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Graffiti that reads "Daesh (ISIS)," marks the home of relatives of an ISIS member in a west Mosul neighborhood, Iraq.  © 2018 Private

(Beirut) – Iraqi authorities in Nineveh are harassing, threatening, and arresting aid workers, even bringing bogus terrorism charges against them, undermining their work, Human Rights Watch said today. In some cases, local authorities are also compelling organizations to stop providing services to families the authorities accuse of ISIS ties.

“As if the their working conditions aren’t difficult enough, aid workers in Mosul and other parts of Nineveh have faced baseless charges of ISIS affiliation, and have even been arrested,” said Lama Fakih, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Charges of ISIS affiliation appear to be thinly veiled attempts to get some organizations to divert aid to corrupt local authorities or to stop giving assistance to some needy families accused of having relatives in ISIS.”

Human Rights Watch spoke with two people who have been tracking harassment of and physical assaults on aid workers by government officials. The sources said that since January 2018, they had documented at least 22 incidents in Nineveh, ranging from intimidation and arrests to assault, robbery, and live fire incidents. They said that such abuses were not unique to the governorate, with similar cases happening elsewhere in Iraq. Human Rights Watch documented two cases in which authorities detained aid workers because of humanitarian work, accusing them of being affiliated with ISIS.

In one case Human Rights Watch documented in early December 2018, a local lawyer for an aid organization said that military intelligence officers arrested him, two drivers, and a group of displaced people he was trying to help to get identity documents. He said they repeatedly interrogated the group and accused them of ISIS affiliation despite running their names through security databases and confirming that they were not wanted.

The officers refused to release the group even after the lawyer overheard a judge whom one officer called tell him that they could not charge the group with anything. After holding them for a day and a half, the officers took the group to a police station and the police eventually released them without charge.

Human Rights Watch has previously documented 17 cases in which lawyers working for humanitarian organizations in Nineveh over the last two years had witnessed or themselves experienced verbal harassment, arrest threats, or arrest.

In another recent case, an international aid worker said that in early January 2019, he saw a colleague who is a guard at a camp for displaced people south of Mosul prevent a group of armed local police from entering the camp with their armored vehicle. The action was consistent with global humanitarian principles on the nature of camps and an April 2017 directive from the then-prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, barring armed personnel from camps. But the aid worker said that police arrested the guard after he left work, took him to a local police station, beat and robbed him, and accused him of ISIS affiliation. After colleagues intervened, police released him and dropped the allegations against him, but later that night the same officers made death threats against him and other guards at the camp.

In another case, an aid worker said, staff at an aid agency refused to add a neighborhood leader to the group’s list of people entitled to its benefits because he did not meet their criteria. The neighborhood leader then filed a complaint with the Nineveh governor’s office, saying the organization was supporting ISIS.

The aid worker said the man called one of the team members and said he would drop the complaint if they added his name to the list. The aid worker refused. The aid worker said that she received calls from three other organizations telling her that at a meeting with the Nineveh governor, his deputy said that her organization was “supporting terrorism” and that his office had opened a full investigation.

Since then, an administrative assistant in the office of the governor of Nineveh has called in several staff members of the aid group to interrogate them. In early October, the governor’s office called the aid worker again, demanding the organization’s beneficiary lists to “vet them to exclude ISIS families.” She said the governor’s office also told the group to hire three specific people, implying that hiring them would resolve the accusations.

The aid worker said that as a result of the threats and demands, which she described as routine in several areas where the organization works, it has had to halt three major projects in Nineveh, with donors threatening to pull their funding as a result.

Local attempts to use terrorism allegations to compel organizations to alter lists of people entitled to their services have been successful in some cases. Another international aid worker said that his agency sends engineers to identify homes of civilians to rehabilitate in areas damaged by fighting, but that a governor has told him that organizations rebuilding private property are prohibited from rehabilitating homes of families with perceived ISIS affiliation.

In early November, the aid worker said, a local leader approached his team in Mosul and said the organization could not work on 20 homes it had identified because he had new information these families had relatives who were ISIS members. The aid worker said he demanded substantiation for the claims, but his organization was concerned that if the ties could be shown but they continued their work on those homes, the authorities would block the rest of their work.

Human Rights Watch has previously documented security forces preventing certain families from receiving humanitarian or legal assistance if authorities or local communities perceive them to be affiliated with ISIS.

Aid agencies told Human Rights Watch said that they have raised these incidents with the office of the prime minister, but have not received information about tangible steps taken to address the attacks and prevent further harassment.

On February 21, Human Rights Watch sent a letter to the attention of the prime minister, requesting information on the steps his office has taken to investigate allegations of attacks on aid workers, to punish security officers responsible for attacks, and to prevent future attacks.

Iraq’s security forces, with the support of coalition partners, should integrate information around the protection of humanitarian workers and principles into training curricula and establish Standard Operating Procedures for investigating and addressing incidents of targeting or interference with humanitarian work.

Donors funding humanitarian operations in Iraq, coalition partners, and leaders in humanitarian agencies and organizations should raise cases of targeting and interference with the office of the prime minister and with implicated security forces, and press the government to put a stop to the attacks and to hold those responsible to account. Donors should use all opportunities to reiterate humanitarian principles and principles of needs-based programming to government officials.

“Unless there is a robust response to abuses of aid workers and attempts to undermine aid operations, it is going to become even harder and more dangerous for them to help Iraqis who need their assistance, including families with perceived ISIS affiliation,” Fakih said.

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