(Beirut) – The Kurdistan Regional Government in northern Iraq is torturing children to confess to involvement with the Islamic State (ISIS), Human Rights Watch said today.
Children told Human Rights Watch that in 2017 and 2018, security officers, known as Asayish, used beatings, stress positions, and electric shock on boys in their custody. Most said they had no access to a lawyer and they were not allowed to read the confessions Asayish wrote and forced them to sign.
“Nearly two years after the Kurdistan Regional Government promised to investigate the torture of child detainees, it is still occurring with alarming frequency,” said Jo Becker, children’s rights advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. “The Kurdistan authorities should immediately end all torture of child detainees and investigate those responsible.”
Human Rights Watch interviewed 20 boys, ages 14 to 17, charged or convicted of ISIS affiliation, at the Women and Children’s Reformatory in Erbil in November 2018, and three boys who had recently been released. The reformatory, a locked detention center encircled by high walls and concertina wire, is one of three facilities holding children in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq.
At the time of the visit, reformatory staff reported that 63 children were being held at the facility for alleged terrorism-related offenses, including 43 who had been convicted. Human Rights Watch also interviewed staff, relatives of some of the children, and two 18-year-olds who had also been arrested and detained.
Sixteen of the 23 children said that one or more Asayish officers had tortured them during interrogation at Asayish facilities, beating them all over their bodies with plastic pipes, electric cables, or rods. Three boys said that the officers used electric shocks. Others described being tied into a painful stress position called the “scorpion” for up to two hours. Several boys said the torture continued over consecutive days, and only ended when they confessed.
Four other boys said Asayish threatened them with torture during interrogation. “If you don’t tell us the truth, I will call the guys and they will beat you and break your bones,” a 17-year-old boy recalled his interrogator telling him.
Several boys said that they had joined and worked with ISIS or received religious or military training. One worked as a driver, another as a cook. Only one said that he had participated in fighting against Iraqi military forces in Nineveh governate. Others said that they had no personal involvement with ISIS, although family members were involved. Some said that neither they nor their family were involved. Human Rights Watch was not able to independently assess their possible involvement with ISIS.
All but one of the boys interviewed said they eventually confessed. Most said they had no choice to stop the torture, and many said they had lied. “My confession says that I joined ISIS for 16 days, but actually, I didn’t join at all,” said a 16-year-old boy. “I said 16 days to stop the torture.”
Most of the boys said that their interrogators told them what they should confess. “First they said I should say I was with ISIS, so I agreed,” said a 14-year-old boy. “Then they told me I had to say I worked for ISIS for three months. I told them I was not part of ISIS, but they said, ‘No, you have to say it.’” He said that after two hours of interrogation and torture, he agreed.
None of the boys said that they were allowed to read the confession Asayish wrote for them and forced them to sign. Most only learned what it said when it was read out in court.
At least five boys said they told an investigative or trial judge that their confession was produced under torture, but that the judges appeared to ignore their statements. The boys said terrorism suspects are brought before an investigative judge, typically while in Asayish custody, and that the judge may then order the suspect’s transfer to the detention center pending trial before a three-judge panel.
The methods of torture the boys described, as well as their accounts of inadequate counsel and scarce communication with family members, were similar to the accounts of 17 boys held for alleged association with ISIS at the same detention center who spoke with Human Rights Watch in December 2016. In 2017, the regional government promised to establish an investigative committee in conjunction with the United Nations Assistance Mission to Iraq to address the allegations.
Human Rights Watch wrote to Dr. Dindar Zebari, the regional government’s coordinator for international advocacy, requesting comment on the new findings. Zebari responded on December 18 that security officials are not permitted to torture detainees, and that if detainees are tortured, they have a right to make a formal complaint. He also stated that detainees have the right to request a lawyer, that families are notified if a child is detained, and that child detainees can call their families with Asayish present. He did not provide any information regarding the investigative committee or any other measures taken to investigate Asayish officers implicated in torture.
International human rights and humanitarian law prohibit torture and other ill-treatment. Children should only be detained as a last resort and for the shortest appropriate period. International law regarding children and armed conflict calls on states to assist children illegally recruited by armed groups or forces, including providing appropriate assistance for their physical and psychological recovery and social reintegration. Children charged with criminal offenses have the right to legal assistance and a prompt determination of their case. They also have the right not to be compelled to give testimony or confess guilt, and statements derived from torture cannot be used as evidence in court.
Kurdish regional authorities should not arrest any child without credible evidence of criminal activity and should establish rehabilitation and reintegration programs for children who may have been involved with ISIS. Authorities should ensure that there is a clear legal basis for detaining any child, and that the child is promptly taken before a judge to rule on the legality of their detention.
The Kurdish government should ensure that any child charged with criminal offenses has legal representation, including during their interrogations, and contact with their family. The authorities should take immediate action to end all use of torture and coerced confessions, and to investigate and appropriately prosecute those responsible. Judges learning of torture should transfer the child to a different facility, ensure that adequate medical care is provided, and order a retrial if a coerced confession was used.
“Many of these children have already been scarred by conflict and ISIS abuses,” Becker said. “Instead of achieving justice, torture and coerced confessions only compound their suffering and contribute to further grievances.”
Treatment of Children
None of the boys were brought before a judge within 24 hours of their initial detention, as required by the regional government’s penal code. Most said they saw a judge several days after their arrest. Most were transferred to the reformatory within 15 days of arrest, but several were detained in Asayish custody for between two and five months, they said.
Most of the children interviewed said they were arrested at checkpoints entering the Kurdistan Region, often because their name was on a security list of ISIS suspects, while others were arrested at camps for internally displaced people. Many boys believed their name appeared on a security list because a family member was affiliated with ISIS, their name was similar to another suspect’s, or people from their village had reported their family because of unrelated grievances.
Only four of the boys appeared to have legal representation. Some had no idea whether they had a lawyer, and most were unaware of their right to legal representation. Some reported that reformatory staff had told them that lawyers were only available if they could pay. Two boys met with a lawyer hired privately just once before their trial, and two others said that they saw someone whom they believed was a lawyer for the first time only at their trial. Even then, they had little to no interaction with the lawyer, and if the lawyer spoke to the judge, it was in Kurdish, which they did not understand.
They said their trials lasted only 5 or 10 minutes. They said no witnesses appeared at their trials, and none were aware of any evidence presented apart from their confession. Most of those convicted received sentences of six or nine months in detention.
None of the boys said they were allowed to communicate with their families while in Asayish custody. Once at the reformatory, children were allowed family visits before trial, but most said they were denied phone calls until after sentencing. For some detainees, the inability to make phone calls meant that their families had no idea where they were. One boy said he had been detained for nearly two years without contact with his family. Reformatory staff said that the Asayish determines whether detainees can receive visits or phone calls.
Torture, Lack of Legal Counsel, Unfair Trials
“Samir,” whose real name, like those of other boys interviewed, is withheld to protect his security, was arrested by military forces at a checkpoint in late 2017, when he was 16. He said:
There were three [Asayish] officers. They bound my hands behind my back, one from above and one below. They beat me with a stick and they gave me 5 to 10 electric shocks. They put the pads on my left shoulder and on my stomach. And while they gave me the shocks, they were beating me with a rod. They did this three days in a row. I was in the room for hours, with them coming in and out and taking breaks. On the third day I confessed. They said to admit to two months with ISIS. I did, but it was a lie. I was never with ISIS.
“Tahir,” 17, said that Asayish officers applied electric shocks to his body during his interrogation in late 2017 at the Asayish headquarters, General Security Directorate, also known as Asayish Gishti. He said that Asayish interrogated and tortured him for three days:
My hands were bound and there were six or seven officers in the room. They were all hitting me. They hit my legs and upper arms. Each day they gave me five electric shocks in a row, on my arms, chest, and upper legs. They said, “You need to say you were with ISIS, even if you weren’t you need to say it.” On the third day, I confessed to [being with ISIS for] four days. They said, “You need to say more.” I didn’t say more, I refused to.”
“Hussein” was arrested by security forces at a checkpoint in late 2017, when he was 14. He said he was held for five months at Asayish headquarters and that during interrogation:
They [Asayish officers] beat me all over my body with a plastic water pipe, and then tied my hands like a scorpion [one arm over the shoulder, and the other behind his back] for two hours. They asked me about ISIS, saying, “You have to confess you are ISIS.” They forced me to confess that I worked with ISIS for one month. They also said I should say I used Kalashnikovs [AK-47s], M16s, and PKCs [machine guns].
He said none of it was true, but that Asyasish officers told him that if he didn’t confess, they would keep torturing him and would use an electric cable.
Admitting to ISIS involvement did not preclude being tortured. “Jabar,” 17, said that when the Peshmerga, the regional government’s military, asked him about ISIS involvement, he immediately admitted that he had joined ISIS and worked as a driver for three months. He said Asayish still interrogated him using torture, demanding the names of ISIS commanders and friends who had joined ISIS. He said that Asayish officers beat him on his back with a plastic pipe for 40 minutes and tied him in the “scorpion” position for an hour. He said he didn’t know the names of any commanders but gave the names of his friends. He said after the interrogation, he was unable to lie on his back for a week.
Several boys said they were not beaten, but that Asayish threatened them with torture. “Nasim,” a 17-year-old arrested at a checkpoint in late 2018, said that during his interrogation Asayish officers said, “If you say you didn’t join, we will send you to the PMF [Baghdad-backed Popular Mobilization Forces] and they will kill you.” He told Human Rights Watch he had not been involved with ISIS but confessed to the interrogators and agreed to say that he had spent 15 days with ISIS. “They said that wasn’t enough, so I said 30 days.” A week later, he saw an investigative judge, who asked him if his confession was correct. “I said yes, because I was afraid if I didn’t, they might torture me or do something to me.”
“Sadoon,” 17, said the Asayish interrogated and beat him several times in late 2018 at Asayish headquarters. “Several times they said to me, ‘If you don’t confess, I will take you outside and beat you until you confess. We won’t bring you to the reformatory until you confess.’”
“Shamal,” 16, said the Asayish arrested him in early 2018 when he accompanied his mother to Erbil. At first, he denied any ISIS involvement. He said that when ISIS came to his community, his family took their sheep and left the area. He said that Asayish officers interrogated and beat him:
I think there were three officers, but I was blindfolded, so I am not sure. They kept saying, “You are ISIS,” and hit me many times with long rods. On the second day, the same thing happened, so finally that day I confessed. They said to say that I was with ISIS for six months, but I said no, that I would only confess to two months.
“Samir” was tried in mid-2018. He said:
Maybe there was a female lawyer for me, I’m not sure. During my case she was speaking to the judges in Kurdish. She never spoke to me and did not meet me before or after trial.
“Sami,” 17, arrested in mid-2018, said:
Here in prison, they come by, the staff, with lists of lawyers, and say how much it would cost to get one. You cannot get a lawyer for free. I am too scared to ask for a lawyer when I go to the judge. They may punish me with a longer sentence.
Most of the boys said that their trial lasted no more than 5 or 10 minutes. They said the judge typically read their confession and asked if they had joined ISIS. Although the judges spoke Arabic to the boys, they generally spoke Kurdish to others in the courtroom and among themselves.
“Khalef,” 14, described his trial in August:
At the trial, the judge asked if I was ISIS or not. I said I wasn’t. He read my confession. I said my confession came from torture, but the judge didn’t say anything. He sentenced me to six months. The trial lasted about 10 minutes.
“Shamal,” 16, was arrested in early 2018 and tried five months later. He said that when he appeared before an investigative judge, he told the judge he had confessed under torture. “The judge just nodded and told me to leave the room. He didn’t order a medical exam or anything like that.” The judge confirmed his charge and two months later, he was tried before three judges. He had no lawyer, but again told the judges that he had been tortured. “They ignored it.”