Skip to main content

President Barack Obama
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW
Washington, DC 20500

Dear President Obama,

We write in regard to the forthcoming visit of Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. We urge you to raise with him the human rights situation in Iraq in your public appearances as well as private meetings.

Human Rights Watch is extremely concerned by the deepening crisis in Iraq, including the harsh crackdown on a range of government critics, which has intensifiedin the two years since Prime Minister al-Maliki’s last state visit. Immediately upon returning from Washington in 2011, al-Maliki ordered the arrests of Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi and a number 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 his direct command threatened government critics and used state institutions—some of which the US had a role in setting up, like the Integrity Commission and Inspectors General in the Interior and Defense ministries—to arrest and charge political opponents without disclosing the evidence against them.

Over the past two years, the government dramatically escalated use of the death penalty despite serious flaws in the justice system, executing 65 people already this month 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.

Equally disturbing is the fact that al-Maliki’s government has not implemented promised key legal reforms, such ending the use of secret informant testimony and coerced confessions as a basis for convictions. Authorities exploit vague provisions in the Anti-Terrorism Law to settle personal or political scores, while judges and investigating officers collude to prolong the time detainees are held and ignore their allegations of abuses. Suspects have little or no access to an adequate defense, and are frequently detained for months and even years without charge.

Over the last two years Iraqi security forces illegally detained and tortured scores of peaceful protesters as well as men and women living in areas in which the government believes armed groups operate. This past February Human Rights Watch viewed the physical signs of torture on more than 20 women in Baghdad’s Central Prison for Women and on death row. Court documents in the case against a woman executed earlier this month showed that two courts had dismissed charges against her due to a medical report documenting security forces had severely tortured her to induce her to confess to terrorism.In June 2013 the United Nations Assistance Mission in Iraq (UNAMI) reported that large numbers of detainees, particularly those arrested under Iraq’s Anti-Terrorism Law, complain that they were “subjected to a range of abuse, mistreatment and torture in order to extract confessions” during detention and interrogation.

Iraq does face serious security threats, but the government’s failure to make urgently needed reforms and hold officials accountable for terrible abuses like torture has made Iraq less safe, not more. In fact, the government’s heavy-handed approach is contributing to greater instability and exacerbating sectarian tensions. Violence this year worsened considerably after security forces stormed a camp of peaceful protesters in Hawija in April, killing 51 people. Attacks by armed groups, which claimed over 5,740 lives already 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—for the most part in the name of counterterrorism—have done nothing to address the crisis. On the contrary, numerous Iraqis, Shia and Sunni, have told Human Rights Watch that authorities’ failure to hold perpetrators accountable regardless of their sect 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 policies remain rooted in sectarianism.

 The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has called Iraq’s border restrictionsof Syrians seeking asylum cause for “major concern.” Despite Iraq’s insistence they would continue to admit “urgent humanitarian cases” and family reunification cases, authorities severely limited the number of Syrians allowed to enter beginning in August 2012. In September, the Interior Ministry threatened to close al-Waleed camp, where 5,000 Syrians currently reside. New arrivals virtually ceased in late March, when Iraq’s Interior Ministry closed its al-Qaem border crossing, effectively violating the customary international law principle of non-refoulement. Of the over 200,000 Syrian refugees in Iraq, all but 5,000 of entered through border crossings the Kurdistan Region Government de facto controls.

Many Iraqis—civilians and government and security authorities—have told Human Rights Watch that they believe the security gains US troops and their allies made after the surge have been undermined. The US has largely turned a blind eye to the terrible abuses Prime Minister al-Maliki’s government is helping to perpetuate. Earlier this year, the Wall Street Journal cited senior administration officials in reporting that the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and other US intelligence and security personnel were cooperating with Iraqi security forces that have allegedly committed abuses.

We hope you will use the prime minister’s visit to reaffirm strong US support for human rights in Iraq, and we urge the following recommendations:

  • Your administration should prohibit the provision of security aid, especially arms, equipment, and training to Iraqi security forces, as long as their widespread use of torture continues.
  • The US should urge Prime Minister al-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,” broadly worded provisions which security forces and courts use to detain prosecute, and convict people based on their association with a particular individual, tribe, or sect.
  • The US should urge Iraq to allow entry of refugees and asylum seekers from Syria.

During Prime Minister al-Maliki’s last state visit to Washington, in December 2011, the White House praised Maliki’s “leadership and to the skill and the sacrifices of Iraqi forces,” despite widely available evidence that government forces detained peaceful government critics and subjected them to torture, and had undertaken a brutal crackdown on pro-democracy activists. On this visit, the White House should deliver a clear and unambiguous message about the need for Iraq to take immediate steps to address the sharply deteriorating human rights environment there.



Sarah Leah Whitson
Executive Director
Middle East and North Africa Division
Human Rights Watch

Your tax deductible gift can help stop human rights violations and save lives around the world.