Villagers Describe Finding Bodies of 4 Men, Boy
June 11, 2013
The apparent police role in the machine gun execution of four men and a boy requires an immediate investigation and the prosecution of those responsible. That these killings may have been committed by a unit under a commander once implicated in torture shows why abuses can’t be swept under the rug and forgotten.
Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director

(Baghdad) – Iraqi authorities should immediately investigate evidence that federal police executed four men and a 15-year-old boy on May 3, 2013, south of Mosul. Witnesses last saw the victims in the custody of the federal police 3rd Division, commanded by Gen. Mehdi Gharawi, who had been removed from his post as a federal police commander following claims he was implicated in torture and other abuses but was later reinstated. 

Villagers found the bodies of the five in a field three kilometers from East Mustantiq village on May 11, near where federal police were seen taking them immediately after their arrest. A witness said the bodies had multiple large gunshot wounds, and machine gun shells were found in the vicinity. But photos leaked to the media by a police officer show police officers with the bodies in a less decomposed state than they were when the villagers found them.

“The apparent police role in the machine gun execution of four men and a boy requires an immediate investigation and the prosecution of those responsible,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “That these killings may have been committed by a unit under a commander once implicated in torture shows why abuses can’t be swept under the rug and forgotten.”

Relatives of the victims and residents in East Mustantiq told Human Rights Watch that on May 3 a joint convoy of army soldiers and police from the federal police “Belt of Ninewa” brigade, a unit of the 3rd Division that controls areas south and west of Mosul, surrounded the village and asked residents whether it was West Mustantiq. When they said no, the army left, but federal police swept the village searching houses and barns, and arrested eight people without warrants, including the five who were later killed.

Witnesses in East Mustantiq said they last saw the four men and boy from the same extended family working on the plumbing of a house when federal police arrested them just after 4 p.m. They said they saw federal police park their vehicles in front of the house under construction, approach the men working there, ask for their identification, and then arrest them.

Security forces also raided surrounding villages and arrested dozens of others, including at least three other boys aged 12, 13, and 14. Two of the people arrested at the same time as the five victims were released shortly afterward, and the third two days later. A witness who was detained and later released said that of the boys who were arrested, the 12- and 13-year-old remain in detention. Human Rights Watch expressed concern over the arrests of children and called on federal police to immediately release any boys they still have in custody.

The security forces provided no explanations for the arrests and raids. A family member told Human Rights Watch that officers threatened at gunpoint anyone who tried to intervene, ordering them to “stay away.” He said that those taken into custody were told by the police that they would be held for a short time for questioning, but, he said, “we never heard from them again.” “[Days later] we were told that bodies of our murdered relatives were found and that they had been lying in a field for about a week,” the family member said.   

Family members identified the victims as Karam Ahmer Mahmud, 15; his two uncles, Salim Mahmud Salim, 20, and Ahmed Mahmud Salim, 30; and his two cousins, Shaqer Shahatha Humathi, 21, and Ahmed Mahmud Hassan, 33.

Witness accounts vary, but villagers and detainees who were later released said federal police arrested between 31 and 60 people, including at least four children, in East Mustantiq and surrounding villages that day. One former detainee told Human Rights Watch that police took several men to an open field about a kilometer from where the bodies were found. He said the police blindfolded the men and tied their hands behind their backs, and then drove them to another site close by. He said they heard several minutes of shooting. A few minutes later, police drove him and several others, including three boys aged 12, 13 and 14, to a police station, where they detained him for two days and beat, kicked, and hung him from the ceiling, he said.

A lawyer with knowledge of the case said that relatives of the victims first contacted the nearby Hamam al-Alil Police Station on the morning of May 12, after learning that villagers had found their relatives’ bodies the evening before. According to the lawyer, the local police refused to collect the bodies, saying the area was too dangerous, but they did provide permits for local ambulances to collect the bodies.

Video and photographic evidence indicates that the federal police knew where the bodies were but did not inform the victims’ families, Human Rights Watch said. Videos villagers took with mobile phones after they found the five bodies on May 11 show visibly decomposing bodies with their arms tied behind their backs. Family members said the clothing on the victims’ bodies matched the clothing the victims were wearing when federal police arrested them.

Human Rights Watch also viewed photos broadcast by the Iraqi media, which were reported to have been leaked by a federal police officer. The photos show several federal police officers standing next to the bodies, which are dressed in the same clothes and lying in similar positions, with their hands tied. The bodies in the photos do not appear to show the signs of decomposition visible in villagers’ videos, indicating the photos were taken closer to the time of death.

Villagers said they found a large number of bullet shells from what are known as PKC machine guns near the bodies. Government forensic doctors informed family members that the victims were shot from about two meters away, likely by a PKC machine gun, and estimated that they were killed the day they were arrested. The lawyer said that the hospital and the court had refused to release death certificates or medical reports for the five victims.

Security forces released most of those arrested on May 3, but those who remain in custody are being held incommunicado and have yet to be brought before a judge. Human Rights Watch is concerned for the safety of those being held, particularly for the safety of two boys aged 12 and 13 who are still being held incommunicado. Detainees’ families told Human Rights Watch in late May that the authorities have not told them of their relatives’ whereabouts.

A judicial official informed Human Rights Watch that a lower court referred the case of the arrests and the five deaths to an appeals court with a request to appoint a five-judge committee to investigate. Human Rights Watch could not confirm whether such action had been taken.

The federal police “Belt of Ninewa” brigade is a unit of the 3rd Division, commanded by Gharawi. Gharawi had been removed from the federal police in 2006 amid allegations that he oversaw incommunicado detentions and torture of detainees at a secret facility. A US embassy cable obtained by WikiLeaks says that in 2007 Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki blocked an arrest warrant for Gharawi, then a commander of the federal police 2nd Division. In 2011 al-Maliki appointed him to head the federal police 3rd Division in Mosul. The Iraqi government should investigate Gharawi’s re-appointment, Human Rights Watch said.

Mosul’s federal police have been implicated on numerous occasions in using excessive force, conducting arbitrary arrests, and mistreating detainees. In March, Human Rights Watch documented an episode in which 3rd Division police fired on peaceful demonstrators in Mosul, killing at least one person. Gharawi told the media that police fired on demonstrators trying to burn a riot police car, and that the man shot had in fact been killed elsewhere and brought to the protest square. He presented no evidence to support these claims.

At the time, a sheikh who organized demonstrations in Mosul told Human Rights Watch that the 3rd Division regularly provoked and insulted protesters and told them to “come and kiss the shoes of Gharawi.”

The latest allegations of killings by Iraqi security forces come amid a spike of attacks on civilians, security forces, and government officials. According to figures released by the United Nations Assistance Mission in Iraq (UNAMI), 1,757 Iraqis were killed by acts of violence and terrorism in April and May, a higher number of Iraqi casualties than in any months since June 2008.

“The latest federal police raids and alleged killings show the danger of letting abusive forces run rampant,” Whitson said. “The police need to be providing security for the population, not insecurity.”

For accounts of abuse by Mosul’s federal police forces, see below. 

Accounts of the May 3 Arrests, Killings
Statements by residents and family members of victims indicate that the federal police 3rd Division arrested as many as 60 people, including at least four children, without warrants on May 3, 2013, in the area south of Mosul, including the villages of East Mustantiq, West Mustantiq, and Shagadalwiya; committed extrajudicial killings of four men and a 15-year-old boy they arrested that day; and tortured at least one other person in their custody.

A family member present when the arrests took place said that a joint security force of army and federal police, arriving in “dozens of military vehicles,” arrested four men and a boy from an extended family while they were working on the plumbing of a family house on May 3, just after 4 p.m. The federal police conducted mass arrests that day, according to this family member and other villagers. 

Witnesses told Human Rights Watch that federal police then took the men to a field a kilometer from where the bodies were later found. One witness, who was arrested later in the raid on the villages, said:

They took us to a nearby field, and they made us lie on the ground, all of us. Then they tied our hands behind our backs, and blindfolded us. I heard someone ordering other people to take pictures of us. Then, they picked me up and put me into a vehicle, which I felt was a pickup truck, with others, and drove us away. …I think we were going up a hill. …When we got to what felt like the top of the hill, we stopped. Then we heard loud gunfire for several minutes, and this was very scary. We had no idea what was happening. ... [T]here were no orders to take positions or movement that we could hear, nothing like a firefight – just firing. From the sound, they were shooting AK-47s [assault rifles], PKCs [machineguns] and something bigger.

He said police drove him to a location they identified as an “emergency police battalion that belongs to the federal police,” where he and the other detainees “stayed there for maybe a few hours”:

During this time, they [the police] beat us. I was sitting on the ground and my head was down, blindfolded, and with my hands tied behind my back. It felt like they kicked me, slapped me and hit me in the back with the stock of their guns.

He said that police insulted him and Sunni Islam, cursing Omar, a reference to Omar ibn Al-Khattab, a key companion of prophet Muhammad whom Sunnis generally revere but Shia view negatively. Police threatened to abuse the female members of his family, he said. After that, he said, police took them to the “Belt of Ninewa” brigade headquarters, where federal police held him for 2 days in a single cell with 26 people from villages around Mosul, including 3 boys aged 12, 13 and 14, all but 3 of whom told him they were arrested that same day by the same federal police convoy. He said that the day after taking him there, federal police interrogated him about whether he knew “any info on terrorists that would be useful” to them. “When I said no, they took me somewhere else and I was beaten and hung up.” He said police punched, kicked, and slapped him, tied his hands behind his back and hung him by them from the ceiling while he was blindfolded:

I don’t know how long this was, because I passed out from pain after only a minute or two, I think. They did not do this again. I remember in these two minutes I was hanging, they were beating me, but I think using only their hands to beat me. They hit me on my head, hands, abdomen and legs.

He said that officers told him he would be released after a few days:

They brought me a paper and told me to sign it. They didn’t let me read it, but they told me, “This paper proves that we never tortured you and that our treatment of you was good.” I signed it.

A relative of one of the victims told Human Rights Watch that family members on May 12 went to the nearby Hamam al-Alil Police Station and requested that the local police document the evidence at the crime scene. They refused, saying the area was too dangerous for local police, and gave the family a permit allowing ambulances to pick up the bodies.  The victims’ relatives loaded the bodies into the ambulances and drove toward a hospital in Mosul, but were stopped at the “Scorpion” checkpoint in Mosul, where checkpoint police inspected the ambulances and asked the villagers and relatives accompanying them about the bodies. A family member told Human Rights Watch:

We told them that it seems they were killed by federal police. They told us, “We won’t let you pass unless you say that they were killed by terrorists.” We refused, and we waited there for two hours. Some people called their sheikh and he called the governor’s building, and made several other calls, and then they let us through.

Forensic doctors did not give us a death certificate or medical report, but they said that all the victims were shot from about two meters away, and it was estimated that they were killed on the same day they were arrested. They said it was from a PKC, because they were able to check the shells they recovered. All of them had their hands tied behind their back.

Other Allegations of Abuse by Mosul’s Federal Police
Human Rights Watch has documented other incidents of abuse by the federal police 3rd Division, which controls Mosul and surrounding villages.

In March, Human Rights Watch documented an episode in which security forces from the federal police 3rd Division fired on demonstrators who had peacefully gathered in Mosul, killing one protester, Mahmoud Saleh Yassin, and wounding nine others. The government has not announced the results of an investigation it said it would conduct into the shootings, nor responded to claims by the 3rd Division commander, Gharawi, that security forces were not responsible for the death and that protesters brought Yassin’s body to the protest square after the shooting.

In August 2012, the “Belt of Ninewa brigade” arrested 46 people without warrants during a mass raid in Mosul. An investigative judge ordered the detainees’ release, finding that there was no evidentiary basis to issue warrants for their detention. Two judicial officials told Human Rights Watch that Bassim al-Tahi, the commander of the Ninewa Operations Command, held a news conference to criticize the judge’s decision, and filed a formal complaint to the Supreme Judicial Council, accusing the judge of releasing “terrorists.”

An appellate court upheld the judge’s decision, holdingthat the federal police had illegally arrested the 46 people. Only counter-terrorism forces, and not police, have the power to investigate terrorism cases. Article 17 of Iraq's constitution says that “the sanctity of homes is inviolable” and that one's home “cannot be entered or searched except by judicial decision and in accordance with the law.”

Gharawi has previously been implicated in the arbitrary arrest and abuse of detainees. A US embassy cable classified as “secret” that WikiLeaks released last year says that in 2006 Gharawi was commander of the federal police 2nd Division, which had been “accused of carrying out a wave of sectarian murders, and had kept prisoners at an illegal facility known as Site 4.”

In the cable, the US ambassador to Iraq at that time, Ryan Crocker, wrote: “Mehdi [Gharawi] is alleged to have committed gross human rights violations and extra-judicial killings during his service as the National Police's Second Division Commander at the detention facility known as Site 4. Mehdi has proven valuable enough to [Prime Minister] Maliki, however, that he rebuffed our request that he execute an Iraqi warrant for Mehdi’s arrest.”

Crocker states that Maliki blocked the arrest by invoking Section 134B of the Iraqi Criminal Code, which allows a minister to block implementation of an arrest warrant if the suspect is carrying out official duties. Instead of being prosecuted, Gharawi was made a senior adviser in the Interior Ministry. In 2011, Maliki appointed Gharawi to head the federal police 3rd Division.