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Iraq

Executive Summary

Iraq is a constitutional parliamentary republic. The 2018 parliamentary elections, while imperfect, generally met international standards of free and fair elections and resulted in the peaceful transition of power from Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to Adil Abd al-Mahdi. Widespread protests that began in October 2019 led to the resignation of al-Mahdi on December 1, 2019, and triggered a five-month period of government formation. Mustafa al-Kadhimi, acting director of the Iraqi National Intelligence Service, secured confirmation as prime minister by the Iraqi Council of Representatives on May 6 after announcing commitments to hold early elections in 2021, provide judicial accountability for violence during the previous year’s protests, bring all arms under state control, and address systemic and widespread corruption within Iraqi government institutions.

Numerous domestic security forces operate throughout the country. Iraqi Security Forces are organized administratively within the Ministries of Interior and Defense, as well as within the quasi-ministerial Counterterrorism Service. The Ministry of Interior is responsible for domestic law enforcement and maintenance of order; it oversees the Federal Police, Provincial Police, Facilities Protection Service, Civil Defense, and Department of Border Enforcement. Energy police, under the Ministry of Oil, are responsible for providing energy infrastructure protection. Conventional military forces under the Ministry of Defense are responsible for the defense of the country but also carry out counterterrorism and internal security operations in conjunction with the Ministry of Interior. The Counterterrorism Service reports directly to the prime minister and oversees the Counterterrorism Command, an organization that includes three brigades of special operations forces. The National Security Service intelligence agency reports directly to the prime minister.

Iraq’s regular armed forces and domestic law enforcement bodies struggled to maintain order within the country, operating in parallel with the Popular Mobilization Committee, a state-sponsored umbrella military organization composed of approximately 60 militia groups, also known as Popular Mobilization Forces; such units operated throughout the country, often outside government control and in opposition to government policies. Most Popular Mobilization unit members were Shia Arabs, reflecting the demographics of the country, while Sunni Arab, Yezidi, Christian, and other minority units generally operated within or near their home regions. All Popular Mobilization units officially report to the chairman of the Popular Mobilization Committee and are under the ultimate authority of the prime minister, but several units were, in practice, also responsive to Iran and its Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.

The two main Kurdish political parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, each maintain an independent security apparatus. Under the federal constitution, the Kurdistan Regional Government has the right to maintain internal security forces, but the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and the Kurdistan Democratic Party separately control additional Peshmerga military units, as well as separate police forces under nominal Kurdish Ministry of Interior control. The constitution also allows for a centralized, separate Asayish internal security service; however, the Kurdistan Democratic Party and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan also each maintain Asayish forces. The Kurdistan Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan also maintain separate intelligence services, nominally organized under the Kurdistan Region Security Council.

Federal civilian authorities did not maintain effective control over some elements of the security forces, particularly certain Iran-aligned Popular Mobilization Force units and the Popular Mobilization Committee. Poorly defined administrative boundaries and disputed territories between the Iraqi Kurdistan Region and the central government led to confusion over the jurisdiction of security forces and the courts. Members of the security forces committed numerous documented abuses.

The country experienced large-scale protests in Baghdad and several Shia-majority provinces beginning in early October 2019 and lasting through mid-2020, with reports of more than 500 civilians killed and 20,000 or more injured. The government took minimal steps to bring to justice those responsible for the violence.

Significant human rights issues included: unlawful or arbitrary killings, including extrajudicial killings; forced disappearances; torture and cases of cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment or punishment; harsh and life-threatening prison and detention center conditions; arbitrary arrest and detention; arbitrary or unlawful interference with privacy; serious restrictions on free expression, the press, and the internet, including violence against journalists, threats of violence, unjustified arrests and prosecutions against journalists, censorship, site blocking, and existence of criminal libel; substantial interference with the rights of peaceful assembly; legal restrictions on freedom of movement of women; forced returns of internally displaced persons to locations where they faced threats to their lives and freedom; threats of violence against internally displaced persons and returnee populations perceived to have been affiliated with ISIS; widespread official corruption; lack of investigation of and accountability for violence against women; crimes involving violence targeting members of ethnic minority groups; violence targeting lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or intersex persons; criminalization of consensual same-sex sexual conduct between adults; and restrictions on worker rights, including restrictions on formation of independent unions; discrimination in employment of migrants, women, and those with disabilities; and the worst forms of child labor.

The government, including the Office of the Prime Minister, investigated allegations of abuses and atrocities perpetrated by the Iraqi Security Forces, including a ministerial investigation of the October 2019 protests, but rarely punished those responsible for perpetrating or authorizing human rights abuses. Impunity effectively existed for government officials and security force personnel, including the Iraqi Security Forces, Federal Police, Popular Mobilization Forces, and certain units of Kurdistan Regional Government Asayish internal security services.

Despite a reduction in numbers, ISIS continued to commit serious abuses and atrocities, including killings through suicide bombings and improvised explosive devices. The government continued investigations and was prosecuting allegations of ISIS abuses and atrocities and, in some instances, publicly noted the conviction of suspected ISIS members under the counterterrorism law.

Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:

a. Arbitrary Deprivation of Life and Other Unlawful or Politically Motivated Killings

There were numerous reports that the government and members of the security forces committed arbitrary or unlawful killings, and nongovernmental militias and ISIS affiliates also engaged in killings (see section 1.g.).

In August the UN Assistance Mission in Iraq (UNAMI) and the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) recorded credible reports of the deaths of 487 protesters and 7,715 incidents of injury to protesters at, or in the vicinity of, demonstration sites from October 2019 to April. A comprehensive disaggregation of those injured was not possible. The casualty findings were broadly consistent with reports from various independent institutions in the country.

Human rights organizations reported that Iran-aligned Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) militia groups engaged in killing, kidnapping, and extortion throughout the country, particularly in ethnically and religiously mixed provinces. Unlawful killings by unidentified gunmen and politically motivated violence occurred frequently throughout the country. In July historian and government advisor Hisham al-Hashemi was killed near his home in Baghdad’s Ziyouna district by two gunmen firing from a motorcycle. No group claimed responsibility for the shooting, but Al-Hashemi had been threatened by the Islamic State as well as pro-Iranian militias.

In August civil society activists blamed pro-Iranian militias for the killing of prominent activist Ossama Tahseen in Basrah Province by unknown gunmen. Tahseen was shot 21 times while security forces reportedly looked on. Also in August unknown gunmen killed female activist Reham Yakob. Yakob, who had previously led all-women protests in Basrah, had harshly criticized the government and pro-Iranian militias via social media before her death.

Government security forces reportedly committed extrajudicial killings. The Iraqi Parliament announced in December 2019 that a parliamentary “fact-finding committee” assigned to investigate the use of violence in the southern provinces had concluded its work and that its final report would be submitted to then caretaker prime minister Adil Abd al-Mahdi, without providing a timeline. The Dhi Qar Province portion of the investigation remained unfinished due to “incomplete statements of the officers.” Ultimately the committee did not release its final report, and apparently no significant legal action was taken against the perpetrators. The establishment of a fact-finding body to pursue accountability for violence against protesters was one of the first commitments of Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi’s government when he became prime minister in May. On July 30, al-Kadhimi stated that violence during demonstrations, as of that date, had killed at least 560 persons, including civilians and security personnel.

During the year the security situation remained unstable in many areas due to intermittent attacks by ISIS and its affiliated cells; sporadic fighting between the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) and ISIS strongholds in remote areas; the presence of militias not fully under the control of the government, including certain PMF units; and sectarian, ethnic, and financially motivated violence.

Terrorist violence continued throughout the year, including several ISIS attacks (see section 1.g.). According to the Iraqi Security Media Cell (a component of the Defense Ministry), the number of ISF personnel killed in attacks during the year was 88, while another 174 members were wounded.

b. Disappearance

There were frequent reports of forced disappearances by or on behalf of government forces, including Federal Police and PMF units. UNAMI/OHCHR reported that from October 2019 to March, UNAMI received 154 allegations of missing protesters and human rights activists presumed to have been abducted or detained.

UNAMI/OHCHR stated in a May report that they were not aware of any official investigations conducted by law enforcement authorities to locate the missing, to identify and prosecute those responsible, or to obtain justice and redress for victims. The government also did not initiate investigations into the abduction and torture of demonstrators and did not prosecute any perpetrators in relation to such acts, including those committed by nongovernment militias and criminal groups.

Local authorities in Sinjar, Ninewa Province, reported approximately 70 Yezidis were confined in secret Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) prisons. Local authorities alleged that since July 2019 PKK fighters had abducted more than 400 Yezidi women residents whose fates remained unclear. Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) security forces did not have direct access to Sinjar and were unable definitively to verify reports. In July the PKK kidnapped two citizens in Duhok Province. The fate of the two abductees remained unknown.

c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment

Although the constitution and laws prohibit such practices, they do not define the types of conduct that constitute torture, and the law gives judges full discretion to determine whether a defendant’s confession is admissible, often without regard for the manner in which it was obtained. Numerous reports indicated that government officials employed torture and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment. Courts routinely accepted forced confessions as evidence, which in some ISIS-related counterterrorism cases was the only evidence considered.

As in previous years, there were credible reports that government forces, including Federal Police, the National Security Service (NSS), and the PMF, abused and tortured individuals–particularly Sunni Arabs–during arrest and pretrial detention and after conviction. Former prisoners, detainees, and international human rights organizations documented cases of torture and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment in Ministry of Interior-run facilities and, to a lesser extent, in Ministry of Defense-run detention facilities.

Human rights organizations reported that both Ministry of Interior and Ministry of Defense personnel tortured detainees. UNAMI/OHCHR reported that some detained protesters were subjected to various mistreatment during interrogation, including severe beatings, electric shocks, hosing or bathing in cold water, being hung from the ceiling by the arms and legs, death threats and threats to their families, as well as degrading treatment (such as being urinated on or being photographed naked). In the same report, women interviewees described being beaten and threatened with rape and sexual assault. A local NGO in June reported that dozens of torture cases were recorded in detention centers in Ninewa, Salah al-Din, Kirkuk, Anbar, Dhi Qar, and Baghdad.

Impunity effectively existed for government officials and security force personnel, including the Iraqi Security Forces, Federal Police, Popular Mobilization Forces, and certain units of Kurdistan Regional Government Asayish internal security services.

Prison and Detention Center Conditions

Prison and detention center conditions were harsh and occasionally life threatening due to food shortages, gross overcrowding, physical abuse, inadequate sanitary conditions and medical care, and the threat of COVID-19 and other communicable illnesses.

Physical Conditions: Overcrowding in government-run prisons was a systemic problem exacerbated by an increase in the number of alleged ISIS members detained during the past two years. In addition three of the 24 correctional facilities managed by the Iraqi Corrections Service–the government entity with legal authority to hold persons after conviction–remained closed due to security concerns, worsening overcrowding in the facilities that remained open.

In July the Ministry of Justice warned of an emerging health crisis during the COVID-19 pandemic due to prison overcrowding. A senior ministry official stated the juvenile prison was holding 600 inmates, despite a maximum capacity of 250. The official claimed the Justice Ministry had tracked 31 positive cases of COVID-19 among the juvenile inmate population as of July.

In June the Iraqi High Commission for Human Rights (IHCHR) echoed the Ministry of Justice’s concerns reporting that the country’s penal system’s facilities suffered from overcrowding and a lack of infrastructure and health services, adding that maintaining social distancing among inmates was impossible, which would turn prisons into epicenters of the COVID-19 epidemic.

In April the Justice Ministry announced that 950 adult inmates and 57 juveniles received special pardons to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 in detention facilities. In August the ministry also announced the opening of a new prison in Baghdad to reduce overcrowding with assurances the new prison complied with international standards.

The IHCHR estimated the number of detainees and inmates in Ninewa detention centers at 5,500 individuals, with the number of juveniles (younger than age 18) detained in terrorism cases at 1,000. Overcrowding in detention centers ranged from 150 to 200 percent of their capacity, especially in al-Faysaliah Detention Center in Mosul. The IHCHR reported the centers witnessed high death rates, including 180 deaths in 2018, 40 in 2019, and 22 as of June.

The number of detainees increased beyond the designated capacity across the Iraqi Kurdistan Region’s (IKR) six correctional centers. The Independent Human Rights Commission Kurdistan Region (IHRCKR) reported the Erbil Correctional Center, built to house 900 detainees, held 1,957 inmates. The IHRCKR reported three inmates with chronic disease died without getting proper medical treatment due to overcrowding of detention centers. Limited medical staff was unable to handle all cases and provide adequate medical services to all prisoners.

Within the IKR, provinces applied parole and criminal code provisions inconsistently. Legal procedures were often delayed by administrative processing, and parole decisions were not made in a timely fashion.

According to UNAMI, the KRG’s newer detention facilities in major cities were well maintained, although conditions remained poor in many smaller detention centers operated by the KRG Ministry of Interior. In some KRG Asayish detention centers and police-run jails, KRG authorities occasionally held juveniles in the same cells as adults. An IHRCKR report stated that as of September, authorities housed more than 50 minors in Erbil Women’s and Children Reformatory Center with their convicted mothers. UNICEF funded a separate annex to the prison for these minors, but they continued to lack access to education.

Administration: The central government reported it took steps to address allegations of mistreatment in central government facilities, but the extent of these steps was not known. Both Iraqi and international human rights organizations asserted that judges frequently failed to investigate credible allegations that security forces tortured terrorism suspects and often convicted defendants based solely on coerced confessions.

Prison and detention center authorities sometimes delayed the release of exonerated detainees or inmates due to lack of prisoner registration or other bureaucratic issues, or they extorted bribes from prisoners prior to their release at the end of their sentences. International and local human rights groups reported that authorities in numerous instances denied family visits to detainees and convicts. Guards allegedly demanded bribes or beat detainees when detainees asked to call their relatives or legal counsel.

The KRG inconsistently applied procedures to address allegations of abuse by KRG Ministry of Interior officers or the Asayish. In a September report on prison conditions across the IKR, the IHRCKR stated that some prisons failed to maintain basic standards and to safeguard the human rights of prisoners. The report emphasized the need for new buildings and for laws to protect the rights and safety of inmates.

Independent Monitoring: Iraqi Corrections Service prisons allowed regular visits by independent nongovernmental observers. In June the government complied with a request from the IHCHR to allow alternative virtual methods to monitor prisons and detention facilities after prison authorities prevented the commission’s inspection teams from accessing these facilities due to the spread of COVID-19.

d. Arbitrary Arrest or Detention

The constitution and laws prohibit arbitrary arrest and detention and provide for the right of any person to challenge the lawfulness of his or her arrest or detention in court. Despite such protections, there were numerous reports of arbitrary arrests and detentions, predominantly of Sunni Arabs, including internally displaced persons (IDPs). In July security forces arrested 20 Sunni alleged suspects after an ISF brigadier general was killed during an ISIS attack in Tarmiya. The detainees were not involved in the attack, had no reported affiliation with ISIS, and were released only after the prime minister’s direct intervention.

In September, ISF units arrested prominent activist Dhurgham Majid and 40 other protesters in al-Hillah, Babil Province, and detained them until the following day without providing a reason for their detention.

KRG security forces detained at least 50 protesters, activists, and journalists in late August in the towns of Zakho and Duhok. Many observers called the detentions arbitrary, either because persons were detained for exercising their right to peaceful assembly, or because authorities ignored their right under law to be brought before a judge within 24 hours.

Political Prisoners and Detainees

The government did not consider any incarcerated persons to be political prisoners and argued they had violated criminal statutes. It was difficult to assess these claims due to lack of government transparency, prevalence of corruption in arrest procedures, slow case processing; and extremely limited access to detainees, especially those held in counterterrorism, intelligence, and military facilities. Political opponents of the government alleged the government imprisoned individuals for political activities or beliefs under the pretense of criminal charges ranging from corruption to terrorism and murder.

A legal advisor at an Iraqi human rights NGO noted the disappearances of at least 75 human rights and political activists who were kidnapped from protest squares and were being held by unknown parties presumed to be Iranian-backed militias.

In May, Prime Minister al-Kadhimi ordered the immediate release of all detained protesters. The Higher Judicial Council subsequently ordered courts around the country to release all protesters. In July the prime minister followed up with unannounced visits to prisons where nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) claimed protesters were being detained. According to local human rights organizations, prison officials were surprised by al-Kadhimi’s visits, during which the prime minister reportedly asked detainees whether there were any protesters among them.

After al-Kadhimi’s prison visits the IHCHR confirmed the release of 2,740 protester detainees. The IHCHR was allowed to visit the remaining 87 detainees, those accused of specific violent acts against government forces, while in custody.

Amnesty: A general amnesty law approved in 2016 and amended in 2017 includes amnesty for corruption crimes under the condition that the stolen money be returned. NGOs and politicians complained that authorities implemented the law selectively and in a manner that did not comply with the intended goal of the legislation, which was to provide relief for those imprisoned under false charges or for sectarian reasons.

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press

The constitution provides for the right of free expression, including for the press if such does not violate public order and morality, express support for the banned Baath Party, or advocate altering the country’s borders through violent means. Despite this provision, media and social activists faced various forms of pressure and intimidation from authorities, making the primary limitation on freedom of expression self-censorship due to a credible fear of reprisals by the government, political parties, ethnic and sectarian forces, militias, terrorist and extremist groups, or criminal gangs. A media environment in which press outlets were closely affiliated with specific political parties and ethnic factions, an opaque judiciary, and a developing democratic political system combined to place considerable restrictions on freedom of expression, including the press.

Freedom of Speech: Individuals were able to criticize the government publicly or privately but not without fear of reprisal. Impunity in cases of violence against the press and a lack of a truly independent judiciary and press regulation body diminished the effectiveness of journalists.

Central government and KRG forces arrested and detained protesters and activists critical of the central government and of the KRG, respectively, according to statements by government officials, NGO representatives, and press reports.

Freedom of Press and Media, Including Online Media: Despite the constitutional protection for freedom of expression, central government and KRG oversight and censorship sometimes interfered with media operations, at times resulting in the closure of media outlets, restrictions on reporting, denying access to public information, and interference with internet service.

Local media was active and expressed a variety of views, largely reflecting owners’ political viewpoints. Media also self-censored to comply with government restrictions against “violating public order” and because of a fear of reprisal by political figures and parties, militias, terrorist groups, criminal organizations, government officials, and private individuals. Political parties strongly influenced, or controlled outright, most of the several hundred daily and weekly print publications, as well as dozens of radio and television stations.

The KRG’s Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) prioritized access to the outlets they owned. In KDP strongholds Kurdistan Television, Rudaw, and K24 had access to all public places and information, while in PUK-dominated Sulaymaniya Province, Kurdsat News, and GK Television enjoyed the same privilege. Conversely, outlets belonging to opposition parties or lacking party affiliation had limited access to public information in the IKR.

The IKR press law does not give the KRG the authority to close media outlets, but in August the KRG closed the Kurdish Nalia Radio and Television (NRT) offices in Erbil and Duhok over the television station’s coverage of protests. On September 9, KRG coordinator for international advocacy Dindar Zebari defended the move stating that NRT violated Article 2 of Law 12 of 2010, which bars encouraging a public disturbance or harming social harmony in accordance with IKR law.

Government forces sometimes prevented journalists from reporting, citing security reasons. Some media organizations reported arrests and harassment of journalists, as well as government efforts to prevent them from covering politically sensitive topics, including security issues, corruption, and government failure to provide adequate services.

Violence and Harassment: Several journalists were killed throughout the year during the course of their work, some reportedly by militia or security forces. On February 11, unknown gunmen assassinated journalist and general supervisor of al-Rasheed Satellite TV, Nizar Thanoun, while he was traveling in his car in the al-Jama neighborhood of western Baghdad.

In addition to those killed, others in media reported threats, intimidation, and attacks. Istiaq Adel, a reporter for al-Sumaria satellite TV, reported she survived an attack on January 30 after receiving several threatening text messages.

HRW released a report in June that cited numerous violations of press freedom and freedom of expression amid widespread protests and during the COVID-19 outbreak. Media workers reported that politicians, government officials, security services, tribal elements, and business leaders pressured them not to publish articles critical of them. Journalists reported accounts of government or partisan violence, intimidation, death threats, and harassment.

Amnesty International continued to receive reports of activists and journalists threatened by security forces. These forces warned them that if they continued to speak out against human rights abuses committed against protesters, they would be added to a blacklist compiled by intelligence services.

Throughout the IKR there were reports of beatings, detentions, and death threats against media workers. In some cases the aggressors wore KRG military or police uniforms. In particular journalists working for NRT were frequently arrested. On August 14, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) reported that Kurdish security forces in Erbil briefly detained an NRT crew covering protests in the city and seized their equipment. Rebwar Kakay, head of NRT’s office in Erbil, told the CPJ that authorities held the journalists without charge for eight hours at Erbil’s Azadi police station, and that the team’s cameras, live streaming devices, press badges, and cell phones were seized.

Certain KRG courts applied the more stringent Iraqi criminal code in lawsuits involving journalists instead of the IKR’s own Press Law, which provides greater protection for freedom of expression and forbids the detention of journalists. KRG officials increased their use of lawsuits against journalists critical of the KRG, including applying laws such as the Law of Misuse of Electronic Devices instead of the IKR press law. In the first nine months of the year, KRG officials from various government offices filed eight independent lawsuits against freelance journalist Hemn Mamand after he posted content on Facebook critical of the KRG’s COVID-19 response. Mamand was arrested twice, in March and again in April, and spent 34 days in detention on charges levied under the Law of Misuse of Electronic Devices.

Reporting from areas liberated from ISIS control remained dangerous and difficult. Journalists covering armed clashes involving government forces, militias, and ISIS remnants faced serious threats to their safety. Military officials, citing safety considerations, sometimes restricted journalists’ access to areas of active fighting.

Censorship or Content Restrictions: The law prohibits producing, importing, publishing, or possessing written material, drawings, photographs, or films that violate public integrity or decency. The penalties for conviction include fines and imprisonment. Fear of violent retaliation for publishing facts or opinions critical of political factions inhibited free expression. The Ministry of Culture must approve all books published in or imported into the country, thereby subjecting authors to censorship.

The Press Freedom Advocacy Association in Iraq (PFAA) released a report in July that detailed restrictions imposed by the Communication and Media Commission (CMC) on media outlets over the past 10 years, which included 128 closures of media outlets, suspension of operating licenses, fines, and forced job termination of selected employees. Since October 2019 the CMC ordered the closure of 19 local and Arab media outlets, most of which participated in the coverage of the October 2019 demonstrations.

HRW reported in April that the CMC suspended Reuters’ license for three months and fined it for an article it published on April 2 alleging that the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in the country was much higher than the official statistics. Authorities lifted the suspension on April 19 amid international pressure.

Libel/Slander Laws: Militias and government officials used arrest warrants in defamation cases to intimidate, silence, and in some instances apparently “flush out” activists and journalists from hiding. An Iranian-backed militia, Harakat al-Nujaba, targeted Middle East Eye correspondent Suadad al-Salihi with a defamation complaint over her reporting on their activities, which resulted in Baghdad’s Karrada Investigative Court issuing an arrest warrant against her on October 22. On November 5, the Ninewa Federal Court of Appeals issued arrest warrants against four media bloggers over their critical reporting on the province’s COVID-19 response. One blogger claimed to have been directly threatened by Ninewa’s provincial health services director. In similar developments in the IKR, on September 22, police detained journalist Bahroz Jaafar in Sulaymaniya following a lawsuit filed by President Barham Salih over defamation charges.

Nongovernmental Impact: Nongovernmental and quasi-governmental actors, including militias outside of state control, terrorist groups, and criminal organizations, threatened journalists with violence for reporting on sensitive subjects. On July 17, dozens of journalists expressed concerns regarding a potential escalation of violence against them by outlaw militias, particularly in the wake of the Hisham al-Hashemi killing. The PFAA reported in July it had documented specific threats by unknown militias against at least 30 journalists during the year. The PFAA also said that it had become common practice to accuse journalists responsible for antimilitia reporting of being agents of foreign governments and encourage violence against them.

Section 6. Discrimination, Societal Abuses, and Trafficking in Persons

Women

Rape and Domestic Violence: The law criminalizes rape and sexual assault of women, men, and children, but not specifically spousal rape, and permits a sentence not exceeding 15 years, or life imprisonment if the victim dies. The rape provisions of the law do not define, clarify, or otherwise describe “consent,” leaving the term up to judicial interpretation. The law requires authorities to drop a rape case if the perpetrator marries the victim, with a provision protecting against divorce within the first three years of marriage. The victim’s family sometimes agreed to this arrangement to avoid the social stigma attached to rape. There were no reliable estimates of the incidence of rape or information on the effectiveness of government enforcement of the law.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, UNAMI reported a significant increase in the reports of rape, domestic violence, spousal abuse, immolation and self-immolation, self-inflicted injuries due to spousal abuse, sexual harassment of minors, and suicide due to increased household tensions because of COVID lockdowns, as well as economic hardship due to the country’s declining economy.

Although the constitution prohibits “all forms of violence and abuse in the family,” the law does not specifically prohibit domestic violence but stipulates that men may discipline their wives and children “within certain limits prescribed by law or by custom.” The law provides reduced sentences for violence or killing if the perpetrator had “honorable motives” or if the perpetrator caught his wife or female relative in the act of adultery or sex outside of marriage. Domestic violence remained a pervasive problem.

Harassment of legal personnel who sought to pursue domestic violence cases under laws criminalizing assault, as well as a lack of trained police and judicial personnel, further hampered efforts to prosecute perpetrators.

The government and KRG also struggled to address the physical and mental trauma endured by women who lived under ISIS rule. Al-Monitor wrote in May that 10 percent of Yezidis living in the Sharya IDP camp were considering suicide. A mental health activity manager for Doctors without Borders told Voice of America in October that between April and August, her organization received 30 reports of individuals who attempted suicide.

The Ministry of Interior maintained 16 family protection units under police authority, located in separate buildings at police stations around the country, designed to resolve domestic disputes and establish safe refuges for victims of sexual or gender-based violence. These units reportedly tended to prioritize family reconciliation over victim protection and lacked the capacity to support victims. NGOs stated that victims of domestic violence feared approaching the family protection units because they suspected that police would inform their families of their testimony. Some tribal leaders in the south reportedly banned their members from seeking redress through police family protection units, claiming domestic abuse was a family matter. The family protection units in most locations did not operate shelters.

KRG law criminalizes domestic violence, including physical and psychological abuse, threats of violence, and spousal rape. The KRG implemented the provisions of the law and maintained a special police force to investigate cases of gender-based violence and a family reconciliation committee within the judicial system, but local NGOs reported these programs were not effective at combating gender-based violence.

In the IKR, two privately operated shelters and four KRG Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs-operated shelters provided some protection and assistance for female victims of gender-based violence and human trafficking. Space was limited, and NGOs reported psychological and therapeutic services were poor. NGOs played a key role in providing services, including legal aid, to victims of domestic violence, who often received no assistance from the government. Instead of using legal remedies, authorities frequently mediated between women and their families so that the women could return to their homes. Other than marrying or returning to their families, which often resulted in further victimization by the family or community, there were few options for women accommodated at shelters.

Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (FGM/C): NGOs and the KRG reported the practice of FGM/C persisted in the IKR, particularly in rural areas of Erbil, Sulaymaniya, and Kirkuk provinces, despite a ban on the practice in IKR law. Rates of FGM/C, however, reportedly continued to decline. NGOs attributed the reduction in FGM/C to the criminalization of the practice and sustained public outreach activities by civil society groups. FGM/C was not common outside the IKR.

Other Harmful Traditional Practices: The law permitted “honor” as a lawful defense in violence against women, and so-called honor killings remained a serious problem throughout the country. A provision of the law limits a sentence for conviction of murder to a maximum of three years in prison if a man is on trial for killing his wife or a female dependent due to suspicion that the victim was committing adultery or engaged in sex outside of marriage. UNAMI reported that several hundred women died each year from honor killings. Some families reportedly arranged honor killings to appear as suicides.

In September, two young women were found dead near the town of Chamechamal, Sulaymaniya, after allegedly being killed by their father. NGOs and activists issued a statement urging IKR authorities to pursue justice for the victims who were thought to be murdered due to their father’s disapproval of their dating outside of marriage.

The KRG Ministry of Interior’s Directorate General of Combating Violence against Women confirmed three cases of honor killing among 26 female homicide victims in the IKR as of September. A UN source, however, observed the number of actual honor killings was likely much higher.

There were reports that women and girls were sexually exploited through so-called temporary, or pleasure, marriages, under which a man gives the family of the girl or woman dowry money in exchange for permission to “marry” her for a specified period. Young women, widowed or orphaned by ISIS offensives, were especially vulnerable to this type of exploitation. In similar cases NGOs reported some families opted to marry off their underage daughters in exchange for dowry money, believing the marriage was genuine, only to have the girl returned to them months later, sometimes pregnant.

Government officials and international and local NGOs also reported that the traditional practice of nahwa, where a cousin, uncle, or other male relative of any woman may forbid or terminate her marriage to someone outside the family, remained a problem, particularly in southern provinces. Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani called for an end to nahwas and fasliya (where women are traded to settle tribal disputes), but these traditions continued, especially in areas where tribal influence outweighed government institutions.

Sexual Harassment: The law prohibits sexual harassment, including in the workplace. Penalties for sexual harassment include fines of up to only 30 dinars (2.5 cents), imprisonment, or both, not to exceed three months for a first-time offender. The law provides relief from penalties if unmarried participants marry. No information was available regarding the effectiveness of government enforcement, but penalties were very low. In most areas there were few or no publicly provided women’s shelters, information, support hotlines, and little or no sensitivity training for police. Refugees and IDPs reported regular sexual harassment, both in camps and cities.

Women political candidates suffered harassment online and on social media, including posting of fake, nude, or salacious photographs and videos meant to harm their campaigns.

Reproductive Rights: Couples have the right to decide the number, timing, and spacing of their children, as well as have access to information on reproductive health, free from violence. Various methods of contraception were widely available, including in the IKR; however, women in urban areas generally had greater access than those in rural parts of the country. A married woman could not be prescribed or use contraception without the consent of her husband. Unmarried single women were also unable to obtain birth control. Divorced or widowed women, however, did not have this same restriction. Abortion is prohibited; however, a 2020 law in the IKR allows for abortion if the pregnancy endangers the mother’s life. In addition to consent from the mother and her husband, a committee with at least five physician must determine if the pregnancy poses a serious threat to her life.

Due to general insecurity in the country and attendant economic difficulties, many women received inadequate medical care. The UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights stated that in some governorates the work of reproductive health and pregnancy care units, as well as health awareness campaigns, had ceased almost entirely because of COVID-19’s impact on the health-care system.

In the IKR the KRG Ministry of Health reported that survivors of sexual violence received treatment from provincial health departments and emergency rooms. Judges, however, rarely considered forensic evidence that was collected. The government stated it provided full services for survivors of sexual violence and rape in all governorates, as the law requires that survivors receive full health care and treatment. Emergency contraceptives were available as part of the clinical management of rape through government services and in private clinics, although advocates who worked with survivors reported many barriers to women accessing those contraceptives, as well as significant gaps in service delivery.

Coercion in Population Control: There were no reports of coerced abortion or involuntary sterilization on the part of government authorities.

Discrimination: The Council of Ministers’ Iraqi Women Empowerment Directorate is the lead government body on women’s issues. Although the constitution provides for equality between men and women, the law does not provide for the same legal status and rights for women as for men. Criminal, family, religious, personal status, labor, and inheritance laws discriminate against women. Women experienced discrimination in such areas as marriage, divorce, child custody, employment, pay, owning or managing businesses or property, education, the judicial process, and housing.

For example, in a court of law, a woman’s testimony is worth half that of a man in some cases and is equal in other cases. The law generally permits women to initiate divorce proceedings against their spouses, but the law does not entitle a divorced woman to alimony other than child support or two years’ financial maintenance in some cases; in other cases the woman must return all or part of her dowry or otherwise pay a sum of money to the husband. Under the law the father is the guardian of the children, but a divorced mother may be granted custody of her children until age 10, extendable by a court up to age 15, at which time the children may choose with which parent they wish to live.

All recognized religious groups have their own personal status courts responsible for handling marriage, divorce, and inheritance issues. Discrimination toward women on personal status issues varies depending on the religious group. The government’s interpretation of sharia is the basis of inheritance law for all citizens except recognized religious minorities. In all communities male heirs must provide financial support to female relatives who inherit less. If they do not, women have the right to sue.

The law provides women and men equal rights in owning or managing land or other property, but cultural and religious norms impeded women’s property rights, especially in rural areas.

Law and custom generally do not respect freedom of movement for women. For example, the law prevents a woman from applying for a passport without the consent of her male guardian or a legal representative (see section 2.d.). Women could not obtain the Civil Status Identification Document, required for access to public services, food assistance, health care, employment, education, and housing, without the consent of a male relative.

NGOs also reported cases in which courts changed the registration of Yezidi women to Muslim against their will because of their forced marriage to ISIS fighters.

The KRG provided some additional legal protections to women, maintaining a High Council of Women’s Affairs and a Women’s Rights Monitoring Board to enforce the law and prevent and respond to discrimination, but such protections were applied inconsistently. Other portions of KRG law continued to mirror federal law, and women faced discrimination. KRG law allows women to set as a prenuptial condition the right to divorce her husband beyond the limited circumstances allowed by Iraqi law and provides a divorced wife up to five years’ alimony beyond child care.

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