The United States has failed to provide clear or consistent information on its treatment of some 10,000 civilians detained in Iraq, Human Rights Watch said today.
Under the 1949 Geneva Conventions, U.S. forces in Iraq may detain civilians only for “imperative reasons of security” or for prosecution for criminal offenses. Detainees held on security grounds are entitled to appeal the decision to intern them and have their case reviewed every six months.
U.S. military officials say they have set up a “review board,” but have not clarified if this board or any other body is actually hearing appeals and conducting six-month reviews, Human Rights Watch said. The U.S. Department of Defense has not responded to a February 10 letter from Human Rights Watch seeking information on how it has handled these cases.
“Building respect for the rule of law is not just about building courthouses and training judges,” said Richard Dicker, director of Human Rights Watch’s International Justice program. “The United States must also ensure that persons taken into custody are fairly treated in accordance with legal standards.”
The Coalition Provisional Authority has issued standards for the treatment of criminal suspects, and these are meant to be consistent with the judicial guarantees specified under the Geneva Conventions. However, it is unclear whether suspects are being informed of the charges against them as required. Although a system for lawyer visits has been established, it is also unclear whether lawyers have adequate access to their clients.
“Many people have been held for months without knowing why,” Dicker said. “The U.S. military needs either to inform people promptly of charges against them if they are suspected of a crime, or to give them the right to appeal and a six-month review if they are held on security grounds.”
For example, U.S. forces arrested Aziz Hamza Jarallah on June 10 in Baghdad. His family told Human Rights Watch that when they visited him, more than three months after his arrest, he still had no idea why he was being held. As of January, his family was not aware of any formal charges against him or any appeal or six-month review of his case.
In the past year, the U.S. authorities have improved the availability of information on who is detained and where they are held. However, the United States still fails to provide information on the whereabouts of all detainees as required under the Geneva Conventions. No information is available for at least 200 so-called “high security detainees” as well as persons under interrogation prior to transfer to prison.
Salah al-Mashhadani, for example, was arrested with his three brothers in December. His brothers were released, and he was transferred to a second facility for interrogation. However, his family was unable to learn his whereabouts until the third week of January, when his name appeared in a database of detainees listing him as being held at Abu Ghraib prison.
Family members have also had difficulty securing dates to visit detainees, which under the Geneva Conventions should be permitted at regular intervals and as frequently as possible. Human Rights Watch urged the U.S. government to ensure “greater family access” to detainees, as called for in a January 7 statement of the Coalition Provisional Authority.
An unknown number of detainees in the past year have been released or turned over to the Iraqi courts. On March 23, the United States reportedly released 494 detainees because they no longer constituted a security threat.