ISIS Child Suspects Arbitrarily Arrested, Tortured in Iraq

Children involved in armed conflict are entitled to rehabilitation and reintegration, not torture and prison.

Over the past two years, Iraqi courts have processed more than 20,000 terrorism cases against the Islamic State (also known as ISIS) suspects, including hundreds of children. But a new United Nations report finds that far from delivering justice, these trials are seriously flawed.  

The UN monitored more than 600 trial hearings against ISIS suspects in 2018 and 2019. It found judges relied heavily on confessions, despite frequent allegations of torture. The courts made little distinction between those responsible for violent crimes and those coerced into ISIS association or those that joined for their own survival. Whether they served as a commander or a cook, most were simply charged with ISIS membership, which can carry a death sentence. Lawyers, almost always state-appointed, rarely saw – or questioned – the “evidence” against their clients. Perhaps even worse, the trials completely excluded the participation of victims or witnesses of ISIS abuse.

Forty-four of the cases involved defendants who were children at the time of their alleged activity with ISIS. The majority said they were tortured, yet most still received sentences of 10 to 20 years in prison.

The UN report mirrors what a colleague and I found in northern Iraq a year and a half ago. In November 2018, we interviewed 29 children detained as ISIS suspects in Erbil. Most told us that interrogators tortured them to get confessions, beating them with plastic pipes, electric cables, or rods, subjecting them to electric shocks, or using painful stress positions. Many of the children said they had little or no actual involvement with ISIS but confessed simply to stop the torture.

Iraq seems determined to repeat mistakes from the past. The UN report noted that allegations of torture, ill-treatment, and unfair trials helped ISIS to build popular support. It says the current trials, built on inhumane detention and torture, “can only serve a narrative of grievance and revenge.”

Iraq needs to significantly change its approach to ISIS suspects by immediately ending all torture of detainees, excluding forced confessions as evidence, ensuring fair trials with effective legal representation, and letting victims participate in the trials. Children in particular should be recognized as victims of ISIS. They are entitled to rehabilitation, not prison.