military installations in numerous civilian infrastructures, including hospitals, thus significantly complicating investigations. In a May report, Urnammu stated that due to the severe restrictions imposed by ISIS on the use of the internet and telephones and the killing of anyone suspected of opposing the organization, it was very difficult to document the number of children kidnapped. Urnammu ceased communicating with activists in their areas after ISIS killed Samer (Abu Jaafar al-Diri), reportedly one of the most important activists interested in documenting detainees and exposing violations.
The COI reported in February that in November 2017 the Nour al-Din al-Zenki armed group detained three civilians, including a member of the Free Education Directorate, in Darat Izza. The detentions took place during clashes with HTS in Aleppo Governorate. During a month of detention, at least two of the detainees reportedly were beaten, kept in solitary confinement, and forced to fingerprint a false confession. Two of the detainees were released in December 2017 after being brought before a “military” judge of the armed group, but the fate of the third detainee was unclear.
Unspecified elements of Kurdish forces also were implicated in at least one instance of abuse. For example, the SNHR reported that Kurdish forces arrested Saleh Ahmad al Yasin from the pharmacy where he worked in Jazrat al Bo Hamid, Deir al-Zour, in April, and that on June 7, his family received his body after he reportedly died of torture and negligent health care inside a detention center.
In March the COI reported deaths in detention centers run by terrorist groups such as HTS and ISIS. There were numerous reports of torture as well as reports the detainees received inadequate food and, in cases of religious minorities, were forced to pray or convert to Islam or both. The COI also noted instances in which the HTS and ISIS detained and tortured individuals passing through checkpoints.
In the territory it controlled, HTS imposed its interpretation of sharia, which the COI reported in March had negatively affected women and religious minorities. Employing sharia courts, the HTS reportedly denied those arrested the opportunity to challenge in court the legal basis or arbitrary nature of their detention, permitted confessions obtained through torture, and executed or forcibly disappeared perceived opponents and their families. For example, in March the COI reported that in 2016 Jabhat Fatah al-Sham stoned to death a woman from Heish village in Idlib after members of the terrorist group accused her of having engaged in extramarital relations. Authorities reportedly apprehended the woman in the home of the unmarried man with whom she was involved and immediately executed her as an honor killing. The unmarried male reportedly was summarily shot and killed immediately upon being detained.
The March COI report also detailed instances of what it described as torture by the HTS and its constituent armed groups. For example, in 2013 in Zabdean Deir al-Asafir, south of Damascus, a male detainee reportedly was tortured and interrogated for more than 10 days, after which he was stripped naked and a man with a Libyan accent made the detainee kneel on all fours and sodomized him with a stick.
In May a Urnammu report detailed the experiences of Shadi, who reportedly was 15 years old when he was accused by the HTS of working for the Coalition. Shadi was arrested, held incommunicado, and transferred to three different prisons, including Al-Aqab prison, during four months’ detention. The Urnammu report described Al-Aqab as small caves at a depth of approximately six feet and height of four and a half feet, from which detainees only emerged for interrogation and torture. Shadi reported being tortured and interrogated for several days at Al-Aqab, including by a method reportedly unique to Jabhat al-Nusra called “the coffin.”
There were numerous reports that the HTS and its constituent armed groups forced members of religious minorities to convert to Islam and adopt Sunni customs, contributing to minority flight from HTS territories. The March COI report described how in 2015 HTS predecessor Jabhat al-Nusra: stormed Druze villages in Idlib; forced community members to convert to Islam; forced all men to shave their mustaches and abandon their religious dress code; forced the women to wear the niqab; urged Druze women to marry the groups’ fighters; and urged Druze men to marry non-Druze women; all of which were forbidden under the Druze religion and customs.
There were widespread reports that ISIS also engaged in abuses and brutality against those it captured in or near the shrinking territories it controlled. ISIS frequently punished victims publicly and forced residents, including children, to watch unlawful killings and amputations, as detailed by the New York Times, a March report by the COI, and a May report by Urnammu. The March COI report described how males, including boys raped by older men, were killed for allegedly engaging in sodomy, and videos of the killings were widely circulated to terrorize populations under ISIS control.
Activists, NGOs, and media reported numerous accounts of women in ISIS-held territory facing severe punishments, including killing by stoning. For example, the March COI report includes an eyewitness account of a 2013 stoning in Deir al-Zour in which Hisbah police made a woman kneel on the ground, threw a cement block at the woman’s head, then threw a succession of smaller stones until she collapsed and her brain matter was visible on the floor.
ISIS also regularly committed abuses against captured FSA and YPG fighters. ISIS fighters reportedly beat captives (including with cables) during interrogations and tortured and killed those held in its detention centers.
ISIS also beat persons because of their dress; several sources reported ISIS members beat women for not covering their faces. One example in the March COI report was that of a woman seven months’ pregnant who, in 2015, Hisbah arrested in Raqqa for talking to a seller while buying gloves. She was interrogated and beaten with a wooden stick while in detention. ISIS justified its use of corporal punishment, including amputations and lashings, under its interpretation of sharia. Because ISIS perceived unmarried women and girls older than the age of puberty as a threat to its ideology and enforced social order, the March COI report detailed a trend beginning in 2014 to marry forcibly Sunni girls and women living in areas under its control. Many Sunni women reportedly were passed among multiple ISIS fighters, some as many as six or seven times within two years.
The May Urnammu report detailed the experiences of Akram, a 16-year-old who, according to his mother, ISIS detained three times on charges such as smoking or not being in the mosque at the time of prayer. Akram reportedly was detained for four months at Jarablis Prison and subsequently at al-Bab Prison outside Aleppo, where he was tortured, indoctrinated in a sharia course, and was not heard from again.
Child Soldiers: Several sources documented the continued unlawful recruitment and use of children in combat. The UN General Assembly’s annual Children and Armed Conflict report to the secretary-general reported a 13 percent increase in the recruitment of child soldiers in Syria in 2017 compared with 2016, with almost 1,000 cases verified. According to the report, 90 percent of the children served in combat roles and 26 percent were below the age of 15. The report attributed almost 300 verified cases to ISIS; almost 250 to FSA-affiliated groups; almost 225 to SDF-affiliated groups; almost 75 to government forces and progovernment militias; more than 50 to Ahrar al-Sham; more than 40 to HTS; and almost 40 to Jaysh al-Islam.
The COI reported that progovernment militias enlisted children as young as age 13. The COI reported the government sometimes paid children between the ages of six and 13 to be informants, exposing them to danger. In the earlier years of the conflict, most of the children recruited by armed forces and groups were boys ages 15 to 17 and served primarily in support roles away from the front lines.
HRW reported armed opposition forces used children younger than age 18 as fighters. According to HRW and the COI, numerous groups and factions failed to prevent the enlistment of minors, while elements affiliated with the SDF, as well as ISIS and HTS actively recruited children as fighters. The COI reported that armed groups, “recruited, trained, and used children in active combat roles.”
In February the COI reported that elements of the SDF continued to conscript and train children as young as age 13 for military service. The COI report referenced reporting that elements of the SDF forcibly conscripted men in IDP camps and arrested some men for refusing to join the SDF. For example, the February COI report detailed that in July 2017 two boys, 15 and 16 years old, enlisted with the SDF in Tabaqah, Raqqa, with the younger subsequently sustaining an arm injury in combat. Although a less frequent occurrence, girls reportedly were also recruited; the February COI report included a teenage girl who was recruited by elements of the SDF in Raqqa in October 2017. In May Urnammu similarly reported the SDF detained and recruited 200 children younger than age 15 since the beginning of 2017. In August HRW reported that elements of the YPG have been recruiting children and using some in hostilities despite pledging to stop the practice.
In September the SDF issued an order banning the recruitment and use in combat of anyone younger than age 18, ordering the military records office to verify the ages of those currently enlisted, requiring the release of any conscripted children to their families or to educational authorities in northeast Syria, and ending salary payments. The SDF order also prohibits using children for spying, to act as guards, or to deliver supplies to combatants. The order makes military commanders responsible for appointing ombudsmen to receive complaints of child recruitment, and ordered punitive measures against commanders who failed to comply with the ban on child recruitment. This action followed a June report by the NGO Geneva Call that the Kurdish YPG/YPJ took measures to address infringements of the Deed of Commitment they signed in 2014 protecting children in armed conflict. The Kurdish forces reportedly admitted their conduct, reiterated their full commitment to the Deed of Commitment, and announced implementation of new measures to their internal code of conduct. These included a new internal investigations mechanism and opening a special office to receive complaints about child recruitment or use in combat. In October Geneva Call trained more than 200 SDF officers in their military academy on the prohibition to recruit children and on the law of armed conflict, and agreed to extend the training to all new groups of officers coming to the academy. In early December the SDF and Geneva Call reported the SDF had released 56 boys younger than age 18 to their families.
According to the COI and Urnammu, ISIS recruited and enlisted children as young as age 10. ISIS propaganda videos depict juvenile executioners from its “Cubs of the Caliphate” unit shooting prisoners at close range. A May Urnammu report describes how ISIS: abducted 153 Kurdish children in 2014; detained the children at a school in Manbai, Aleppo; showed them videos of beheadings and attacks; subjected them to five months of training on ISIS combat ideology; and informed them they would be released if they completed religious training and spread the ISIS vision among their Kurdish communities.
Also see the Department of State’s annual Trafficking in Persons Report at www.state.gov/j/tip/rls/tiprpt/.
Other Conflict-related Abuse: The COI stated in February that siege warfare affected civilians more than any other tactic employed by the warring parties. In a May report, the COI stated that Syrian civilians in besieged areas countrywide were encircled, trapped, and prevented from leaving; indiscriminately bombed and killed; starved, and routinely denied medical evacuations, the delivery of vital foodstuffs, health items, and other essential supplies–in an effort to compel the surrender of those in control of the areas in which they lived. Acute restrictions on food and medicine reportedly caused malnutrition-related deaths, increased maternal-fetal complications, as well as outbreaks of hepatitis, cutaneous leishmaniosis, typhoid, and dysentery. According to reports by the COI, AI, and other NGOs such as PAX, government and progovernment forces were responsible for most siege activity.
All remaining sieges ended during the year, including the government and progovernment sieges in eastern Ghouta (under siege from 2013 until April) and Yarmouk Camp, Damascus (under siege from 2013 until May), as well as the much smaller HTS sieges of Foua and Kefraya villages in Idlib (under siege from 2015 until July). According to PAX the devastation of eastern Ghouta played a decisive role in the surrender of the remaining besieged enclaves in northern Homs and southern Damascus to government and progovernment forces. As with many other government sieges, the COI reported in August that the aerial and ground operations against Yarmouk Camp were carried out by the Syrian army, affiliated militias, including Palestinian militias and the National Defense Forces, and the Russian Air Force.
De-escalation zone agreements reached under the auspices of Iran, Russia, and Turkey called for improved humanitarian access, but as of September government and progovernment forces had retaken all but one de-escalation zone (Idlib). Government and progovernment forces remained prepared for an assault on Idlib, occupied by three million civilians and the last armed opposition forces and HTS, should a Russian and Turkish-monitored demilitarization agreement fail.
According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, half of all health facilities were closed or partially functioning and the conflict has killed hundreds of health-care workers. NGO observers and international aid organizations reported that government and progovernment forces specifically targeted health-care workers, medical facilities, ambulances, and patients, and restricted access to medical facilities and services to civilians and prisoners, particularly in Russian-backed government assaults on eastern Ghouta, Daraa, and Idlib. Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) reported that, from 2011 to September, combatants attacked almost 500 medical facilities, killing almost 850 medical personnel throughout the country. For example, in September PHR reported that government forces attacked three hospitals, two civil defense centers, and an ambulance system in Idlib as government and progovernment forces increased shelling of the last opposition-controlled governorate. The COI reported in August that on April 29, at approximately 10:25 a.m. and again at 10:30 a.m., progovernment forces launched airstrikes against the surgical hospital in Zafarana, Homs. The COI concluded the attacks by progovernment forces constituted a war crime.
February, May, and August reports by the COI, as well as a July report by AI, reported the government deliberately obstructed the efforts of sick and injured persons to obtain help, and many such individuals elected not to seek medical assistance in hospitals due to fear of arrest, detention, torture, or death. The COI found that the government detained many Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC) volunteers and medical staff on the pretext of “having supported terrorists.” According to the COI, the law effectively criminalized medical aid to the opposition, and the COI reported in May that government intelligence and law enforcement agencies forcibly disappeared medical personnel providing treatment to perceived opposition supporters.
In May the COI reported that in some instances between 2013 and this year, besieged armed groups allegedly prevented civilians from leaving besieged areas and used them as human shields against assault by government forces, the Russian Air Force, and other progovernment forces.
In its February report, the COI assessed that ISIS used civilians as human shields in 2017 in Raqqa and Deir al-Zour. The COI reported that in Raqqa ISIS ordered the civilians to move to areas it controlled and actively prevented them from leaving by sniping those who fled and by laying landmines. The COI determined that ISIS deliberately placed civilians in areas where they were exposed to combat operations to render those areas immune from SDF and Coalition attack. Similarly, the COI described how ISIS employed Hisbah street patrols, checkpoints, fines, and corporal punishment to prevent civilians from leaving Deir al-Zour. ISIS reportedly took these actions to render the areas immune to attack from government forces, the Russian Air Force, and other progovernment forces. The COI concluded that ISIS thereby committed a war crime by what it characterized as the use of human shields.
The government and its allies continued forcibly displacing civilians for reasons other than military necessity (see section 2.d.). As detailed by the COI in its May and August reports, government and progovernment forces reportedly offered to evacuate suffering civilian residents from besieged areas only after armed groups surrendered. For example, after reaching local truces in eastern Ghouta in April, evacuations were carried out from the largest remaining opposition-held pocket of Douma. The COI reported that more than 40,000 of those displaced were relocated to overcrowded IDP sites in the Damascus suburbs, while up to 50,000 others were evacuated to Idlib and Aleppo Governorates, where humanitarian response remained critically insufficient. Similarly, a majority of the 10,000 civilians who remained trapped inside Yarmouk Camp until its recapture in May reportedly were forcibly displaced pursuant to an “evacuation agreement.” The August COI report detailed how Russian military police supervised the transportation of approximately 35,000 men, women, and children, on government buses and vehicles from villages in northern Homs primarily to Idlib and Jarablus, Aleppo, in May.
The May COI report further detailed a practice in which, after hostilities ceased and local truces were implemented, government and progovernment forces required certain individuals from the previously besieged areas to undergo a reconciliation process as a condition to remain in their homes. The option to reconcile reportedly often was not offered to health-care personnel, local council members, relief workers, activists, dissidents, and family members of fighters. In effect, the COI assessed that the “reconciliation process” induced displacement in the form of organized evacuations of those deemed insufficiently loyal to the government and served as a government strategy for punishing those individuals. Additionally, various sources reported cases in which the government targeted Syrians who agreed to reconciliation agreements. For example, upon returning to Da’el, Daraa, pursuant to a reconciliation agreement, a former opposition police commander was reportedly arrested by air force security and later found dead with multiple gunshot wounds.
The COI and NGOs such as the Arab Center for Human Rights indicated that–taken together with steps such as the enactment of Presidential Decree No. 10 on the confiscation of unregistered properties–the forcible displacements may fit into a wider plan to strip the displaced of their property rights, transfer populations, and enrich the government and its closest allies (see section 1.e.).
Turkish-backed opposition armed groups reportedly engaged in forcible displacement of civilians and related abuses in Afrin. According to the August COI report, a June HRW report, and NGOs such as the Free Yezidi Foundation and Yazda, numerous residents of Afrin reported widespread looting and appropriation of civilian homes, hospitals, churches, and a Yezidi shrine by members of armed opposition groups and citizens when the armed opposition groups entered Afrin city in March. Witnesses stated that Turkish troops were on occasion present in the vicinity where lootings took place but had not acted to prevent them. Residents reported having to purchase back cars stolen by the armed groups for between one million and 2.5 million Syrian pounds ($2,000 and $5,000).
The COI noted the destruction of Yazidi religious sites appeared to have sectarian undertones, while house appropriations targeted mainly Kurdish owners who had fled clashes. Victims reported cases of looting to a newly established “military police,” which mainly consisted of former FSA fighters, or to committees established by armed groups, both of which reportedly failed to offer any tangible restitution. Turkish-backed armed opposition groups reportedly barred returnees from their properties and informed them that their real or presumed support for the YPG precluded them from living in the area; confiscated homes were marked with graffiti and then used by armed groups for military purposes or as housing for fighters and their families, who arrived from eastern Ghouta via Idlib after its evacuation. If any armed group members were shown to be acting under the effective command and control of Turkish forces, the COI assessed that violations committed may be attributable to Turkish military commanders who knew or should have known about the violations (see section 2.d.).
International media reported widely on government and nongovernment forces attacking and destroying religious as well as UNESCO-listed world heritage sites. The American Academy for the Advancement of Science noted many instances of visible damage to cultural heritage sites. Government and nongovernment forces also pillaged and destroyed property, including homes, farms, and businesses of their perceived opponents.
According to AI and other human rights NGOs, there were instances of property confiscation by the YPG in Kurdish-controlled territories.
According to humanitarian aid workers, ISIS seized property from international and local aid workers at checkpoints that ISIS controlled throughout the country. An ISIS fatwa functioning as law in ISIS-held territories validated expropriation of agricultural businesses from persons ISIS deemed as apostates and laid out rules for distributing the confiscated property to recruits. ISIS and HTS were widely reported to have interfered with the enjoyment of privacy, family, home, and correspondence.