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Iraqi security forces are committing systematic torture and other abuses against people in detention, Human Rights Watch said in a new report released today.

The 94-page report, The New Iraq? Torture and Ill-treatment of Detainees in Iraqi Custody, documents how unlawful arrest, long-term incommunicado detention, torture and other ill-treatment of detainees (including children) by Iraqi authorities have become routine and commonplace. Human Rights Watch conducted interviews in Iraq with 90 detainees, 72 of whom alleged having been tortured or ill-treated, particularly under interrogation.

While insurgent forces have committed numerous unlawful attacks against the Iraqi police, this does not justify the abuses committed by Iraqi authorities, Human Rights Watch said.

“The people of Iraq were promised something better than this after the government of Saddam Hussein fell,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, executive director of Human Rights Watch’s Middle East and North Africa Division. “The Iraqi Interim Government is not keeping its promises to honor and respect basic human rights. Sadly, the Iraqi people continue to suffer from a government that acts with impunity in its treatment of detainees.”

Methods of torture cited by detainees include routine beatings to the body using cables, hosepipes and other implements. Detainees report kicking, slapping and punching; prolonged suspension from the wrists with the hands tied behind the back; electric shocks to sensitive parts of the body, including the earlobes and genitals; and being kept blindfolded and/or handcuffed continuously for several days. In several cases, the detainees suffered what may be permanent physical disability.

Detainees also reported being deprived by Iraqi security forces of food and water, and being crammed into small cells with standing room only. Numerous detainees described how Iraqi police sought bribes in return for release, access to family members or food and water.

The Human Rights Watch report details serious and widespread human rights violations since 2003, against both alleged national security suspects, including insurgents, and suspected common criminals. It also highlights serious violations committed by Iraq’s national intelligence service since mid-2004, principally against members of political parties deemed to constitute a threat to state security.

Human Rights Watch said its investigations in Iraq over a four-month period between July and October 2004 found the systematic use of arbitrary arrest, prolonged pre-trial detention (up to four months in some cases) without judicial review, torture and ill-treatment of detainees, denial of access by families and lawyers to detainees, improper treatment of detained children, and abysmal conditions in pre-trial facilities. The report does not address the mistreatment of persons in the custody of U.S. or other multinational forces in Iraq.

“The Iraqi security forces obviously face tremendous challenges, including an insurgency that has targeted civilians,” Whitson said. “We unequivocally condemn the insurgents’ brutality. But international law is unambiguous on this point: no government can justify torture of detainees in the name of security.”

With rare exception, the Iraqi authorities have failed to investigate and punish officials responsible for violations. International police advisers, primarily U.S. citizens funded through the United States government, have turned a blind eye to these rampant abuses.

“In the name of bringing security and stability to Iraq, both Iraqi officials and their advisers have allowed these abuses to go unchecked,” Whitson said. “We have not seen the Iraqi police held accountable for their actions.”

The Human Rights Watch report examines the cases of suspected members or sympathizers of Shi’a cleric Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army who were arrested during and in the aftermath of the armed clashes in the city of Najaf in August 2004. Several members of a political party, Hizbullah, were arrested at the same time. In these cases, security forces, including intelligence personnel, arrested persons unlawfully, subjected them to torture and a variety of abuses, and later released them without charge. Their cases never reached the courts.

Human Rights Watch’s interviews included over 60 criminal suspects, most of them referred to the Central Criminal Court in Baghdad and accused of serious felonies, including terrorism, abduction, money laundering, drug trafficking and acts of sabotage. A smaller number accused of less serious offenses were held in police stations and referred to Baghdad’s other criminal courts.

“They poured cold water over me and applied electric shocks to my genitals. I was also beaten by several people with cables on my arms and back,” said a 21-year-old man arrested in July 2004 and accused of links with the Mahdi Army. Another detainee arrested in June 2004 on charges of possession of drugs said: “During the first three days there was continuous torture. I was beaten with an aluminum rod and with cables. … Then I was told to sign a statement with my hands tied behind my back, so I didn’t even see the paper and I don’t know what I signed.”

“A new Iraqi government requires more than a change of leadership – it requires a change of attitude about basic human dignity,” Whitson said.

Human Rights Watch called on the Iraqi government to promptly investigate all allegations of torture and ill-treatment and bring to justice officials responsible for the abuse of detainees. The government should take urgent steps to ensure compliance with its domestic and international legal obligations that would afford better protection for detainees from abuse, and give serious consideration to granting access to detention facilities under Ministry of Interior authority to independent human rights monitoring groups.

The United States and other donors should ensure that international advisers working with the Iraqi authorities on policing and detentions should give immediate priority to assisting in the establishment of a mechanism for the prompt reporting and investigation of allegations of torture and ill-treatment, including the setting up of an independent complaints body.

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