February 7, 2014


In May 2012, Hanan al-Fadl (not her real name) was grocery shopping in a market in central Baghdad when security forces dressed in civilian clothing seized her, bundled her into a car, and drove her to the office of a state institution, she told Human Rights Watch. There, she said, they beat her, shocked her with electric cables, and drenched her in cold water in an effort to force her to admit that she had taken a bribe. Hanan, a manager at a state-affiliated company that approves construction projects, said she realized she was paying the price for refusing to waive through a project in which the contractor had used sub-standard materials. “I made a mistake,” she said. “I didn’t know someone important in the government had a stake in the project.” Beaten and tortured for hours, Hanan said she refused to confess—until her interrogators threatened her teenage daughter.

They pulled up her picture on my mobile, and said, “Is this [name withheld]?” They knew her name, where she went to school, everything. They said “We can take her just like we took you.” I would have said anything at that point.

After holding her for more than a day, security forces took her to a judge, who refused to acknowledge bruises and swelling on her face, she said. She did not have a lawyer. Four months later, a Baghdad court convicted her of forgery and sentenced her to three years in prison, based solely on her “confession” and the testimony of a “secret informant.” When Human Rights Watch visited Hanan, she had been detained in Baghdad’s Central Women’s prison for more than a year.

Hanan is one of thousands of Iraqis imprisoned by a judicial system plagued by torture and rampant corruption. Last April, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay issued a scathing indictment of Iraq’s “not functioning” justice system, citing numerous convictions based on confessions obtained under torture and ill-treatment, a weak judiciary, and trial proceedings that fall far short of international standards.

There are far fewer women than men in Iraqi prisons. As of June 2013, more than 1,100 women like Hanan were in Iraqi prisons and detention centers, according to the Iraqi parliament’s Human Rights Committee and the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI). They estimated the male prison population to be over 40,000.

Both men and women suffer from the severe flaws of the criminal justice system. But women suffer a double burden due to their second class status in Iraqi society. According to witness accounts and to information numerous civil society activists and international nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) provided to Human Rights Watch, women are frequently targeted not only for crimes they themselves are said to have committed, but to harass male family or tribal members. Furthermore, once they have been detained, and even if they are released unharmed, women are frequently stigmatized by their family or tribe, who perceive them to have been dishonored.

The abuse of women by Iraqi security forces and violations of their rights by Iraq’s judiciary have become increasingly contentious issues. Hanan’s account echoes Iraqi media reports that security forces have been unlawfully detaining and abusing women—allegations that shocked Iraqis already familiar with stories of abuse against men. As one human rights activist said: “Normally, in Iraqi society, a man beating a woman in public is impossible…. What’s happening to women shows that no one is safe.”

In response to the media reports and to subsequent mass protests against the treatment of women in detention, Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki announced in January 2013 that he would task Deputy Prime Minister Hussein al-Shahristani with overseeing reforms to the criminal justice system. But a year later, the government has not made desperately needed reforms, and the justice system remains plagued by corruption and abuses against women from all sects, classes, and regions.

Main Findings

This report documents abuses to which the criminal justice system subjects women during arrest, interrogation, trial, and imprisonment.

Between December 2012 and April 2013, Human Rights Watch interviewed 27 women and 7 girls, Sunni and Shia; their families and lawyers; medical service providers in women’s prisons; civil society representatives; foreign embassy and United Nations staff in Baghdad; Justice, Interior, Defense, and Human Rights ministry officials, and two deputy prime ministers. We also reviewed court documents, lawyers’ case files, and government decisions and reports.

The report finds that security forces carry out illegal arrests and other due process violations against women at every stage of the justice system, including threats and beatings. Israa Salah (not her real name), for example, entered her interview with Human Rights Watch in Iraq’s death row facility in Baghdad’s Kadhimiyya neighborhood on crutches. She said nine days of beatings, electric shocks with an instrument known as “the donkey,” and falaqa (when the victim is hung upside down and beaten on their feet) in March 2012 had left her permanently disabled. A split nose, back scars, and burns on her breast were consistent with her alleged abuse. Israa was executed in September 2013, seven months after we met her, despite lower court rulings that dismissed charges against her because a medical report documented she was tortured into confessing to a crime.

The report also finds that women are subjected to threats of, or actual, sexual assault (sometimes in front of husbands, brothers, and children.) Some detainees reported a lack of adequate protection for female prisoners from attacks by male prison guards, including those from adjoining male prisons. Two women reported that sexual assault by prison guards resulted in pregnancy. Women and officials reported that the likelihood of a woman being subject to sexual assault is far higher during arrest and interrogation, prior to a woman’s confinement in prison.“[W] e expect that they’ve been raped by police on the way to the prison,” Um Aqil, an employee at a women’s prison facility told Human Rights Watch.

For example, Fatima Hussein (not her real name), a journalist accused of involvement in the murder of a parliamentarian’s brother and of being married to an Al-Qaeda member, described physical and sexual torture in early 2012 at the hands of one particular interrogator in Tikrit, Colonel Ghazi. She described Ghazi tying her blindfolded to a column and electrocuting her with an electric baton, hitting her feet and back with cable, kicking her, pulling her hair, tying her naked to a column and extinguishing cigarettes on her body, and later handcuffing her to a bed, forcing her to give him oral sex, and raping her three times. “There was blood all over me. He would relax, have a cigarette, and put it out on my buttock, and then started again,” she said.

Women who spoke with Human Rights Watch, who all explicitly denied involvement in alleged crimes, also described being pushed towards confessions by interrogators threatening to hurt loved ones. Fatima described Ghazi passing her the phone, with her daughter at the end of the line, before threatening: “I’ll do to your daughter what I did to you.” Israa Salah, arrested in January 2010 due to alleged involvement in terrorism, was told her teenage daughter, Afrah, was in solitary confinement in the same facility and would be raped if Israa did not confess. “They knew everything about her: how she was dressed, who her friends were, and they showed me pictures of her,” Israa said. She then signed and fingerprinted a blank piece of paper.

More than 10 women showed Human Rights Watch scars on their bodies that appeared to be consistent with the torture they described having undergone.

Security forces conduct random and mass arrests of women that amount to collective punishment of women for alleged terrorist activities by male family members, often their husbands. Authorities have exploited vague provisions in the Anti-Terrorism Law of 2005 to settle personal or political scores—detaining, charging, and trying women based on their association to a particular individual, tribe, or sect. According to statistics provided by an official from the Prime Minister’s Office, 4,200 women in Interior and Defense ministry facilities were Sunni and 57 were Shia.

Many women told Human Rights Watch they were forced to sign or fingerprint “confessions” they were not allowed to, or could not read, an abuse to which high female illiteracy makes women especially vulnerable. In nine cases women told Human Rights Watch they were forced to sign or fingerprint blank pieces of paper.

In almost all of the cases documented by Human Rights Watch, courts based convictions on coerced confessions and secret informant testimony. Women—like many Iraqi men—have little or no access to an adequate defense, either because they cannot afford one or because lawyers are fearful of taking on politically sensitive cases. Women are frequently detained for months and even years without charge before seeing a judge or having a trial, in contravention of Iraqi laws that prohibit arbitrary arrest and detention and enshrine the right to access to counsel, and articles 9 and 14 of the International Covenant on Criminal and Political Rights (ICCPR), which enshrine detainees’ rights to be informed of the reasons for their detention, to be charged promptly, and to be brought promptly before a judge .

In many cases that Human Rights Watch documented, judges and investigating officers colluded to extract bribes from detainees and their families to secure their release. In several cases women paid bribes but remained detained. In others, judges accepted bribes from security forces to issue or prolong arrest and detention orders, and ignored allegations of abuses by security officials against female detainees. When Laila Abd al-Rahim (not her real name), 25, who was accused of killing her husband, told an investigative judge in Baghdad al-Jadida Court that she had been raped and tortured, she said the judge told her: “What? Do you want them to pamper you?”

Finally, many women—like men—remain in detention long after judges have dismissed the charges against them or they have served their sentences. In February 2013, Deputy Prime Minister al-Shahristani acknowledged to Human Rights Watch that authorities had held detainees in prison for months or even years after judges issued orders for their release because they lacked the necessary Interior Ministry approval to be released.

Human Rights Watch’s visits to two prisons revealed conditions that failed to meet international standards on women’s detention, including no facilities for child care for the children who are frequently incarcerated with their mothers, poor hygiene, and overcrowding—amounting to what one detainee, Fatima Hussein, described as “a whole city of women.” Iraqi law allows for children under the age of four to remain in prisons with their mothers, but women reported that there have been instances of children remaining in prisons until they are 7-years-old. A prison employee told Human Rights Watch that in one instance a child who was incarcerated with his mother on death row remained in the prison for several weeks after she was executed.

The abusive practices documented in this report violate Iraqi laws and international standards on arrest and detention. The Iraqi government claims it informs prisoners about complaint mechanisms housed in the Justice, Interior, Defense and Human Rights ministries. Most women interviewed did not know about these grievance mechanisms. Two women who alleged that security forces raped them in detention said they did not receive forensic examinations or post-rape care, and that the officers remain on duty.

Factors that discourage women from filing complaints include lack of legal representation, or mistrust in representation when it is provided. Fear of retaliation, stigma, and rejection by families and the community also inhibit women’s ability to report and seek redress for abuses of their rights in detention. Such concerns are well-founded: the mere implication that a woman has been sexually abused exposes her to risk of permanent dislocation and violence from her family, and may harm her economic and social prospects.

Official Response

Officials—including Deputy Prime Minister al-Shahristani and the justice and human rights ministers— have dismissed reports of abuse of women in detention as exceptional cases. Human Rights Watch’s research, including first-hand interviews and information provided by other organizations that have researched detention for years, indicates it is common, perpetrated at all levels of the security forces, and happens in wide variety of locations, including police stations, prisons, and military detention facilities.

These same officials have been keen to stress they are initiating reforms to combat security force abuses, which they blame on security challenges, lack of capacity among Iraqi institutions, and the legacy of Saddam Hussein’s time. Iraq is still in a “transition from dictatorship,” one parliamentarian said.

Officials in the Justice and Interior ministries claim that media and reports by NGOs of abuses are exaggerations based on detainees’ lies, abuses that could not be committed against women in Iraqi society. Despite written requests, the Justice, Defense, and Interior ministries and the Office of the Prime Minister had at the time of writing not responded to Human Rights Watch’s request for information about measures that they have taken to address the multiple problems documented in this report.

Anti-Terrorism Law

Interviews with female detainees, lawyers, and judges indicate that authorities are detaining at least 100, and perhaps many more, women under Law No. 13 of 2005—Iraq’s Anti-Terrorism Law—which mandates the death penalty for “those who commit ... terrorist acts,” and “all those who enable terrorists to commit these crimes.” Many women are detained under article 4 of the law for allegedly “covering up” for their husbands.

Women appear to be disproportionately targeted for their relationships to male family members whom the government considers suspects, particularly in terrorism cases. Targeting women as a way to reach male suspects punishes them for crimes they have not committed, violating their right to due process of law.

Justice Ministry officials did not respond to Human Rights Watch requests for disaggregated figures on how many women are detained or convicted on terrorism charges. Twenty-three out of the twenty-seven women and four of the seven girls interviewed for this report had been held for allegedly covering up for male family members. They, their lawyers, and family members said the women had been charged based on confessions gleaned through threats and physical abuse, including severe beatings; burns with cigarettes on women’s breasts, thighs, arms, and legs; the use of electric shock on women’s hands and feet; and the use of falaqa.

Articles 109 and 213 of the Code of Criminal Procedure allow arrests and convictions based on secret informant testimony, which may consist of unsupported allegations. This compounds due process violations, and is a factor in the ability of security forces and judges to force female detainees to pay bribes to avoid long periods of detention.

Lack of Accountability

Justice, Interior, and Defense ministry officials could not provide information regarding any official who had been prosecuted and convicted of torturing a detainee.

One obstacle to ensuring justice is the enormous danger that judges face when performing their duties: current and former judges told Human Rights Watch that government officials and armed groups frequently harass and threaten judges, who have no protection from attacks. In 2012, armed militants killed at least eight judges and made assassination attempts on at least ten others.

Numerous other shortcomings in the justice system, such as corruption, political interference, and legal obstacles contribute to lack of accountability for abuses against women in detention facilities. For example, the Office of the General Prosecutor appears to rarely investigate allegations of torture by law enforcement officers. Human Rights Watch could not identify any instance in which the Office of the General Prosecutor investigated torture allegations against law enforcement officials without the victim or family formally filing a complaint, although officials said that Interior Ministry regulations require investigative judges to initiate torture complaints.

Lack of transparency also hampers accountability. The Defense, Interior, and Justice ministries have not made public statistics of prisoners, nor disaggregated their locations by charge, partly due to the inadequate record-keeping used to record prisoner intake and releases. Women are detained in Interior and Defense ministry-controlled facilities even though prolonged detention in these facilities is illegal, according to Deputy Prime Minister al-Shahristani and the head of the Interior Ministry’s human rights directorate.

Scarcity of resources is a real impediment to the ability of the government to train law enforcement officials, build adequate prison facilities, and implement reforms. But it does not explain or justify the scale of abuses against detainees by security and judicial officials, the lack of basic standards of fairness in detention, interrogation, and trials, or the absence of meaningful accountability.

Next Steps

Problems plaguing the criminal justice system are massive and the system needs a general overhaul. There are nonetheless immediate steps the government can take to begin to address the abuses that women suffer in the criminal justice system.

A full set of recommendations appears at the end of this report. The necessary changes, both general and specific to women, that the Iraqi authorities should undertake include:

·         Acknowledging the prevalence of abuses of female detainees and condemning torture and ill-treatment in pretrial detention; promptly investigating allegations of torture and ill-treatment; prosecuting guards and interrogators who abuse; and disallowing coerced confessions.

·         Ensuring that arrests of women comply with the Code of Criminal Procedure, which requires that defendants have access to a lawyer with adequate time to prepare an effective defense and to challenge evidence against them.

·         Reforming Iraq’s Anti-Terrorism Law, which provides significantly fewer protections for suspects and detainees than the Code of Criminal Procedure; investigating credible allegations that officers and judges routinely use the law to arrest women in order to harass family members; and releasing men and women held without arrest warrants—particularly those being held without charge on “suspicion of terrorism.”

·         Amending articles in the Code of Criminal Procedure to eliminate use of testimony by secret informants, who are frequently paid; penalizing judges or security officials who use such testimony as a basis for arrest or conviction; and giving detainees the right to sue if courts or security officials use such testimony to convict them.

·         Ensuring that detention only occurs in regular police stations and prisons, and initiating a public outreach campaign to inform Iraqis of their rights during arrest, detention, and sentencing.

Iraq's future as a society based on rule of law depends on establishing a credible Iraqi criminal justice system embodying international standards of fairness and holding accountable officials responsible for serious crimes such as torture.

The failings of the criminal justice system documented in this report show that the Prime Minister al-Maliki’s government has so far failed to eliminate many of the abusive practices that Saddam Hussein institutionalized and United States-led Coalition Forces continued.