His Excellency Masoud Barzani
Kurdistan Regional Government
We write to share with you the general findings of research conducted by Human Rights Watch regarding the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG)’s treatment of children held on suspicion of committing terrorism offenses or affiliation with the Islamic State (also known as ISIS) and to ask for the KRG’s input and clarification on several key questions.
Responses received by January 10, 2017 will be reflected in our reporting on this topic.
Human Rights Watch researchers visited the Women and Children's Reformatory in Erbil in early December and conducted private interviews with 19 child terrorism suspects, all of them boys ages 11 to 17. Human Rights Watch asked to interview some of the boys based on previous interviews with family members and others social workers brought at random. Human Rights Watch researchers also interviewed family members of 17 boys, some of whom researchers later interviewed, and members of the reformatory staff and independent experts on the KRG legal process and court procedures.
We thank KRG authorities for allowing Human Rights Watch researchers to visit the reformatory and speak with detainees, and we hope that authorities in the future will also permit visits by independent monitoring groups to Asayish detention facilities including the General Security Directorate (Asayish Gishti) in Erbil. Human Rights Watch requested access to this facility on November 28, 2016, but KRG authorities denied the request on December 1, 2016. Granting access to detention facilities demonstrates the KRG’s transparency and increases confidence that detainees are treated in accordance with international standards.
Human Rights Watch is gravely concerned that Asayish officers have physically and mentally tortured these children during questioning, and that their conditions of detention fall far short of international standards for humane treatment and due process.
The children alleged that most of the abuse took place at the General Security Directorate in Erbil but that Asayish members also beat and otherwise mistreated them within the fenced screening center, known as the reception center, at the entrance of Debaga camp and at Hashansham camp, and Asayish stations in Debaga town, Makhmour, and Kirkuk. Some children said that they were sent to the reformatory 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, in which no lawyer or guardian is present during transfer or interrogation.
Both children and reformatory staff told Human Rights Watch that many of the child detainees have not had contact with family members in months. Two children told Human Rights Watch that they are suicidal and others said that other detainees who had talked about suicide. While Human Rights Watch recognizes that the KRG faces serious security threats and that it has a duty to keep people safe from groups such as ISIS, the treatment child detainees described violates international law protections. Even in times of emergency, authorities are prohibited from committing torture and other ill-treatment of those in custody.
Apart from one Kurdish boy, all the children interviewed by Human Rights Watch at the reformatory were Sunni Arabs from areas of Nineveh, Salah al-Din, or Kirkuk governorates that remain or were until recently under ISIS control. All were apprehended by KRG security or military forces between July and November 2016, mostly from the Debaga Camp for internally displaced people, north of Makhmour. All were held in Asayish custody for days or weeks before being transferred to the reformatory.
Seventeen of the children interviewed by Human Rights Watch said that KRG intelligence or security forces, in almost all cases from the Asayish, tortured or otherwise ill-treated them while in Asayish detention, especially during interrogation sessions. The children said the abuse included holding them in stress positions, burning their skin with cigarettes, punching and kicking them, and beating them with plastic pipes and cables. Nine of the children told Human Rights Watch that Asayish interrogators shocked them with electricity during interrogation sessions. Another child told Human Rights Watch that an Asayish officer at the General Security Directorate pulled his pants down and threatened to rape him if he did not confess his affiliation with ISIS. Five children still had visible marks that they said were caused by cigarette burns or electric shocks during interrogation.
The children said that Asayish members tortured them to pressure them to fingerprint confessions admitting to involvement or affiliation with ISIS.
Nearly all the children who alleged that they were tortured by Asayish members said that they ultimately made and fingerprinted confessions in order to stop the torture. Some of the children freely admitted that they had worked with ISIS or received religious or weapons training, but they said Asayish interrogators continued to press them to falsely confess to greater involvement with ISIS, such as participation in battles or the killing of Peshmerga (KRG military) forces. None of the children whom Human Rights Watch interviewed knew the content of the confessions they fingerprinted – some were illiterate or blindfolded, and others said that they could not read the documents because they were written in Kurdish.
None of the children said they were provided with lawyers or permitted to have their parents or an adult guardian present during interrogation sessions or appearances before authorities whom they thought were judges. Nearly all said they had not seen anyone they thought was a judge within 24 hours of their detention. None of them said they received health screening or medical treatment in Asayish detention following the alleged torture or ill-treatment during interrogation. And they did not see medical professionals until they later reached the reformatory.
Of the 22 children interviewed by Human Rights Watch, only seven said that they had been permitted by Asayish to contact family members since their detention, despite repeated requests to do so. Some said they had to wait two or more months to make calls that were monitored by Asayish and lasted only two or three minutes. Five boys said their family members had been allowed to visit them. Two boys said they had been in detention for more than five months without any verbal or physical contact with family. Some of the children who have not been permitted to call family members told Human Rights Watch that they feared their families had no idea where they were or what happened to them.
One reformatory employee told Human Rights Watch that an Asayish officer comes to the reformatory every day with a list stating which detainees have permission to receive family visits or make phone calls, but none of the children interviewed knew how Asayish made these decisions. Several children and their family members told Human Rights Watch that even after Asayish officers said they had permission for family visits, that the KRG would not allow the family members past checkpoints into Erbil to do so. Two boys said they had received visits from family members living in Debaga camp only after an international organization organized the trips with KRG authorities.
None of the children had a clear understanding of the KRG’s legal process. Based on the information obtained from an independent legal expert, Human Rights Watch researchers and independent legal experts believe the vast majority of the boys in the reformatory have not been charged with a criminal offense and that the legal basis for their detention is unclear. In no cases had the children interviewed by Human Rights Watch already gone on trial. All of the children said that social workers at the reformatory told them they might remain there for about six months before going to court, but Human Rights Watch interviewed one boy who said he had been at the reformatory for nine months without being formally charged, and other boys said they knew of additional children who had been at the reformatory longer than six months without being formally charged.
Most of the children said that reformatory officials treated them well. However, several children, as well as reformatory staff, described an acute shortage of psychosocial care, even though virtually all the child detainees had experienced severe psychological trauma and many were suicidal. For example, Human Rights Watch was told that only one psychiatrist comes to the reformatory, only one day per week, to offer counselling to 140 children accused of terrorism. Some children said the psychiatrist primarily provides medication; one boy said he was given medication and did not know what it was. The psychosocial team is also understaffed, and some children said they were uncomfortable speaking with the reformatory’s psychosocial workers because the latter were Kurdish.
Because of the influx of terrorism suspects, the reformatory is filled to six times its intended capacity, with some rooms holding up to 22 boys. Reformatory staff have had to house the boys 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 has severely curtailed recreational activity for the boys. Although the reformatory offers schooling, most of the boys accused of terrorism do not attend as the instruction is only in Kurdish.
Human Rights Watch researchers also observed that despite cold winter temperatures almost none of the boys had socks, and many had to share blankets or borrow clothes from other detainees. The boys said that family members were allowed to bring clothes and money during visits, but that detainees who could not receive visits had to rely on handouts from nongovernmental organizations or fellow detainees.
The Convention on the Rights of the Child, to which Iraq acceded in 1994, stipulates a number of important rights for children accused of committing crimes. It prohibits torture and ill-treatment (article 37(a)), provides that children should only be detained as a last resort and for the shortest appropriate period of time (article 37(b))and generally be allowed to maintain contact with his or her family through correspondence and visits (37(c)). Children have the right to prepare an appropriate defense with “legal or other appropriate assistance” (article 40(2)(b)(ii)), the right “to have the matter determined without delay by a competent, independent and impartial authority or judicial body in a fair hearing according to law, in the presence of legal or other appropriate assistance,” including the child’s parents or legal guardian (article 40(2)(b)(iii)), and the right to “not to be compelled to give testimony or to confess guilt” (article 40(2)(b)(iv)). KRG authorities appear to have violated all of these obligations in the case of the child terrorism suspects.
Questions from Human Rights Watch on Treatment of Child Terrorism Suspects by the KRG
In order to better understand and reflect the KRG’s treatment of child terrorism suspects, Human Rights Watch requests answers to the following questions by January 10, 2017, so that we may reflect your responses in our reporting on this topic.
Kindly send all responses to my colleague Belkis Wille, senior Iraq researcher, at email@example.com.
- Has the KRG received any complaints of torture or other inhumane treatment of child terrorism suspects in detention since June, 2014? Does the KRG have an internal complaints mechanism through which detainees can submit complaints about their treatment? If so, how many allegations were received, how many were investigated, and with what result?
- Have any Asayish officers been found to have ill-treated children in detention, and if so, how many, and what was the punishment? What steps is the KRG taking to prevent torture and other ill-treatment of child terrorism suspects?
- Do KRG authorities keep records of suicides or attempted suicides by children in custody on suspicion of terrorism, and if so, how many were recorded in 2016?
- How many children (ages 17 or under) are being detained by KRG authorities on suspicion of terrorism-related offenses including affiliation with ISIS?
- Are all child terrorism suspects detained in the reformatories in Erbil, Duhok, and Sulaymaniyah? If not, where else are these children detained?
- Given the lapse of the KRG’s counterterrorism law (Law No. 55 of 2006), under which laws are these suspects being held?
- How many child terrorism suspects have been formally charged with a terrorism-related crime? What crimes have they been charged with? How many children have been found guilty, and to what punishments have they been sentenced? If any children have been sentenced to the death penalty, how many?
- Given that many of the child terrorism suspects are accused of committing crimes in areas outside of the KRG’s legal jurisdiction, on what legal basis are KRG authorities holding them?
- What steps are KRG authorities taking to ensure that child terrorism detainees receive due process, and that no torture-tainted confessions are permissible in any trial proceedings? Would KRG authorities instruct Asayish members to allow child terrorism suspects to have their lawyer or a parent or guardian present during interrogation sessions and appearances before judges as a way to safeguard due process rights? If not, why not?
- Are Asayish officers instructed to allow child terrorism suspects to have their lawyer or a parent or guardian present during interrogation sessions as required by law? During appearances before judges? Have Asayish officers been penalized for failing to do so? In how many cases since June, 2014?
- What steps are KRG authorities taking to ensure that child terrorism detainees have phone contact or visits with family members as soon as possible? To inform families of the whereabouts of the child detainee? Is there a place where families can go to inquire as to whether their relative is detained?
- On what basis do Asayish officers decide which child terrorism suspects are denied permission to make phone calls and receive visits from family?
- What psychological and medical services are available to child terrorism suspects? Does the KRG believe the current levels of care is adequate and if not, what is the KRG doing to improve and increase access to this care?
We look forward to the KRG’s responses to our findings and questions by January 10, 2017. We would also welcome the opportunity to meet with your representatives to discuss ways to promptly address these concerns.
Sarah Leah Whitson
Middle East and North Africa
Human Rights Watch
CC: His Excellency Falah Mustafa
Minister of Foreign Affairs
Kurdistan Regional Government
CC: Fuad Hussein
Chief of Staff to the President
Kurdish Regional Government
CC: Dr. Dindar Zubari
Deputy Head of DFR for International Organizations
Chairperson of the High Committee to Follow Up and Respond to International Reports
Kurdish Regional Government