Iraq is a constitutional parliamentary republic. The October 10 parliamentary elections were generally considered free and fair. The elections were observed by the European Union and domestic civil society organizations and monitored by the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq. Domestic and international elections observers cited procedural and transparency improvements to the electoral process over the 2018 elections. They noted, however, that violence and intimidation by paramilitary militia groups in the months ahead of the elections likely affected voters’ choice and voter turnout. The elections came because of widespread protests that began in October 2019 and led to the resignation of former prime minister Adil Abd al-Mahdi in December 2019. Parliament confirmed Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi in May 2020.
Numerous domestic security forces operate throughout the country. The 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 protecting energy infrastructure. Conventional military forces under the Ministry of Defense 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.
The country’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. Although the Popular Mobilization Forces are part of the Iraqi Security forces and receive funding from the government’s defense budget, their operations are often outside government control and in opposition to government policies. Most popular mobilization unit members are Shia Arabs, reflecting the demographics of the country, while Sunni Arab, Yezidi, Christian, and other minority groups tended to organize their own units, generally operating 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 Kurdistan Regional Government 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 2019 and lasting through mid-2020, with reports of more than 500 civilians killed and 20,000 or more injured. During the year sporadic protests continued amid a campaign of targeted violence against activists. The government took minimal steps to bring to justice those responsible for the violence.
Significant human rights issues included credible reports of: unlawful or arbitrary killings, including extrajudicial killings by the government; forced disappearances by the government; torture and cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment or punishment by the government; harsh and life-threatening prison conditions; arbitrary arrest and detention; arbitrary or unlawful interference with privacy; punishment of family members for offenses allegedly committed by an individual; unlawful recruitment or use of child soldiers by the Popular Mobilization Forces; serious restrictions on free expression and media, including violence or threats of violence against journalists, unjustified arrests and prosecutions against journalists, censorship, and existence of criminal libel laws; serious restrictions on internet freedom; substantial interference with the freedom of peaceful assembly and freedom of association; 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; serious government corruption; lack of investigation and accountability for gender-based violence; crimes involving violence targeting members of ethnic minority groups; crimes involving violence or threats of violence targeting lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, or intersex persons; significant restrictions on worker freedom of association; and the existence of the worst forms of child labor.
The government, including the Office of the Prime Minister, took some steps to identify, investigate, and prosecute, but rarely punished, those officials responsible for perpetrating or authorizing human rights abuses. Many senior 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, operated with impunity. The government took some steps to identify, investigate, prosecute, and punish officials who were involved in corruption.
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 prosecutions of allegations of ISIS abuses and atrocities and, in some instances, noted the conviction of suspected ISIS members under the counterterrorism law.
Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person
a. Arbitrary Deprivation of Life and Other Unlawful or Politically Motivated Killings
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.
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).
Arrest Procedures and Treatment of Detainees
The law prohibits the arrest or remand of individuals, except by order of a competent judge or court or as established by the code of criminal procedures. The law requires authorities to register the detainee’s name, place of detention, reason for detention, and legal basis for arrest within 24 hours of the detention – a period that may be extended to a maximum of 72 hours in most cases. For offenses punishable by death, authorities may legally detain the defendant as long as necessary to complete the judicial process. The Ministry of Justice is responsible for updating and managing these registers. The law requires the Ministries of Defense and Interior and the NSS to establish guidelines for commanders in battlefield situations to register detainees’ details in this central register. The law also prohibits any entity, other than legally competent authorities, to detain any person.
Human rights organizations reported that Iraqi Security Forces, among them the Federal Police, NSS, PMF, as well as the Peshmerga and Asayish security forces in the Kurdistan Region, 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.
The law allows release on bond for criminal (but not security) detainees. Authorities rarely released detainees on bail. The law provides for judges to appoint free counsel for the indigent. Attorneys appointed to represent detainees frequently complained that insufficient access to their clients hampered adequate attorney/client consultation. In many cases detainees were not able to meet their attorneys until their scheduled trial date.
Arbitrary Arrest: There were numerous reports of arbitrary arrest or unlawful detention by government forces, including by the ISF, NSS, PMF, Peshmerga, and Asayish security forces. There were no reliable statistics available regarding the total number of such acts or the length of detentions. Authorities often failed to notify family members of the arrest or location of detention, resulting in incommunicado detention if not enforced disappearance. Humanitarian organizations also reported that, in many instances, federal authorities did not inform detainees of the reasons for their detention or the charges against them. Many reports of arbitrary or unlawful detention involved suspected members or supporters of ISIS and their associates and family members.
There were reports of Iran-aligned PMF groups also arbitrarily or unlawfully detaining Kurds, Turkmen, Christians, and other members of minority groups in Ninewa Province. There were numerous reports of 30th and 50th PMF Brigades’ involvement in extortion, illegal arrests, kidnappings, and detention of individuals without warrants. Credible law-enforcement information indicated that the 30th PMF Brigade continued to operate secret prisons in several locations in Ninewa Province, which held unknown numbers of detainees arrested on sectarian-based and reportedly false pretenses. Leaders of the 30th PMF Brigade allegedly forced families of the detainees to pay large sums of money in exchange for the release of their relatives.
Human rights organizations reported frequently that KRG authorities arbitrarily detained journalists, activists, and protesters. These detentions included individuals who came to be known as the Badinan detainees, arrested in Duhok Province in 2020 for exercising their right to freedom of expression. Many were denied access to their lawyers and were not informed of the charges against them, nor were their families informed of their whereabouts in a timely manner. Many of those arrested were held in detention for lengthy periods without being brought before a judge, in violation of the law, only to be released without charges (see section 2.a.).
Pretrial Detention: The Ministries of Justice, Defense, Interior, and Labor and Social Affairs are authorized by law to hold pretrial detainees. The NSS intelligence agency and the Counterterrorism Service, which both report directly to the Prime Minister’s Office, may also hold pretrial detainees in limited circumstances, for a brief period. Lengthy pretrial detentions without due process or judicial review were a systemic problem, particularly for those accused of having ties to ISIS.
The Ministry of Justice ran five pretrial detention facilities, the Ministry of Defense ran two, and the Ministry of Interior ran 17 such facilities. In its annual report for 2020, the IHCHR reported 28,853 detainees held in detention facilities under the authority of the Ministry of Interior, 197 under the Ministry of Defense, and 116 under the Counterterrorism Service, the latter of which reported directly to the prime minister and were in the Counterterrorism Command. There were no independently verified statistics, however, concerning the approximate percentage of the prison and detainee population in pretrial detention, or the average length of time held.
The lack of judicial review resulted from several factors, including the large number of detainees, undocumented detentions, slow processing of criminal investigations, an insufficient number of judges and trained judicial personnel, authorities’ inability or reluctance to use bail or other conditions of release, lack of information sharing, bribery, and corruption.
Lengthy pretrial detentions were particularly common in areas liberated from ISIS, where the large number of ISIS-related detainees and use of makeshift facilities led to significant overcrowding and inadequate services. There were reports of detention beyond judicial release dates and unlawful releases. In May a local human rights organization reported that PMF-affiliated militias ran two makeshift detention facilities in Diyala and Salah al-Din Provinces, reportedly holding more than 7,000 ISIS-related detainees without due process or judicial review.
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.
KRG authorities also reportedly held detainees for extensive periods in pretrial detention (see section 1.d.). KRG officials noted prosecutors and defense attorneys frequently encountered obstacles in carrying out their work and that trials were unnecessarily delayed for administrative reasons.
According to the IHRCKR, some detainees remained in KRG internal security service facilities for extended periods even after court orders were issued for their release. Lawyers provided by an international NGO continued to have access to and provide representation to any juvenile without a court-appointed attorney.
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.
e. Denial of Fair Public Trial
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 provide for the right to a fair and public trial, but the judiciary did not enforce this right for all defendants. Some government officials, international organizations including UNAMI and OHCHR, and civil society organizations (CSOs) reported that trial proceedings fell short of international standards.
By law accused persons are innocent until proven guilty. International NGOs throughout the year indicated that judges in ISIS-related cases, however, sometimes reportedly presumed defendants’ guilt based upon presence or geographic proximity to activities of the terrorist group, or upon a spousal or familial relationship to another defendant. The law requires detainees to be informed promptly and in detail of the charges against them and of their right to a fair, timely, and public trial. Nonetheless, officials routinely failed to inform defendants promptly or in detail of the charges against them. Trials were public, except in some national security cases. Numerous defendants experienced undue delays in reaching trial.
Defendants’ rights under law include the right to be present at their trial and the right to a privately retained or court-appointed counsel, at public expense, if needed. Defendants frequently did not have adequate time or facilities to prepare a defense. Insufficient access to defense attorneys was a serious defect in investigative, trial, and appellate proceedings. This scenario was typical in counterterrorism courts, where judicial officials reportedly sought to complete convictions and sentencing for thousands of suspected ISIS members quickly, including through mass trials.
Defendants also have the right under law to the free assistance of an interpreter, if needed. The qualifications of interpreters varied greatly. Some foreign missions provided translators to their citizen defendants. When no translator was available, judges reportedly postponed proceedings and sent the foreign defendants back to jail.
Judges assemble evidence and adjudicate guilt or innocence. Defendants and their attorneys have the right, under law, to confront witnesses against them and present witnesses and evidence. They may not be compelled to testify or confess guilt. Nevertheless, defendants and their attorneys were not always granted access to evidence, or government officials demanded a bribe in exchange for access to the case files. In numerous cases judges reportedly relied on forced or coerced confessions as the primary or sole source of evidence in convictions, without the corroboration of forensic evidence or independent witness testimony. The law provides for retrials of detainees convicted due to forced or coerced confessions or evidence provided by secret informants, but local organizations reported the law was selectively implemented.
The public prosecution, defendant, and complainant each have the right to appeal an acquittal, conviction, or sentence in a criminal court ruling. Appeals are heard by the criminal committee, consisting of a presiding judge and a minimum of four other judges, within the Federal Court of Cassation in Baghdad. The criminal committee automatically reviews all cases with a minimum sentence of 25 years, life imprisonment, or death. The committee may uphold a decision or overrule it and return the case to the trial court for a retrial or for additional judicial investigation.
On February 16, the Erbil Criminal Court found the so-called Badinan Five guilty of “undermining national security” and sentenced them to six years in prison. Erbil’s appellate court upheld the original ruling on May 4. UNAMI and OHCHR observed the two-day trial and reported serious concerns that basic international fair trial standards were not respected during the hearing. All five defendants alleged in court that Asayish extracted their confessions under torture, but the trial judge dismissed these allegations without further examination. Defense counsel also told the court it was not given adequate time to prepare for trial and had no opportunity to access and review key evidence against the defendants provided by secret informers or to challenge that evidence through cross-examination or by presenting rebuttal evidence.
NGO staff, independent activists, and Iraqi Kurdistan Parliament (IKP) opposition members of parliament called the court’s September and October trial postponements of another 11 Badinan detainees unnecessary and accused the KRG of purposely delaying to fabricate evidence and tamp down public support for the detainees. In their December 22 report, UNAMI and OHCHR called the cases “emblematic” of the KRG criminal justice system and described “a consistent lack of respect for the legal conditions and procedural safeguards necessary to guarantee fair judicial proceedings before an independent and impartial tribunal,” including the use of secret witnesses, and allegations of torture for at least eight of the defendants, which were “dismissed without further examination.” On October 19 and 21, six Badinan detainees were sentenced to a year in prison, on lesser charges of involvement in illegal gatherings and criminal conspiracy (as opposed to the more serious original charges of espionage and “undermining national security”), while a seventh was acquitted. On November 8, the Erbil criminal court convicted the remaining four of undermining the security of the IKR and espionage (the same charges as the Badinan Five faced, although these four defendants received less than the law’s five-year minimum sentencing guideline). The defendants filed an appeal December 6. According to one NGO, as of December at least another 34 Badinan-related activists remained in custody with no scheduled court date and many without formal charges.
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. Prime Minister al-Kadhimi ordered the immediate release of all detained protesters in May 2020, and the Higher Judicial Council ordered courts to comply.
Amnesty: The law 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 providing relief for those imprisoned under false charges or for sectarian reasons.
Civil Judicial Procedures and Remedies
Individuals and organizations may seek civil remedies for, or cessation of, human rights abuses through domestic courts. Administrative remedies also exist. The government did not effectively implement civil or administrative remedies for human rights abuses due in part to the overwhelming security focus of the executive branch on maintenance of law and order, coupled with an understaffed judiciary.
Unlike federal law, KRG law provides for compensation to persons subject to unlawful arrest or detention and survivors of the Anfal chemical weapons campaign waged by the former regime of Saddam Hussein; the KRG Ministry of Martyrs and Anfal Affairs handles such cases. After reviewing and removing duplicate cases in June, the ministry approved an additional 1,300 cases (many historical) that received compensation consisting of a piece of land, 10 years’ salary, and college tuition for one family member, although the government could not always pay compensation due to budget constraints.
Individuals in the IKR and the rest of the country who were imprisoned for political reasons under the Saddam regime received a pension as compensation from the government. While KRG political prisoners’ monthly pensions were approximately 500,000 dinars ($342) plus 50,000 dinars ($34) for each year of being imprisoned, the central government paid other Iraqis a minimum of 1.2 million dinars ($822).
In March parliament passed the Yezidi Survivors’ Law which established a new Survivors’ Directorate at the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs. The Survivors’ Directorate is mandated to provide psychosocial support and restitution to victims of ISIS. As of October 1, the government had neither fully funded nor issued implementing regulations for the directorate.
Property Seizure and Restitution
The constitution and law prohibit the expropriation of property, except for the public benefit and in return for just compensation. In previous years government forces and PMF units forced suspected ISIS members, in addition to members of religious and ethnic minority groups, from their homes and confiscated property without restitution. Although home and property confiscations continued to decline during the year, many of those who confiscated the homes still occupied them or claimed ownership to the property. This factor, among other concerns, contributed to low rates of return for IDPs to these areas.
In June the Iraqi Commission of Integrity (COI) announced that the Integrity Investigation Court in Ninewa ordered the freezing of 844 state land assets that were illegally seized or allocated to various parties until an investigation of their status was completed. There was no information available on the status of the investigation. In May the mayor of Mosul City, Zuhair al-Araji, asked the Police Directorate in Mosul to take legal action against four members of Asa’ib A’hla al-Haq (AAH) who worked in the AAH Economic Office in Mosul, on charges of bulldozing and seizing a plot of land for the purpose of selling it; however, the Police Directorate took no action.
f. Arbitrary or Unlawful Interference with Privacy, Family, Home, or Correspondence
The constitution and law prohibit such actions, but there were numerous reports that the government failed to respect these prohibitions. Government forces often entered homes without judicial or other appropriate authorization.
Authorities reportedly detained spouses and other family members of fugitives – mostly Sunni Arabs wanted on terrorism charges – to compel the fugitives to surrender.
g. Conflict-related Abuses
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.
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties
The constitution provides for freedom of expression, including for members of the press and other media if such does not violate public order and morality, or express support for the banned Baath Party. 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 still-developing democratic political system combined to place considerable restrictions on freedom of expression, including the press.
Freedom of Expression: Individuals were able to criticize the government publicly or privately but not without fear of reprisal. Paramilitary militias harassed activists and new reform-oriented political movements online and in person, including through online disinformation, bot attacks, and threats or use of physical violence to silence them and halt their activities.
Iraqi Security Forces (mostly those under the Ministry of Interior, within the NSS, or from the PMF), in addition to KRG forces (primarily Asayish), 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 Expression for Members of the 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 Sulaymaniyah 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.
Violence and Harassment: Journalists continued to face threats, intimidation, and attacks by militia or security forces.
Government forces occasionally 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 matters, corruption, and government failure to provide adequate services. For example on June 21, security forces confiscated the equipment of media crews of the BMC, Rudaw, and Kurdish Nalia Radio and Television (NRT) to stop them from covering a confrontation between security forces affiliated with the IKR vice president and Sulaymaniyah Asayish. 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.
During the year parliament introduced a revised draft of the Combatting Cybercrimes bill that was the subject of intense national debate. NGOs shared concerns that the law would most likely be used to restrict free speech and the work of journalists, whistleblowers, and activists.
Throughout the IKR there were reports of beatings, detentions, and death threats against media workers, particularly toward journalists working for opposition-affiliated outlets. In some cases the aggressors wore KRG military or police uniforms. On August 11, the local NGO Metro Center reported that while covering public demonstrations protesting the lack of water in Erbil, government-affiliated persons attacked an NRT crew and prevented NRT and Speda TV crews from covering the protest. On July 13, security forces affiliated with PUK co-leader Bafel Talabani raided the headquarters of IPlus TV, a new outlet preparing to open reportedly affiliated with PUK co-leader Lahur Talabani. Security forces held the reporters inside the building for a few hours, following political disputes between the two leaders. The outlet was then shut down and was not permitted to open.
Certain KRG courts applied the more stringent criminal code and laws in lawsuits involving journalists rather than the KRG’s local press law, which provides greater protection for freedom of expression and forbids the detention of journalists. For example, the KRG security forces detained KNN journalist Qahraman Shukri on January 27, and the court sentenced him on June 27 in the absence of legal counsel, on unknown charges. On June 12, the Halabja court sentenced freelance journalist Nasih Abdulrahim to six months in prison on charges of defamation and misuse of a telecommunication device following a lawsuit filed by the Halabja Health Directorate concerning a Facebook post concerning an investigation into a workers’ complaint at the Health Directorate.
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.
On July 14, the Press Freedom Advocacy Association in Iraq (PFAA) reported that security forces had raided and closed the Baghdad bureau of RT (Russia Today), confiscating equipment and briefly detaining Ashraf al-Azzawi, the Baghdad correspondent of RT’s Arabic channel. According to PFAA, the order had come from the Communication and Media Commission (CMC), but the CMC provided no reason for the raid.
Libel/Slander Laws: The law criminalizes slander, blasphemy, and defamation, including the insulting of government leaders. The judiciary, 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. Human rights organizations recommended the government revise the law, which they said was used to silence dissent and calls for reform. In November the judiciary issued an arrest warrant against prominent activist Ahmed al-Washah for defaming Mohammed al-Sadr, the father of Sadrist Trend leader Muqtada al-Sadr, based on Washah’s social media posts criticizing the Sadr family.
National Security: Paramilitary militias in the PMF frequently threatened Sunni and minority communities with terrorism charges to silence their dissent, especially in areas where the militias have taken over local land and economic activities and blocked the return of Sunni IDPs.
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. According to the PFAA, on May 31, al-Tagheer TV channel employees and its owner received death threats from unknown militias in response to a television program criticizing militias in the country. The PFAA also received reports of other threats to media correspondents by militia groups.
b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association
The government occasionally limited freedoms of peaceful assembly and association.
Freedom of Peaceful Assembly
The constitution provides for freedom of assembly and peaceful demonstration “regulated by law,” and the government generally respected this right. Regulations require protest organizers to request permission seven days in advance of a demonstration and submit detailed information regarding the applicants, the reason for the protest, and participants. The regulations prohibit all “slogans, signs, printed materials, or drawings” involving “sectarianism, racism, or segregation” of citizens. The regulations also prohibit anything that would violate the constitution or law; encourage violence, hatred, or killing; or prove insulting to Islam, “honor, morals, religion, holy groups, or Iraqi entities in general.” Authorities generally issued permits in accordance with the regulations.
In June Amnesty International reported its investigation of 14 out of the more than 100 cases from the IKR’s Duhok Province known as the Badinan detainees. Observers alleged the detainees were arbitrarily arrested between March and October 2020 by Asayish and Parastin forces (Kurdistan Democratic Party intelligence) in connection with their participation in protests, criticism of local authorities, or journalistic work. Amnesty International found all members were held incommunicado for up to five months and at least six were forcibly disappeared for periods of up to three months; eight of them claimed they had been tortured or otherwise ill-treated during detention. Amnesty International further documented four instances of harassment or intimidation of family members of these individuals in detention or hiding, including by arrest and verbal threats. A December UNAMI and OHCHR report raised similar concerns. While trials for some Badinan detainees have concluded (see section 1.e), others remained in detention without charges.
Freedom of Association
The constitution provides for the right to form and join associations and political parties, with some exceptions. The government generally respected this right, except for the legal prohibitions against groups expressing support for the Baath Party or “Zionist principles.”
NGOs registered in Baghdad could operate in the IKR, but NGOs registered solely in the IKR could not operate in the rest of the country. As a result, some NGOs registered only in the IKR could not operate outside the IKR and KRG-controlled disputed territories.
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/ .
The constitution and law provide for the freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, but the government did not consistently respect these rights. Law and custom generally do not respect freedom of movement for women. For example the law prevents a woman from applying for a passport without the consent of her male guardian or a legal representative. Women could not obtain the Civil Status Identification Document, required for access to public services, food assistance, health care, employment, education, and housing, without the consent of a male relative.
In some circumstances authorities restricted movements of displaced persons, and authorities did not allow some IDP camp residents to depart without specific permission, thereby limiting access to livelihoods, education, and services. Many parts of the country liberated from ISIS control suffered from movement restrictions due to checkpoints of PMF units and other government forces. In other cases local authorities did not always recognize security permits of returnees or comply with the central government’s orders to facilitate, but not force, returns.
In-country Movement: The law permits security forces to restrict in-country movement and take other necessary security and military measures in response to security threats and attacks. There were numerous reports that government forces, including the ISF, Peshmerga, and PMF, selectively enforced regulations, including for ethno-sectarian reasons, as well as criminal extortion, requiring residency permits to limit entry of persons into areas under their control.
Multiple international NGOs reported that PMF units and the Peshmerga prevented civilians, including Sunni Arabs and members of ethnic and religious minority groups, from returning to their homes after government forces ousted ISIS (see section 6). UNHCR reported that local armed groups barred returns to certain areas of Baiji, Salah al-Din Province. Similarly, Christian CSOs reported that certain PMF groups, including the 30th and 50th PMF Brigades, prevented Christian IDP returns and harassed Christian returnees in several towns in the Ninewa Plain, including Bartalla and Qaraqosh. Members of the 30th Brigade also refused to implement a decision from the prime minister to remove checkpoints, and their continued obstruction led to forced demographic change in traditionally Christian areas of the Ninewa Plain.
The KRG authorities restricted movements in certain areas for nonresidents and required nonresidents to register with the local Asayish office to obtain a permit. These permits were generally renewable. Citizens of all ethno-sectarian backgrounds, including Kurds, crossing into the IKR from central or southern regions were obligated to cross through checkpoints and undergo personal and vehicle inspection. The government imposed similar restrictions on IDPs from Ninewa Province and the disputed territories.
Security considerations, unexploded ordnance, destruction of infrastructure, COVID-19 curfews, and travel restrictions, as well as official and unofficial access restrictions, limited humanitarian access to communities in need. Insecurity caused by the presence of ISIS, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), and PMF groups, central government and KRG access restrictions including requirement of National Operations Center letters approving intergovernorate movement, and COVID restrictions hindered the movement of humanitarian organizations, restricting their ability to monitor and implement some programs for a portion of the year.
Out of the estimated 2.4 million persons in need of humanitarian assistance in the country, in September alone more than 18,000 were affected by restrictions imposed on humanitarian movements, according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). OCHA reported that while there were occasionally location- and context-specific restrictions on humanitarian NGO operations, these were usually temporary and eventually resolved. There were few to no areas where humanitarian NGOs were categorically prevented from working. There were, however, areas of high sensitivity where militias or local security actors were less comfortable with NGOs’ presence, which generally diminished the scale and pace of humanitarian operations in those areas.
In August humanitarian partners reported 21 access-related incidents in 12 districts, with approximately 85 percent comprising administrative restrictions on movement. Additionally, there were two reported incidents of interference in the implementation of humanitarian activities and one reported incident of violence against humanitarian personnel, assets, and facilities. Approximately 41,000 persons in need were affected by the reported incidents.
The number of reported humanitarian access incidents related to lack of national-level access letter authorizations was 60 percent lower than the average reported in 2020. From January to September an average of 21 access-related incidents per month were reported and recorded by the OCHA-managed tracking system, approximately 60 percent less than the monthly average reported in 2020 of 52 incidents per month. Access improved for humanitarian NGOs following the establishment of an online application system for access authorization letters, which became operational in early in the year. These letters were still not universally recognized by all local security actors, and humanitarian actors continued to face challenges, some of which were recurrent in particularly sensitive locations such as Kirkuk Province’s Hawija and Daquq Districts.
The government required exit permits for minors younger than age of 18 leaving the country, but the requirement was not routinely enforced.
The constitution and national policy on displacement address IDP rights, but few laws specifically do so. The government and international organizations, including UN agencies and local and international NGOs, provided protection and other assistance to IDPs. Humanitarian actors continued to provide support to official IDP camps and implemented community-based services for IDPs residing outside of camps to limit strain on host community resources.
According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM) Displacement Tracking Matrix, as of September 30, there were 1,189,581 persons internally displaced, with 182,240 residing in camps and an additional 103,000 in informal settlements, predominantly in Erbil, Duhok, and Ninewa Provinces. According to IOM, 102,372 IDPs lived in critical shelters, including unsafe and abandoned buildings, religious buildings, and schools, which were not safe, adequate, or permanent. IOM reported that 4,939,074 persons returned to areas of origin across the country since the liberation from ISIS.
Following government closures of 16 IDP camps in territory outside the IKR at the end of 2020, international NGOs reported only 41 percent of those leaving the camps were able to return to their previous residence, and thousands of IDPs were forced into secondary displacement. In November the government reclassified one of the two remaining IDP camps in central government-controlled territory as an informal settlement. The camp, in Anbar, accommodated 466 households (2,155 individuals). One-half of the camp population was part of female-headed households, many with perceived ISIS affiliations. The remaining IDP camp outside the IKR accommodated 1,020 households (5,279 individuals) in Ninewa.
After repeated advocacy from the United Nations and the international community, the government agreed to a coordinated return plan for both camps. The government worked with the Sunni Endowment to provide a million dinars ($685) to families who elected to leave the camps. In March the government approved a National Plan to Address Displacement in Iraq drafted by the Ministries of Planning and of Migration and Displacement.
In some areas violence, insecurity, and long-standing political, tribal, and ethno-sectarian tensions hampered progress on national reconciliation and political reform, complicating the protection environment for IDPs. Thousands of families faced secondary displacement due to economic and security concerns. Forced displacements strained the capacity of local authorities in areas with higher concentrations of IDPs.
Families returning to their place of origin often grappled with the destruction of their homes, a lack of access to services, and a dearth of livelihood opportunities. Many returnees were concerned by the prevalence of PMF groups or remnants of ISIS and, in Sinjar, militias aligned with the PKK. Displaced families, especially those with perceived ties to ISIS, including victims and survivors of ISIS crimes, were often unable to obtain or replace vital civil status documents, without which they were unable to work, go to school, or move about freely. In some cases this led to secondary displacement or a return to IDP camps.
In August the Ministry of Displacement and Migration acknowledged that the lack of security, services, and infrastructure in the cities destroyed by military operations in the provinces of Anbar, Salah al-Din, Ninewa, Kirkuk, and Diyala caused IDPs who had returned to their areas of origin to go back to IDP camps. Government assistance focused on financial grants to returnees, but payments were sporadic, and there was a large backlog in responding to applications. Faced with large movements of IDPs across the country, the government provided food, water, and financial assistance to some but not all IDPs, including in the IKR. Many IDPs lived in informal settlements without access to adequate water, sanitation, or other essential services.
Some local authorities also applied government compensation laws in a discriminatory manner and excluded families with perceived ISIS affiliations. Many families applied for but had not yet received compensation, and authorities prevented some families with perceived ISIS affiliations from applying. As a result, many IDPs did not have the resources to rebuild their homes.
All citizens were eligible to receive food under the Public Distribution System (PDS), but authorities implemented the PDS sporadically and irregularly, with limited access in areas that were among the last to be liberated. Authorities did not distribute all commodities each month, and not all IDPs could access the PDS in each province. There were reports of IDPs losing access and entitlement to PDS distributions and other services due to requirements that citizens could redeem PDS rations or other services only at their registered place of residence.
Local authorities often determined whether IDPs would have access to local services. KRG officials asserted that all IDPs and refugees in the Kurdistan Region benefited from access to public services and infrastructure (such as drinking water, electricity, education, health care, roads, and irrigation systems) on an equal basis with the local population, which they stated reflected the KRG’s commitment to safeguarding fundamental human rights and human dignity under pressing circumstances.
Almost a million of the country’s IDPs and refugees resided in the IKR, with approximately 30 percent living in camps and 70 percent outside camps, according to the KRG’s Joint Crisis Coordination Center (JCCC). The KRG hosted 25 of the 27 IDP camps in the country and committed not to close them until the IDPs returned to their area of origin voluntarily. According to the JCCC, as of August, 40 percent of IDPs throughout the IKR were Sunni Arabs, 30 percent were Yezidis, 13 percent were Kurds (of several religious affiliations), and 7 percent were Christians. Other religious minority groups comprised the remaining 10 percent. Despite the difficult economic situation and security challenges that occurred in the region, KRG officials reported that preserving the rights of these minorities was a top priority. Households with perceived ties to ISIS faced stigma and were at increased risk of being deprived of their basic rights. Individuals in IDP camps require government permission to return to their areas of origin, and government officials frequently denied these security clearances for displaced households with perceived ISIS affiliation. Because of this perceived affiliation, these households faced problems obtaining civil documentation and had limited freedom of movement, including the ability to seek medical treatment, due to the risk of arrest or inability to reenter the camps where they resided. Humanitarian organizations reported that female heads of household in multiple IDP camps struggled to obtain permission to move and were subject to verbal and physical harassment, including rape, sexual assault, and exploitation, by government forces and camp residents.
IDPs, particularly those suspected of ISIS affiliation, continued to face hostility from local government officials and populations, as well as expulsion when they attempted to return to areas of origin. In liberated areas of Anbar, Duhok, Kirkuk, Ninewa, and Salah al-Din Provinces, humanitarian agencies reported movement restrictions for families with relatives suspected of ISIS affiliation. An Interior Ministry official estimated the number of those with perceived ISIS affiliation at 250,000. Tribal leaders and humanitarian actors reported that fabricated accusations of ISIS affiliation led to the stigmatization of IDPs. IDPs were also often the targets of stigmatization or discrimination because of familial rivalries or economic reasons, rather than because of affiliation with ISIS.
Many Christian IDPs refused to return to the town of Tal Kayf, citing fear of the PMF 50th Brigade that occupied it and the presence of the Tesferat detention center and court, which the International Committee of the Red Cross reported could hold women and minors suspected of being ISIS family members. Prior to 2002 there were between 800,000 and 1.4 million Christians in the country, but that figure had reportedly fallen to less than 150,000, located primarily in the Ninewa Plain. Only a very small number of the country’s population of 400,000 to 500,000 Yezidis had returned to their homes, with Sinjar having a return rate of only an estimated 35 percent. Many chose to stay in camps, saying a lack of a reconstruction plans or public services, as well as insecurity, discouraged them from returning home.
In October 2020 the government and the KRG signed the comprehensive Sinjar Agreement. It called for a new mayor and administrative committees to oversee Sinjar District, a local security police consisting of Yezidis, removal of PKK and PMF militias, and expanded reconstruction efforts to support voluntary returns of Yezidis still displaced in the IKR and abroad. Political disagreements stalled progress, and the agreement was yet to be fully implemented. UNHCR reported many of the IDPs who initially returned to Sinjar headed back to the camps in Duhok, citing a lack of security and access to livelihoods in Sinjar.
The government generally cooperated with UNHCR, IOM, and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to refugees, returning refugees or asylum seekers, as well as other persons of concern. The government did not have effective systems to assist all these individuals, largely due to a lack of capacity.
Access to Asylum: The law provides for the granting of asylum or refugee status, and the federal government has established a system for providing protection to refugees, while the IKR provides residency permits to asylum seekers and refugees in its territory outside the framework of the federal law. Syrians make up most of the refugee population, and almost all refugees resided in the IKR, which has 10 refugee camps. The system lacked procedural safeguards, including no effective right of appeal, and access was largely nationality-based. The law does not provide for specific provisions for groups with special needs, including children and persons with disabilities but neither does it preclude their access to protection.
Abuse of Migrants and Refugees: Humanitarian protection experts assessed that residents of Iraqi IDP camps were highly susceptible to sexual exploitation and abuse, with conditions further exacerbated by COVID-19-related movement restrictions. Refugees and IDPs reported frequent sexual harassment, both in camps and cities in the IKR. Local NGOs reported cases in which camp management and detention employees subjected IDPs and refugees to various forms of abuse and intimidation.
Freedom of Movement: Syrian refugees continued to face restrictions on residence and movement outside the IKR. KRG authorities stated IDPs and refugees had freedom of movement within the IKR. There is an established practice that enables short-term visits to Syria to take place for a limited number of reasons, upon approval of the KRG. Kurdish Human Rights Watch confirmed the restrictions on residence and movement outside the IKR.
Employment: Refugees and asylum seekers were entitled to work in the private sector. Based on specific decrees and practice, Palestinian refugees generally enjoyed rights akin to citizens but were not able to naturalize or vote. In the IKR, Palestinians were allowed to work in the private sector but were required to renew their refugee status annually. Syrian refugees were able to obtain and renew residency and work permits both in refugee camps and in the IKR, although not in the rest of the country. Central government authorities did not permit refugees with IKR residence permits to work outside the IKR. According to UNHCR, both refugees and asylum seekers without a visa were allowed to work formally in the IKR if they obtained a KRG residency permit and were age 15 or older.
UNHCR estimated there were 46,500 individuals who were either stateless or at risk of statelessness. An estimated 15,000 displaced children lacked civil documentation and faced exclusion from local communities, including being barred from attending school, denied access to health care, and deprived of basic rights. Many of these children born under ISIS rule were issued birth certificates considered invalid by the government. They faced extreme difficulties in obtaining civil documentation due to perceived ISIS affiliation. This was made more difficult as women were unable to obtain birth certificates for their children without their husband present or a certificate of their husband’s death.
These women and children were stigmatized because of their association with ISIS, leaving them at heightened risk of suicide, retaliation, and sexual exploitation. Although some communities issued edicts and took steps to absolve women of perceived guilt associated with their sexual exploitation by ISIS fighters, honor killings remained a risk. Communities generally did not accept children born to ISIS fighters. Absent a consistent, countrywide plan to document children of Iraqi mothers and ISIS fathers, those children were at risk of statelessness.
The Yezidi community more willingly welcomed back Yezidi women who survived ISIS captivity but not children fathered through rape by ISIS fighters. The Yezidi community frequently forced women to give up such babies and minor children to orphanages under threat of expulsion from the community. Women who chose to keep their children faced the threat of ostracization from their community and honor killings. International NGOs provided shelter referrals to some Yezidi women and, in some cases, assisted mothers in finding homes for forcibly abandoned children. Those children that did not receive assistance were without parents, identification, clear country of birth, or settled nationality. The UNAMI reported that although the Iraqi Council of Representatives (COR) passed the Yezidi Survivors’ Law in March, the legislation did not include specific provisions related to the status of or benefits for ISIS-born children and their mothers, especially children born of sexual violence.
UNHCR’s advocacy, legal awareness raising, and civil documentation support continued to be available to persons at risk of statelessness. Documents most relevant to those at risk of statelessness, include birth, marriage, and nationality certificates.