Regional Government Must End Detainee Abuse and Violations of Due Process
July 3, 2007
The government must punish prison officials and interrogators found responsible for abuse.
Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East & North Africa director

Kurdistan security forces in northern Iraq routinely torture and deny basic due-process rights to detainees, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today.

Human Rights Watch urges the Kurdistan Regional Government to end torture and ill-treatment of detainees in the custody of the security services. The Kurdish authorities should treat all detainees according to international standards and ensure their right to due process and fair trials.

The 58-page report, “Caught in the Whirlwind: Torture and Denial of Due Process by the Kurdistan Security Forces,” documents widespread and systematic mistreatment and violations of due process rights of detainees at detention facilities by Kurdistan security forces. The report is based on research conducted in Iraq’s Kurdistan region from April to October 2006, including interviews with more than 150 detainees.

Human Rights Watch raised its concerns with leaders of the Kurdistan government, including President Mas`ud Barzani of the Kurdistan Regional Government, who created a government committee to carry out inspection visits to several detention facilities in early October 2006.

“Kurdistan security forces routinely subject detainees to torture and other mistreatment,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director for Human Rights Watch. “Although Kurdish authorities have taken serious steps to improve conditions at detention facilities, they must do more to end the practice of torture. The government must punish prison officials and interrogators found responsible for abuse.”

The Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) are the two principal parties in the Kurdistan region, and each maintains its own security forces, known as Asayish. Both the KDP Asayish and the PUK Asayish operate outside the control of the regional government’s Ministry of Interior, maintain their own detention facilities, and have held hundreds of detainees, particularly those arrested on suspicion of terrorism-related offenses.

During interviews at Asayish detention facilities, detainees told Human Rights Watch that Asayish agents had beat them with metal rods and other implements, put them in stress positions for prolonged periods, and kept them blindfolded and handcuffed continuously for several days at a time. The vast majority of detainees with whom Human Rights Watch spoke also reported that they were held in solitary confinement for extended periods. With some exceptions, Human Rights Watch found that conditions of detention at Asayish facilities were severely overcrowded and unhygienic.

Human Rights Watch also found that the Asayish are holding hundreds of detainees in legal limbo without basic due-process rights, including the right to challenge their detention. In the vast majority of Asayish detainee cases that Human Rights Watch investigated, the Kurdistan authorities have not charged detainees with offenses, allowed them access to their relatives or a lawyer, brought them before an investigative judge, provided a mechanism by which they could appeal their detentions, or brought them to trial within a reasonable time period.

Human Rights Watch also investigated several cases in which Kurdish authorities had apparently held hostage relatives of individuals sought for terror-related offenses. In other cases, convicted prisoners had already served their sentences but remained in prison, and detainees who had been tried and acquitted continued to be held. Most had no knowledge of their legal status, how long they would continue to be held, or what was to become of them.

“The Kurdistan authorities must charge detainees with criminal offenses or else release them,” said Whitson. “Detainees must be able to challenge the legal basis for their detention and receive a prompt, fair trial on the charges against them.”

In July 2006, the Kurdistan National Assembly adopted the Law on the Combat of Terrorism in the Iraq Kurdistan Region (Anti-Terrorism Law), which criminalizes a wide range of offenses deemed to constitute terrorism. This law has not clarified the legal status of those terrorism suspects who were arrested prior to its enactment. This includes several suspects arrested in joint sweeps involving Iraqi and US military forces, and subsequently transferred to the custody of Kurdistan authorities.

“The Kurdish authorities must establish clear criteria to assess the legal status of terrorism suspects arrested prior to the Anti-Terrorism Law,” Whitson said. “And they need to appoint an independent judicial committee to conduct a thorough review of all detainee cases.”

During the months that Human Rights Watch conducted research for this report, it held regular discussions with the Kurdistan authorities, and acknowledges the cooperation it received from officials of both the KDP and the PUK. The KDP and PUK both gave Human Rights Watch access to all Asayish detention facilities and facilitated interviews with Asayish officials, prison directors, legal advisers and other relevant actors. Human Rights Watch also acknowledges the seriousness with which the Kurdistan authorities responded to the concerns now highlighted in this report. Over the course of the last year, Asayish officials have initiated partial reviews of detainee cases and released several groups of detainees, most of whom they had held without due process.

While Human Rights Watch recognizes and welcomes the cooperation of the Kurdistan authorities, this cooperation has yet to translate into any discernible improvement for most detainees in Asayish detention facilities and falls well short of the independent and impartial judicial review of the legal status of detainees that Human Rights Watch has recommended as a matter of urgency.