(Erbil) – Seventeen children detained since July 2016 by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) on suspicion of involvement with the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, say that government security forces tortured or otherwise abused them in detention, Human Rights Watch said today. They are among at least 183 boys the KRG has been holding on ISIS-related accusations, most, if not all, apparently without charge or access to a lawyer.
I spent one month in Gishti [the General Security Directorate in Erbil]. Three times I was interrogated and each time I was beaten, they were kicking me on my head and back… Six days before I was transferred [to the detention center] they told me to sign a confession. They told me, “You have to sign a confession that you are with ISIS” ... I did not see what they wrote. I was blindfolded and he was holding my hand to sign. He did not tell me what it said.
“Yahya,” 15, said he admitted to involvement with ISIS to make the torture stop:
I told them that I attended 15 days of Sharia [Islamic law] training, and I worked for 30 days at the kitchen in the military base of an Islamic State facility … and I was manning a checkpoint one week at one checkpoint and one week at another checkpoint. I just told them that is what I did because of the beatings. It was all fake testimony.
“Sami,” described one of his interrogation sessions:
[The interrogator] brought an electricity machine with him – it had levels of 10, 14, and up to 20. He set it on 14 and put wires on my left and right big toes and turned on the electricity. I felt it in my legs and he asked me if I would admit [to involvement with ISIS] and I said no. He then left me for 30 minutes and then he returned and asked me to confess again, then he poured water on me until all my body was wet. He turned the electricity on 16 – I couldn’t stand it. I felt that my eyes were popping out. He asked if I would confess and I said yes and he said I had to admit to one month [of working with ISIS]. I said no and he turned it on again. After that I said just turn it off and I’ll admit to [working with ISIS for] 11 days, then I signed a statement with my fingerprint.
“Wassim,” 16, said that Asayish members beat him and gave him electric shocks after strapping him to a bed:
It was really, really, hard for me. I would have told them anything. I told them, “I am not ISIS.” I said, “I swear to God I am not ISIS.” They would take turns where one would beat me and once he got tired he would leave and another person would come and resume the beating. Every day for five days in a row they used to take me out and beat me and torture me and send me back. I told them, “Give me relief by executing me.
Yassir said an Asayish officer at the General Security Directorate threatened to rape him if he did not confess an ISIS affiliation:
I was handcuffed so tightly I couldn’t feel my hands. I went to the second floor [of the Asayish station in Gishti], where they covered my face with a towel and tied it with tape. I couldn’t breathe and asked them to open it a little. Then he took a plastic pipe and beat me with it…. From 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. he was hitting me on and off and asking me to confess. He said I would stay in the room for five days if I did not confess. He started to take off my pants and said ‘I will f--- you if you don’t say you are ISIS.’ When he said this I told him I only went with them for one day.
Some children said that they were sent to the MLSA detention center in Erbil, only to be recalled later to the General Security Directorate for further interrogation and ill-treatment. They said they were terrified of the return visits. “I’m only afraid of one thing,” said Yassir, “that Asayish will come back. [Last time] I told them to kill me but don’t beat me again.”
Wassim said: “Sometimes … a piece of paper comes with a list of people to be taken out [to the General Security Directorate]. Every time they start calling the names our heartbeats increase and we all feel so scared, thinking, ‘I hope it’s not me, I hope it’s not me.’”
Access to Family Members
Of the 19 children interviewed, only seven said that Asayish had permitted them to contact family members since their detention, despite repeated requests by all of them.
“If you have a letter from Asayish you have the right to make calls for 10 minutes every Tuesday,” Hussein said. “My friend has the right to make calls and I gave him my uncle’s number to pass a message to my family.” Hussein said he did not know how to get Asayish permission to make phone calls.
Yahya said he was detained by KRG security forces in August, but had not been permitted to make phone calls since his arrest:
I have not seen or spoken to any family members since I got here. I have been detained for three months and 20 days and I have not heard their voice. I do not know where they are. The Asayish gave some detainees the opportunity to make a call but some of us were not given the opportunity. I don’t know why they did not let me.
One detention center employee said that an Asayish officer comes to the detention center every day with a list stating which detainees have permission to receive family visits or make phone calls, but none of the children or detention center staff interviewed knew how Asayish made these decisions. Some detainees said they had to wait two or more months to make calls that were monitored by Asayish and lasted only two or three minutes.
Some of the children who had not been permitted to call family members said they feared their families had no idea where they were or what happened to them. “I just want to see my family,” said “Ahmed,” one of the boys interviewed. “I have had no contact with them and they don’t know where I am,” he said. Yahya, said, “I don’t know whether my family members are alive or dead because of all the battles.”
Two children said they had been in detention for more than five months without any verbal or physical contact with family. Thirteen children said their family members had not been allowed to visit them at the detention center. Several children and their family members told Human Rights Watch that even after Asayish officers said they had permission for family visits, the relatives could not get past KRG checkpoints into Erbil to reach the detention center.
Two children said they had received visits from family members living in a displaced-persons camp only after an international organization organized the trips with KRG authorities.
Unclear Legal Process
None of the children, legal experts, or social workers interviewed were certain of the legal basis on which KRG authorities were holding them. Legal experts said that the KRG’s counterterrorism law, Law No. 15 of 2006, lapsed in July, making it unclear under what law KRG the authorities are holding or could charge these children.
In its response to Human Rights Watch’s December letter, Dr. Zebari did not answer requests for clarification on the legal status of the child terrorism suspects, whether any of the boys had been criminally charged, and how many other child ISIS suspects were being held in places other than the juvenile detention centers, such as Asayish stations and the General Security Directorate.
Most of the children said that they had been questioned by a man they thought was a judge at the General Security Directorate in Erbil, but almost always days after they had been picked up, not within 24 hours of arrest as KRG law requires. All of the children interviewed said they had not been provided with a lawyer during interrogation, a right guaranteed under KRG law. Likewise, two Erbil-based children’s rights advocates with knowledge of the cases, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said they believed most or none of the children had not yet been charged.
Most of the children said that social workers at the detention center told them they might remain there for about six months before going to court to face charges or for trial.
Detention Center Conditions
Most of the children said that detention center officials at the Women and Children’s Reformatory in Erbil treated them well. However, several children, as well as detention center staff, described an acute shortage of psychosocial – or mental health – support, even though virtually all of the child detainees had experienced severe psychological trauma and two told Human Rights Watch they wanted to kill themselves.
A detention center staff member said that one psychiatrist comes to the detention center one day per week, to offer counseling to the 158 boys held there on ISIS-related accusations. Some children said the psychiatrist primarily provides medication – one said he was given medication and did not know what it was. The psychosocial team at the detention center is also understaffed, and some children said they were uncomfortable speaking with the detention center’s psychosocial workers because they were Kurdish.
Because of the influx of child detainees, the detention center is filled to six times its intended capacity, with up to 22 children in a room, according to detention center staff. Human Rights Watch researchers observed that detention center staff have had to house the children in all common areas except the library, which is not open during afternoons or evenings. Sleeping areas now include the music room, which has no windows. This overcrowding and shortage of rooms has severely curtailed recreational activity for the children.
Human Rights Watch researchers also observed that despite cold winter temperatures almost none of the children had socks, and many had to share blankets or borrow clothes from other detainees. They said that family members were allowed to bring clothes and money to buy food and clothes during visits, but that children who could not receive visits had to rely on handouts from non-governmental organizations or fellow detainees.