(Erbil) – An Iraqi government-backed militia on November 29, 2016, executed at least four men they suspected of affiliation with the Islamic State (also known as ISIS), Human Rights Watch said today. The men were killed without any judicial proceeding. Murder of prisoners in a conflict is a war crime.

Hundreds of men arrive at Hasansham camp for displaced persons after being screened by Iraqi Security Forces.

© 2016 Belkis Wille/Human Rights Watch

Residents of the Shayalat al-Imam village said that Iraqi Security Forces were in the village when the Hashad al-Jabour militia executed the men and stood idly by while they witnessed at least one execution. The villagers did not see them take any steps to stop the killings or punish the killers. Some Hashad al-Asha`ri militias from Sunni tribes, including the Hashad al-Jabour, are members of the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), which are fighting alongside the Iraqi troops to retake areas of northern Iraq from ISIS.

“The Iraqi government should make clear that government-backed militias don’t have a green light to abuse or execute captives regardless of what they think they’re guilty of,” said Lama Fakih, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “The Iraqi army should intervene to stop militias from committing abuses against civilians and captured fighters, not stand idly by, and should punish fighters who commit abuses.”

Human Rights Watch visited a camp for displaced people south of Mosul on December 11, and interviewed eight residents of Shayalat al-Imam, which is 70 kilometers south of Mosul in the northern Salah al-Din Governorate. The residents said that the approximately 50 families in the village fled on November 29, after a complete army division and militia forces in at least 15 vehicles entered the village at around 8 a.m. after ISIS fighters withdrew to the west. Residents said that some of the Hashad fighters they saw covered their faces.

The “Battle to Liberate Nineveh – War Media” Facebook page, which posts regular updates on the conflict, says that the Iraqi army’s 60th infantry brigade 17th division and the Hashad al-Asha`ri pushed out ISIS fighters and retook the village on November 29.

Village residents said that the militia fighters were from nearby villages, including Kan`us, Hajj Ali, Sudayrah, and al-Hayjal. A Shayalat al-Imam community leader said they were under the control of a local sheikh who had previously worked as the leader of an “awakening force” unit, the Sunni force that had turned against earlier militant takeovers in the region. The militia is locally known as Hashad al-Jabour, the community leader said. Villagers said that the Hashad fighters ordered the villagers to assemble in an open area south of the village close to the highway. Amer, 52, whose surname is being withheld for his safety, said: “They rounded us up in a yard. We were about 50 families, but they separated the men from the women. They started asking who is ISIS, how many ISIS [members] were there in the village, does anyone know ISIS [members] from the village?”

Village residents said that Hashad fighters executed four men, two from the assembled group, and two taken from the village school, which was housing displaced people. Fighters detained another two men, one of them from the assembled group, but residents did not know what happened to them.

The Iraqi army should intervene to stop militias from committing abuses against civilians and captured fighters, not stand idly by, and should punish fighters who commit abuses.

Lama Fakih

Deputy Middle East Director at Human Rights Watch

Village residents said that the fighters called a 20-year-old man. “Ahmed,” first.

“[Ahmed] was executed 15 meters from me,” one resident said. The Hashad fighters “tied his hands behind his back and put him on his knees. Then another whose face was covered came with a pistol and shot him in the head with one bullet. After that, three other [fighters] came and shot the dead body. I don’t know why they shot him again, but I heard them saying ‘This man is a Daeshi [ISIS] dog.’”

Ahmed’s brother, who was there, said that Ahmed had previously joined ISIS for about two or three months in their home village of Kan`us, about five kilometers west, but had left the group and returned to the family. He said: “I was there when it happened, they already knew about my brother when they came, there must have been an informant. He was five meters away from me when it happened.”

Village residents said that when they left the village, they saw three other men they recognized lying dead on the ground about 200 meters from the gathering. They had seen Hashad fighters pick one of them out of the assembled group and two others were the ones the fighters had previously detained. The village residents said they did not see the executions.

One of the executed men, “Abdulaziz,” was a resident of Shayalat al-Imam, and the other two, “Musa” and “Sa`ad,” were a father and son from the Hajj Ali area, the residents said. Relatives of the two said they had fled with their families to Shayalat al-Imam seven months before over a conflict with one of their neighbors and were living in the school housing displaced families.

Sa`ad’s wife said that when the women went out to join the assembled men they did not see her husband or his father:

I went to the soldiers and asked about my husband, but they said they don’t know anything. Then I saw three corpses on the ground, two of them were my husband and his father. I started crying and shouting. The Hashad [fighters] came to me and said, ‘We killed them and they don’t exist anymore,’ and told me to go and stay with the women. I went to the women but kept shouting. One Hashad [fighter] came to me and said, ‘Why are you crying for ISIS,’ and held his gun to my face and said ‘I will kill you here.’ My husband’s mother calmed me down and the fighter left…

Both men’s wives said the men had not been ISIS members and that they did not know why the fighters executed them.

Village residents said that fighters also detained another two men, “Hazem” and “Firas,” cousins from Shayalat al-Imam, and they did not know their fate.

The men’s uncle said that both had joined ISIS for one month in the past:

[The fighters] had someone from the village to identify the ones who joined ISIS. Hazem was detained before they gathered all of the villagers, but Firas was detained by [Hashed fighters] in front of me and the rest of the group.

All the villagers who spoke to Human Rights Watch separately said that an entire army regiment was in the village standing alongside the Hashad fighters and watched the first execution but did not intervene. “The military forces were only watching,” one resident said. “they didn’t do anything to stop [them].”

The village residents arrived at the camp for displaced people on December 1.

Human Rights Watch has documented summary killings, enforced disappearances, beatings, torture, and the destruction of homes property by the PMF during operations to retake territory from ISIS.

The laws of war prohibit the deliberate killing of civilians and captured or incapacitated soldiers. All those responsible for such murders, including as a matter of command responsibility, are culpable for war crimes.

Iraqi authorities should investigate all suspected crimes, including pillaging, torture, murder, and other abuses, by members of any side in the conflict, in a speedy, transparent, and effective manner, up to the highest levels of responsibility. When evidence of criminal responsibility emerges, prosecutions should follow. Those conducting such criminal investigations and making decisions about prosecutions should be independent of those being investigated, outside any military chain of command and free from political interference in their decisions. The authorities should ensure the safety of all witnesses.

“Given the record of abuses by government-backed militias, it is crucial for Iraq’s military and political leaders to hold accountable those who have violated the laws of war,” Fakih said.