Spate of Abuses Should be at the Forefront of Obama’s Agenda with Maliki
October 29, 2013
Iraq is plagued by terrorist attacks that are killing civilians in record numbers, but relying on torture and executions after unfair trials only makes the situation worse. Obama needs to send a clear message to Maliki that the US will not support his assault on human rights.
Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director

(Washington) – Iraq’s crackdown on peaceful government critics and an epidemic of executions should be top agenda items during the prime minister’s state visit to Washington, Human Rights Watch said today in a letter to President Barack Obama. Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki is scheduled to meet with Obama on November 1, 2013.

Iraqi officials say that Maliki’s priority will be to accelerate US provision of arms, intelligence, and other counterterrorism support, including the immediate delivery of drones and F-16 fighter jets. But Obama should make clear that his administration will prohibit security aid, especially arms, equipment, and training for security forces, unless the Iraqi government ends its widespread use of torture.

“Iraq is plagued by terrorist attacks that are killing civilians in record numbers, but relying on torture and executions after unfair trials only makes the situation worse,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director. “Obama needs to send a clear message to Maliki that the US will not support his assault on human rights.”

The government has dramatically escalated use of the death penalty, especially in the name of fighting terrorism, executing 65 people already in October and 140 so far in 2013. At least one of those executed in October had a court judgment declaring him innocent shortly before he was executed.

Immediately following Maliki’s visit to Washington in December 2011, the prime minister ordered the arrests of Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi and several of his staff, one of whom died in police custody and whose body displayed signs of torture. The arrests kicked off a year in which security forces under Maliki’s direct command threatened and harassed government critics and used state institutions to arrest and charge political opponents without disclosing the evidence against them. The US had a direct role in setting up some of those entities, like the Integrity Commission and inspectors general in the Interior and Defense ministries.

Over the past two years, Maliki’s security forces have routinely detained and tortured scores of peaceful protesters as well as men and women living in areas where the government believes armed groups operate, exploiting vague provisions in Iraq’s Anti-Terrorism Law to settle personal or political scores. These abuses are compounded by judges and investigating officers who collude to prolong the time detainees are held and ignore their allegations of abuses. Suspects with little or no access to an adequate defense are frequently detained for months and even years without charge.

Obama should press Maliki to introduce legislation repealing the Anti-Terrorism Law, which broadly mandates the death penalty for “those who commit...terrorist acts” and “all those who enable terrorists to commit these crimes” in article 4. Articles 1 and 2 define “terrorism” extremely broadly, including acts that do not involve violence or injury to people such as disruption of public services, enabling authorities to use the law to punish nonviolent political dissent. The authorities frequently use the law’s ambiguous provisions to target people on the basis of tribe or sect.

Public security has worsened drastically in Iraq in 2013 after security forces stormed a camp of peaceful protesters in the northern town of Hawija in April, killing 51 people. Attacks by armed groups, which claimed over 5,740 lives between January and September, have internally displaced another 5,000 Iraqis from Basra, Thi Qar, and Baghdad, and within Diyala and Ninewa.

The escalation in executions after trials in which people are convicted on the basis of coerced confessions and secret evidence – mostly in the name of counterterrorism – has done nothing to address the crisis. Obama should address authorities’ failure to failure to hold those responsible accountable regardless of their sect. Numerous Iraqis have told Human Rights Watch the government’s approach has polarized Iraq’s population, particularly in Sunni areas, where people see the government’s failure to hold Shia-dominated security forces accountable as confirmation that the prime minister’s policies remain rooted in sectarianism.

Obama should also raise concerns about the closure of Iraq’s official border crossings to refugees and asylum seekers from Syria, Human Rights Watch said. The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has called Iraq’s border restrictions on Syrians seeking asylum cause for “major concern.”

Despite Iraq’s insistence that authorities would continue to admit “urgent humanitarian cases” and family reunification cases, authorities have severely limited Syrian entry since August 2012. In September, the Interior Ministry threatened to close al-Waleed camp, where 5,000 Syrians are living.

New arrivals virtually ceased in late March, when the Interior Ministry closed its al-Qaem border crossing, effectively violating the customary international law principle of nonrefoulement – not returning anyone to a place where they risk persecution and torture. Of the over 200,000 Syrian refugees in Iraq, all but 5,000 entered through border crossings the Kurdistan Region Government de facto controls.  

“The Obama administration should send the clearest possible message that the kind of security assistance Prime Minister Maliki is seeking is just not possible as long as his security forces detain people arbitrarily or on the basis of their sect, subject detainees to torture, and courts continue to execute scores of people after unfair trials,” Stork said. “Iraq shouldn’t get away with abuse in the name of counterterrorism.”