(Dohuk) – The recently accessible mass graves in northern Iraq are being disturbed and possibly compromised for any future prosecutions of what could amount to genocide against the Yezidi people, Human Rights Watch and Yazda, a Yezidi support group, said today. The authorities should take urgent steps to protect the gravesites around Mount Sinjar that became accessible after Kurdish forces recaptured the area from the extremist group Islamic State, also known as ISIS.
Most of the bodies in these graves are believed to be Yezidi victims of large-scale killings when ISIS forces took over the area in August 2014. The United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights says the killings may have amounted to genocide.
“Justice for the Yezidi victims of the mass killings by ISIS depends on preservation of the Mount Sinjar gravesites,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director. “The Kurdish authorities should protect the evidence at these sites and shield them from further degradation by weather and animals.”
Iraqi authorities should invite neutral international forensic experts, including those with experience working before criminal tribunals, to help preserve and analyze evidence in newly accessible mass graves, Human Rights Watch and Yazda said. International donors should help finance the preservation and analysis of evidence that could be vital to future domestic and international accountability processes to address serious international crimes.
In August, Human Rights Watch visited seven sites north of Mount Sinjar – known to Yezidis as Shingal – where ISIS fighters are believed to have executed dozens of Yezidi Iraqis. Kurdish forces recaptured the area by December 2014. Since Kurdish forces retook the area south of the mountain in mid-November 2015, the documentation team of Yazda, a United States-based organization working to support the Yezidi ethno-religious minority, has investigated 35 sites through ongoing visits: 19 confirmed mass grave sites; three sites of reported but not yet identified mass graves; three identified but not yet visited mass grave sites in accessible territory; and 10 inaccessible mass grave sites in areas under ISIS control. Both Human Rights Watch and Yazda found little or no protection of the sites and no preservation of evidence.
During its visits, Yazda found the sites entirely unprotected, with returnees, soldiers, and journalists disturbing the sites and even removing items. Yazda spoke with Kurdish forces at one site who said they had used a bulldozer to cover it with earth in an attempt to prevent winter flooding from washing away the remains.
At the seven sites north of the mountain that Human Rights Watch visited in August, local residents or the authorities had removed the human remains. In isolated cases where they thought they could identify the victim, the authorities said, they had handed over the remains to the families for burial.
Exhumations without forensic experts can destroy critical evidence and greatly complicate the identification of bodies, Human Rights Watch said.
In August 2014, ISIS attacked Yezidi communities around Sinjar city in Iraq’s Nineveh province, reportedly killing more than 1,000 people. Several mass graves were found after Kurdish forces retook areas north of Mount Sinjar by December 2014. When Kurdish forces retook Sinjar city in mid-November 2015, soldiers, returning Yezidis, and journalists discovered additional killing sites and apparent mass graves.
Human Rights Watch and Yazda separately collected information from witnesses and officials involved in exhuming the sites indicating that at least three victims in different sites had disabilities and at least three sites contained the bodies of elderly people. People with disabilities face added risks during conflict and displacement, Human Rights Watch said. ISIS caught and then killed elderly or sick Yezidis or those with disabilities, after they were apparently unable to flee in time.
Mahmud Hajji, the Kurdistan Regional Government’s (KRG) minister of martyrs and Anfal victims (a reference to the genocide of Iraqi Kurds during the Saddam Hussein era), told Human Rights Watch in November that the regional government would welcome much-needed international assistance in the protection and forensic analysis of these sites.
The Ministry of Martyrs and Anfal Victims in September 2014 set up the High Committee for Identification of Genocide Crimes against Residents of Kurdistan Areas Outside of KRG, tasked with collecting evidence and determining means of protection and analysis. Judge Ayman Mustafa, head of the committee, told Human Rights Watch in April 2015 that two mass grave sites that were then under control of the regional government’s Peshmerga forces had been excavated and the remains transferred to a morgue in Dohuk, in addition to a site in Zummar district on lake Mosul where ISIS killed 23 Yezidis farmhands.
He said that the team that conducted the excavation had some training but was “not so professional.” He added that they were seeking international assistance and supervision but that there had been no responses to those requests. In August, two policemen working with the committee to record and remove physical evidence, including human remains, from the seven sites north of Mount Sinjar, told Human Rights Watch that they had had no training, but had listed all items and human remains found and submitted the evidence to a forensic institute in Dohuk for safekeeping.
Several local organizations have been documenting ISIS crimes against the Yezidi community, but they and the local authorities told Human Rights Watch and Yazda that they have only limited capacity. To Human Rights Watch’s and Yazda’s knowledge, no international forensic experts have conducted forensic work in the area, despite political support for such a mission from a variety of countries, including the US and Germany.
Human Rights Watch has repeatedly urged Iraq to become a member of the International Criminal Court (ICC) to allow for possible prosecution of war crimes, genocide, and crimes against humanity by all parties to the conflict. The authorities could give the court jurisdiction over serious crimes committed in Iraq since the day the ICC treaty entered into force, on July 1, 2002. On September 24, 2015, Yazda presented evidence of crimes of genocide against the Yezidi people to the ICC and requested that the court’s prosecutor investigate.
“Beyond expressing sympathy with Yezidi survivors, international donors should support them in their quest for justice by helping preserve and analyze this evidence,” said Matthew Barber, executive director of Yazda.