February 3, 2011


Almost eight years after US-led forces invaded Iraq, the country's transition to a functioning and sustainable democracy built on rule of law is far from accomplished. The rights of Iraq's most vulnerable citizens, especially women and detainees, are violated with impunity, and those who would expose official malfeasance or abuses by armed groups do so at enormous risk. Iraq's future as a society based on respect for fundamental human rights depends in large part on whether Iraqi authorities will adequately defend those rights and establish a credible national criminal justice system embodying international standards with respect to torture, free expression, and violence against women and other vulnerable sectors of society.

The 2003 invasion and its resulting chaos have exacted an enormous toll on Iraq's citizens. Over the past eight years, violence has claimed tens of thousands of Iraqi lives and millions continue to suffer from the effects of insecurity. Iraq has made some recent progress as it has pulled itself away from the civil strife that engulfed the country, especially in 2006 and 2007. But terror attacks increased again in the run-up to the March 2010 parliamentary elections and did not abate in the months that followed. Only in November, eight months after those elections, did Iraq's political parties finally agree to form a new coalition government– ending the political crisis that has stunted progress on security and other fronts, including human rights.

Human Rights Watch conducted on-the-ground research in April 2010, visiting seven cities across Iraq and interviewing 178 activists, lawyers, journalists, religious leaders, detainees (former and current), security officers, victims of violence, and ordinary Iraqis. We found that, beyond the continuing violence and crimes associated with it, human rights abuses are commonplace. This report presents those findings regarding violations of the rights of women and other vulnerable populations, the right to freedom of expression, and the right to be free from torture and ill-treatment in the 2009-2010 period.

The Rights of Women and Girls

The deterioration of security has promoted a rise in tribal customs and religiously-inflected political extremism, which have had a deleterious effect on women's rights, both inside and outside the home. For Iraqi women, who enjoyed some of the highest levels of rights protection and social participation in the region before 1991, these have been heavy blows.

Militias promoting misogynist ideologies have targeted women and girls for assassination, and intimidated them to stay out of public life. Increasingly, women and girls are victimized in their own homes, sometimes killed by their fathers, brothers and husbands for a wide variety of perceived transgressions that allegedly shame the family or tribe. If they seek official protection from violence in the home, women risk harassment and abuse from Iraq's virtually all-male police and other security forces. Iraqi law protects perpetrators of violence against women: Iraq's penal code considers "honorable motives" to be a mitigating factor in crimes including murder. The code also gives husbands a legal right to discipline their wives.

Trafficking in women and girls in and out of the country for sexual exploitation is widespread. There have been no reported convictions for trafficking, and a long-awaited anti-trafficking bill is on hold in the parliament, awaiting revisions. Outside of Kurdistan, there are no government-run shelters.

The many women who have fled sectarian or other violence, who have been widowed, or who for other reasons are heads of households and dependent on state aid are particularly vulnerable to abuse. Religious and government institutions are sometimes complicit in their exploitation - in exchange for charity or benefits, widows have been asked to engage in "pleasure marriages," a previously banned traditional practice that critics say is akin to prostitution. The women who are coerced into the practice face stigmatization and have no recourse.

Human Rights Watch calls on Iraq to immediately suspend and proceed to repeal sections in the penal code that allow mitigation of sentences on grounds of "honor" for violent crimes against women.

Freedom of Expression

In the months following the 2003 invasion, Iraq experienced a media boom as hundreds of new publications and television and radio channels sprung up across the country, and Iraqis gained access to satellite dishes and the Internet. But media freedom was short-lived with the introduction of restrictive legislative and other barriers and an upsurge in violence that made Iraq one of the most the most dangerous countries in the world to work as a journalist. While improvements in security since 2008 have reduced the murder rate of media workers, journalism remains a hazardous occupation. Extremists and unknown assailants continue to kill media workers and bomb their bureaus. In addition, journalists now also have to contend with emboldened Iraqi and Kurdish security forces and their respective image-conscious central and regional political leaders. Increasingly, journalists find themselves harassed, intimidated, threatened, arrested, and physically assaulted by security forces attached to government institutions and political parties. Senior politicians are quick to sue journalists and their publications for unflattering articles.

The government should amend vague legislative and regulatory content-based restrictions that curtail the right to freedom of expression, and direct security forces not to harass, abuse, and intimidate journalists.


After the fall of Saddam Hussein, Iraqis hoped that torture as an instrument of state coercion would end. But US and British forces tortured Iraqi detainees at their facilities across Iraq, most famously at Abu Ghraib. And despite knowing there was a clear risk of torture, US authorities transferred thousands of Iraqi detainees to Iraqi custody, where Iraqi security forces have continued the torture tradition. Iraqi interrogators routinely abuse detainees, regardless of sect, usually in order to coerce confessions. Interviews with dozens of detainees transferred from a secret detention facility outside Baghdad revealed the significant shortcomings of Iraq's criminal justice system. Interrogators sodomized and whipped detainees, burned them with cigarettes and pulled out their fingernails and teeth. Yet Iraq's prime minister, instead of ordering a public inquiry and prosecuting those responsible for the abuse, dismissed both our findings and those of the Ministry of Human Rights as fictitious, and suspended the government's prison inspection team that initially uncovered the abuse.

The government should launch independent and impartial investigations into all allegations of torture and ill-treatment, and institute disciplinary measures and criminal prosecution proceedings, as appropriate, against officials at all levels who are responsible for the abuse of detainees. The United States and other governments should assist with legal reforms in Iraq by advising how to amend existing laws so that they are consistent with Iraq's obligations under international human rights standards. The international community should press Iraq to promptly investigate all allegations of torture and ill-treatment and criminally prosecute officials who are responsible for the abuse of detainees.

Marginalized Groups

Iraq today has numerous communities whose marginalization has left them in dire straits.

Although the government has passed laws (including constitutional safeguards) to protect some of these different communities, and in some cases has instituted significant assistance programs, it is still failing some of its most vulnerable citizens, such as internally displaced persons, minorities and persons with disabilities. Many of the government's assistance or protection programs are non-operational or sub-operational, and insufficient to meet the needs of target populations, despite Iraq's international and domestic commitments.

More than 1.5 million Iraqis fled their neighborhoods as sectarian violence tore up their communities in 2006 and 2007. Thousands of internally displaced persons now reside in squatter settlements without access to basic necessities such as clean water, electricity and sanitation. An over-stretched Ministry of Displacement has promised aid, but none of the more than a dozen displaced persons we interviewed had received any. Human Rights Watch calls on Iraq's government to develop a coherent national strategy on refugees and internally displaced persons to facilitate their voluntary return, local integration in places of displacement, or relocation to other places in safety and dignity.

Armed groups proclaiming intolerant ideologies have continued their assaults on minority communities, decimating Iraq's indigenous populations, and forcing thousands to flee abroad with no plans to return. The government has failed to stop such attacks targeting minority groups, including Sabian Mandaeans, Chaldo-Assyrians, Yazidis, and Shabaks. To end a climate of impunity, the government must conduct thorough and impartial investigations when attacks occur and bring those responsible to justice.

Years of armed conflict have resulted in thousands of war amputees and other persons with disabilities. Stigmatized, unable to find work, get adequate medical care, or obtain new prostheses and wheelchairs, persons with disabilities in Iraq find themselves relegated to the margins of society. The government needs to ensure access to education and employment, strengthen health-care services, and establish rehabilitation and psycho-social support facilities.