Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person
There were numerous reports that the government or its agents committed arbitrary or unlawful killings (see also section 1.c., Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, case of Hisham Mohammed). Nongovernmental militias and ISIS affiliates also engaged in killings (see section 1.g.).
The country experienced large-scale protests in Baghdad and several Shia-majority provinces that began in 2019 and lasted through mid-2020. Sporadic protests continued during the year amid a continued campaign of targeted violence against activists. According to the Iraqi High Commission for Human Rights (IHCHR), 591 protesters were killed from October 2019 until the end of May. For the same period, the IHCHR stated 54 protesters were still missing and that there were 86 attempted killings of activists, 35 of which were carried out successfully.
The government took minimal steps to bring to justice those responsible for the deaths. The prime minister ordered an investigation committee to determine if prosecution should be pursued. The committee is composed of the Ministry of Interior, Ministry of Defense, the National Security Service (NSS), and the operations command where the incident took place. The judiciary also investigated incidents at the behest of families of the victims. Although there have been several arrests related to targeted killings, few cases appeared to have moved beyond the investigative phase.
Human rights organizations reported that Iran-aligned Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) militia groups engaged in killing, kidnapping, and extortion throughout the country, particularly in ethnically and religiously mixed provinces. Unlawful killings by unidentified gunmen and politically motivated violence occurred frequently throughout the country. On May 9, unidentified gunmen purportedly from PMF militias shot and killed prominent activist and protest movement leader Ehab al-Wazni near his home in Karbala. Wazni’s death sparked protests in Karbala that saw demonstrators block roads and bridges with burning tires; dozens of protesters also burned tires and trailers outside the Iranian consulate the same night. The government announced in May the arrest of two suspects based on a third suspect’s confession; the case remained ongoing.
During the year the security situation remained unstable in many areas due to intermittent attacks by ISIS and its affiliated cells; sporadic fighting between the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) and ISIS strongholds in remote areas; the presence of militias not fully under the control of the government, including certain PMF units; and sectarian, ethnic, and financially motivated violence.
There were frequent reports of forced disappearances by or on behalf of government forces, including Federal Police and PMF units. In May UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) reported that at least 20 activists abducted by “unidentified armed elements” remained missing.
c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment
Although the constitution prohibits torture and forced confessions, there is no law setting out the legal conditions and procedural safeguards to prevent torture. Consequently, noncompliance enabled the practice of torture in jails, detention facilities, and prisons to be hidden from effective legal oversight. Moreover, the types of conduct that constitute torture are not legally defined under the law, and the law gives judges full discretion to determine whether a defendant’s confession is admissible, often without regard for the way it was obtained. Courts routinely accepted forced confessions as evidence, which in some ISIS-related counterterrorism cases was the only evidence considered. Numerous reports from local and international nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) indicated that government officials employed torture and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment. Federal Police, Popular Mobilization Forces, and certain units of Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) Asayish internal security services, operated with impunity.
For example on July 28, social media outlets circulated widely news of the death of a young man, Hisham Mohammed, who was severely beaten by police officers during his arrest by the anticrime directorate in Basrah Province. His lawyer asserted that Mohammed had been arrested because of a similarity in his name to that of a fugitive accused of murder. Mohammed died from his injuries after police officers reportedly employed torture to secure a confession. The Ministry of Interior formed an investigative committee, but its results were not published.
As in previous years, there were credible reports that government forces, including Federal Police, the NSS, and the PMF, abused and tortured individuals – particularly Sunni Arabs – during arrest and pretrial detention and after conviction. Former prisoners, detainees, and international human rights organizations documented cases of torture and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment in Ministry of Interior-run facilities and, to a lesser extent, in Ministry of Defense-run detention facilities.
Human rights organizations reported that both Ministry of Interior and Ministry of Defense personnel tortured detainees. According to government forensics officials, some victims showed signs of excessive beating, in addition to bone fractures. Local NGOs reported that deaths at pretrial detention facilities, deportation prisons, and prisons were due to the continuation of systematic torture and the poor conditions in detention centers.
Prison and Detention Center Conditions
Prison and detention center conditions were harsh and occasionally life threatening due to food shortages, gross overcrowding, physical abuse, inadequate sanitary conditions and medical care, and the threat of COVID-19 and other communicable illnesses. In June the Ministry of Justice announced it had carried out a vaccination campaign of its entire prison population against COVID-19. The ministry spokesperson confirmed that prison staff were vaccinated and that there had been no positive cases recorded since May.
Physical Conditions: Overcrowding in government-run prisons was a systemic problem exacerbated by the number of alleged ISIS members detained by the government. The Iraqi Correctional Service, a part of the Ministry of Justice, administered 29 facilities in the country. The Justice, Defense, and Interior Ministries operated 24 detention facilities. In August a senior Ministry of Justice official warned that the overcrowding at Ministry of Justice-administered prisons could lead to the spread of communicable diseases.
In September a senior Ministry of Justice official reported that the five correctional facilities for juveniles held more than 150 percent of their maximum capacity, with more than half of juveniles held for terrorism-related convictions. Local NGOs published photos of overcrowded prison cells and called on the government to improve prison conditions, especially juvenile prisons. According to Ministry of Justice data, in prisons that held alleged ISIS-affiliated women, authorities also detained children up to 12 years old with their mothers. The Iraqi Observatory for Human Rights published photos of juveniles being held with adults at detention centers in Ninewa Province.
In October the Ministry of Justice released 68 juveniles under a special amnesty, and in August a senior ministry official stated that 1,300 inmates, including 86 juveniles, received special pardons to reduce overcrowding.
Across the Iraqi Kurdistan Region (IKR), there were six correctional centers: three for male prisoners and three for women and juvenile pretrial detainees and prisoners. The centers designated for women and juveniles held both pretrial detainees and prisoners, while male pretrial detainees were held at police station detention sections throughout the IKR. The total number of detainees incarcerated exceeded the designated capacity of each facility. The Independent Human Rights Commission Kurdistan Region (IHRCKR) reported in September that the Erbil Correctional Center, for example, which was built to house 900 detainees, held 1,875 inmates. In some detention centers and police-run jails, KRG authorities occasionally held juveniles in the same cells as adults.
The IHRCKR reported that IKR correctional centers suffered from long-term problems of overcrowding, inadequate water, sanitation, and hygiene facilities, use of violence during preliminary detention, and outdated infrastructure at women’s and juvenile centers. The spread of the COVID-19 pandemic also adversely affected prisoners’ health, and several died in custody. Limited medical staff was unable to provide adequate medical services to all prisoners.
Administration: The government reported it took steps to address allegations of mistreatment in government-administered prison and detention facilities, but the extent of these steps was not known. Both local and international human rights organizations asserted that judges frequently failed to investigate credible allegations that security forces tortured terrorism suspects and often convicted defendants based solely on coerced confessions. In addition, despite their concerns being raised, authorities ignored physical signs of torture, and the complaints procedures appeared to be neither fair nor effective. Many detainees chose not to report such treatment due to a lack of trust or fear of reprisals.
Prison and detention center authorities sometimes delayed the release of exonerated detainees or inmates due to lack of prisoner registration or other bureaucratic problems, or they extorted bribes from prisoners prior to their release at the end of their sentences. International and local human rights groups reported that authorities in numerous instances denied family visits to detainees and convicts. Guards allegedly demanded bribes or beat detainees when detainees asked to call their relatives or legal counsel.
The KRG inconsistently applied procedures to address allegations of abuse by KRG Ministry of Interior officers or the Asayish security forces. The United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI) reported in August and December some IKR prisons failed to respect basic standards and procedural safeguards and that the mechanisms in place to receive complaints of torture did not appear to be effective or to provide remedy.
Independent Monitoring: Corrections Service prisons allowed regular visits by independent nongovernmental observers. Following virtual monitoring visits due to COVID-19 in 2020, observers during the year again were permitted physical visits to prisons. While such visits were irregular due to COVID-19 concerns early in the year, by December the Ministry of Justice reported 40 visits to adult correctional facilities and 20 visits to juvenile correctional facilities had taken place. Visits also included the provision of technical, health, and training support.
The constitution and laws prohibit arbitrary arrest and detention and provide for the right of any person to challenge the lawfulness of his or her arrest or detention in court. Despite such protections there were numerous reports of arbitrary arrests and detentions, predominantly of Sunni Arabs, including internally displaced persons (IDPs).
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. NGOs widely reported detainees had limited ability to challenge the lawfulness of detention before a court and that a bribe was often necessary to have charges dropped unlawfully or gain release from arbitrary detention. While compensation is a constitutional right, the law does not allow for compensation for a person found to have been unlawfully detained.
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 matters related to federalism and the constitution, and a separate Higher Judicial Council manages and supervises the court system, including disciplinary matters. The parliament amended the Federal Supreme Court law in March and replaced the entire Supreme Court bench in April. The amended law was criticized by both political parties and civil society for formalizing politicized and sectarian appointments to the court, while minority and other civil society groups blocked an effort by Islamist parties to add Islamic jurists to the bench. The amendment and replacement process also removed the only Christian judge from the bench and created a new secretary general position, without voting powers, that was filled by a Christian judge.
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 January unknown gunmen killed the head of the Dhi Qar Advocates Chamber, Ali al-Hamami, while another lawyer survived an attempted killing two days later in the same province.
The Kurdistan Judicial Council is legally, financially, and administratively independent from the KRG Ministry of Justice, but KRG senior leaders reportedly influenced politically sensitive cases. The IKR’s strongest political parties also reportedly influenced judicial appointments and rulings. A December 22 joint UNAMI and OHCHR report raised concerns regarding documented statements by KRG officials that “may amount to undue influence in the judicial process, including over the outcome of any subsequent appeal proceedings.”
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.
Authorities reportedly detained spouses and other family members of fugitives – mostly Sunni Arabs wanted on terrorism charges – to compel the fugitives to surrender.
Killings: Iraq Body Count, an independent NGO that records civilian deaths in the country, reported 417 civilians killed during the year due to internal conflict, a drop from 848 civilian deaths reported in 2020. An IHCHR commissioner attributed the drop in deaths to reduced protest activity.
Despite its territorial defeat in 2017, ISIS remained a major perpetrator of abuses and atrocities. The remaining fighters operated out of sleeper cells and strike teams that carried out sniper attacks, ambushes, kidnappings, and killings against security forces and community leaders. These abuses were particularly evident in Anbar, Baghdad, Diyala, Kirkuk, Ninewa, and Salah al-Din Provinces. On March 13, ISIS claimed responsibility for killing seven members of a single family in the Albu Dor region south of Tikrit in Salah al-Din Province.
Abductions: There were frequent reports of enforced disappearances by or on behalf of government forces, including the ISF and PMF, as well as non-PMF militias and criminal groups.
A 2020 UNAMI report released and shared with government officials on enforced disappearances in Anbar Province called for independent and effective investigations to establish the fate of approximately 1,000 civilian men and boys who disappeared during military operations against ISIS in Anbar during 2015-16. As of October the IHCHR had not received any information regarding these individuals, and the government had not added the names to their databases of known missing persons.
On August 1, the KRG Office for Rescuing Kidnapped Yezidis stated that 2,763 (1,293 women and 1,470 men) of the 6,417 Yezidis kidnapped by ISIS in 2014 remained missing.
Members of other minority populations were also victims of human rights abuses committed by ISIS forces. In February Ali Hussein of the Iraqi Turkmen Front reported a revised estimate of kidnapped Turkmen at 1,300 since 2014. Among the abductees, 470 were women, 130 children, and 700 men.
Physical Abuse, Punishment, and Torture: Reports from international human rights groups stated that government forces, including Federal Police, NSS, PMF, and Asayish, abused prisoners and detainees, particularly Sunni Arabs. In May, Afad Center for Human Rights reported that the detainees who were most frequently subjected to torture were Sunnis from the northern and western provinces, Baghdad belt region, and other areas that were subjected to ISIS occupation.
Child Soldiers: There was one verified report of recruitment and use of children by the Popular Mobilization Forces. The government and Shia religious leaders expressly prohibited children younger than 18 from serving in combat.
In previous years ISIS was reported to have recruited and used children in combat and support functions. Due in part to ISIS’ territorial defeat, little information was available on its use of children in the country during the year.
In August the United Nations Security Council Working Group on Children and Armed Conflict published its annual report on children and armed conflict, in which the UN Secretary General commended the government for its continuing discussion with the United Nations on developing an action plan to prevent the recruitment and use of children by the Popular Mobilization Forces; however, it noted that one new case of recruitment and use of a child soldier by the Popular Mobilization Forces was verified.
See also the Department of State’s annual Trafficking in Persons Report at https://www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report/.
Other Conflict-related Abuse: Conflict disrupted the lives of hundreds of thousands of persons throughout the country, particularly in Baghdad, Anbar, Diyala, Salah al-Din, and Ninewa Provinces.
Government forces, including the ISF and PMF, established or maintained roadblocks that reportedly impeded the flow of humanitarian assistance to communities in need, particularly in disputed territories such as the Ninewa Plain and Sinjar in Ninewa Province. ISIS continued to attack religious observances, including funerals, and civilian electricity and other infrastructure. In 2017 the UN Security Council, in cooperation with the government, established the UN Investigative Team to Promote Accountability for Crimes Committed by Da’esh/ISIL (UNITAD) to support domestic efforts to hold ISIS accountable by collecting, preserving, and storing evidence, to the highest possible standards, of acts that may amount to war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide committed by ISIS.
In May Special Adviser Karim Khan presented to the UN Security Council that UNITAD had established “clear and convincing evidence” that the crimes committed by ISIS against the Yezidis constituted genocide. UNITAD reported that ISIS was “responsible for acts of extermination, murder, rape, torture, enslavement, persecution, and other war crimes and crimes against humanity perpetrated against the Yezidis.” In September the UN Security Council extended UNITAD’s mandate for another year. In October government authorities, in cooperation with UNITAD, completed the excavation of a mass grave site in Bir Mantiqa al-Halwat, Anbar Province, where ISIS atrocities had reportedly occurred in 2014. The general director of mass graves at the IKR Ministry of Martyrs and Anfal Affairs confirmed in a public statement on December 8 that there were 90 mass graves in the Sinjar region. UNITAD-supported exhumation and identification activities continued throughout the year.
Militias and local authorities in some areas, including Ninewa and Diyala Provinces, tried to exercise control over NGO activities and staff recruitment. During August two humanitarian organizations reported to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs that security actors requested names and personnel details of employees as a condition for continuing humanitarian operations.
There were reports of physical harm to humanitarian staff operating in the country. Three staff of an international NGO were reportedly injured during Turkish military operations in and around Sinjar, Ninewa Province in August. Press outlets reported that these Turkish operations included airstrikes on what may have been a makeshift medical facility, killing four medical staff in addition to members of a militia affiliated with both the PKK and elements of the Iraqi Popular Mobilization Forces.