(Beirut) – Iraqi security officers are denying immediate relatives of suspected Islamic State (also known as ISIS) members security clearance to reclaim homes being occupied or to seek compensation, Human Rights Watch said today. Security forces have also destroyed or confiscated some property. Such acts, based only on family relationships to ISIS suspects rather than individual security determinations, are a form of collective punishment.
“These families deserve the same protections that Iraqi courts provide to all citizens,” said Lama Fakih, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Courts should be the guarantors against discrimination that will only further sectarian divisions in the country and delay needed reconciliation.”
Human Rights Watch has previously reported on the obstacles families of suspected ISIS members face in obtaining the civil documentation required to sue or to apply for compensation. The Ministry of Interior’s Intelligence and National Security Service (NSS) requires a security screening to get these documents, but families automatically fail if their relatives are on a list of people wanted for ISIS affiliation.
Hamid al-Zerjawi, deputy National Security Service chief, told Human Rights Watch on April 17, 2018 that families of suspects should not have trouble getting security clearance based on their relatives’ status, but did not deny that this may be happening at the local level.
Five lawyers, Mosul’s former police chief, and a senior Mosul court judge told Human Rights Watch that Iraqi security forces or other families have seized the property of relatives of suspected ISIS members since November 2016, when government forces began to retake the city from ISIS, although none were able to provide citywide statistics. The lawyers said they know of at least 16 instances in which federal and local security forces have occupied the homes of families of suspected ISIS members who temporarily fled during 2016 fighting, preventing the families from returning. In five other instances, security forces forced families out and occupied the homes. In two cases, families who had taken over homes later refused to move out or pay rent.
A community leader in the east Mosul neighbourhood of Hadba said in February that in April 2017 he had tried to help an old woman whose apartment had been occupied by displaced families from west Mosul to get them to pay rent. But NSS and local police intelligence officers intervened, telling her she could not ask for rent because her son had joined ISIS and warned her not to return. The community leader said he could not help her.
Nawfa Hadi Hussain, 54, who lives in a camp south of Mosul, said on March 8 that she owns a house in Somar neighborhood, in west Mosul, which her family had been renting out for years. But she said that in December, the tenants refused to pay, apparently believing they could get away with it because two of her sons had joined ISIS. She said she tried to go to court but was met by an intelligence officer who told her: “You are an ISIS family, you have no more rights. The judge said that if you don’t leave now, we should break your legs.” She didn’t believe that the judge said that, but was unable to enter the courthouse.
Human Rights Watch spoke with seven other people with information about house expropriations in Mosul. They cited cases in Zahra, Khadra, Tayaran, Wahda, and Hadba neighborhoods, where various forces engaged in the expropriations, including local police, Federal Police, and the Popular Mobilization Forces. Altogether, they said they knew about 16 expropriations of homes registered to ISIS suspects or their relatives. In each case, the owners or their relatives were unable to retake the property, even when they sought judicial redress.
Human Rights Watch also spoke to two families with relatives who joined ISIS who said when they returned home, all their possessions had been looted. Wathad Obeid, 42, from Tal Rumman neighborhood in west Mosul, returned in May 2017 after fleeing three months earlier when relatives told her the house was being looted. She said she found “Daesh” [another term for ISIS] written on the walls, and was told by a water deliveryman that he would only give her two gallons because her son had joined ISIS. “I left after a few days because I didn’t feel comfortable there,” she said, and the army refused to let her relatives move in to protect the house.
Um Nasir, 65, from Tanak neighborhood in west Mosul, said she fled her home to a camp in March 2017, but returned in June, after neighbors told her the house had been burned, with “Daesh” written on the wall. She lived with her daughter and granddaughter in a small side room that had not been destroyed. In September, Federal Police came to the home, she said, claiming that neighbors had complained about their presence, as an “ISIS family.”
“I said to them, it was only one of my son’s but my daughter, granddaughter, all the rest of us are clean,” she said. “They got angry when I said that and stormed in, and started destroying our water pipes, water tank, dishes, furniture, everything. I left early the next morning, and since then our relatives have told us we can’t come home.”
Abdulsattar al-Habu, Mosul’s Municipality Manager, admitted that some security forces were unlawfully occupying homes of families of ISIS members, but said that judges were able to address these cases. Their cases cannot go forward without the security clearance, however.
Article 23 of Iraq’s Constitution (2005) prohibits the expropriation of property, except for the public benefit and in return for just compensation. The 1951 Civil Code lays out the main legal mechanism for legal protections and actions to remove “adverse possessors” (Article 1150) and “usurpers” (Articles 192-201).
But Mosul’s former police chief, Wathiq al-Hamdani, told Human Rights Watch that if a home is registered in the name of the individual ISIS member, a judge can legally expropriate the home in the name of the state, and even give the house to another owner. He said he knew of cases in which property had been expropriated.
A judge at Nineveh’s Appeals Court said on April 4 that this was justified under the counterterrorism law, provision 6(2): “All funds, seized items, and accessories used in the criminal act or in preparation for its execution shall be confiscated.” The head judge of the court disagreed, saying it was stretching the meaning of the provision, but conceded that some forces in Mosul, including the police, were occupying homes illegally in this manner.
Law No. 20, Compensating the Victims of Military Operations, Military Mistakes and Terrorist Actions (2009) created governmental commissions to compensate Iraqis affected by terrorism, military operations, and military errors, including for an apartment, land, or financial support to build a house. Mosul’s compensation commission denied to Human Rights Watch on April 4 that families of ISIS members are barred from receiving compensation, saying they should be able to obtain the required NSS security clearance to do so.
But an aid worker and a lawyer experienced in seeking the security clearances said that all families of ISIS suspects are being denied clearance. As a result, every family interviewed with a relative who had joined ISIS said they saw no point in trying to file for compensation.
It is a basic rule under international law that punishment for crimes should only be imposed on people responsible for the crimes, after a fair trial to determine individual guilt. Imposing collective punishment on families, villages, or entire communities is strictly forbidden and can itself be a crime, especially if it results in forced displacement. Iraqi authorities should also respect the basic human rights of everyone in the country including the right to respect property and the home, and to avoid forced evictions.
“The prime minister needs to show that his office takes a clear stand against this form of collective punishment and will combat it at its root,” Fakih said. “He should order the intelligence services to give these families security clearance and make clear that people who commit crimes should be fairly tried and punished, but not entire families.”