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Iraq is in the throes of a significant insurgency in which the Iraqi police and other security forces are prime targets.  The threat to the lives of police is real.  In just the last four months of 2004, approximately 1,300 Iraqi police and scores other Iraqi security forces have died at the hands of insurgents. This insurgency is occurring against a backdrop of general insecurity within Iraq that began soon after U.S.-led forces captured Baghdad and Saddam Hussein’s government crumbled.  The United States and its allies chose to stand by as widespread looting – driven by a multitude of motives – engulfed Baghdad and other Iraqi cities and towns.

The initial days following the fall of the Saddam Hussein government set the tone for what turned out to be a devastating and violent occupation and political transition.  Common criminals terrorize Iraqis with kidnappings and extortion schemes.  Insurgents daily target vulnerable civilians, as well as military targets, with suicide bombers and roadside bombs.  Revenge killings started slowly but grew to be virtually daily events with perceived Ba’thist supporters, and later those identified as supporting the U.S.-led occupation, caught in the crosshairs. Cities once cited as evidence of the success of the U.S. led coalition’s occupation such as Mosul have become bloody battlegrounds.  U.S.-led military operations against insurgent forces have resulted in unknown numbers of civilian casualties and destroyed property. 

During the U.S.-led military occupation following the fall of Baghdad, the United States and the United Kingdom, in accordance with the 1949 Geneva Conventions, had primary responsibility for the terms of detention, conditions of detention, treatment of detainees, and due process and fair trial protections of both captured insurgents and suspected common criminals.  Thousands of Iraqis were detained, and most released, during this period. Following the transfer of sovereignty on June 28, 2004 under Security Council resolution no. 1546, the so-called Multinational Force-Iraq (essentially U.S. forces and its allies) have maintained responsibility for the apprehension and detention of captured insurgents and other security detainees, including “high value detainees” such as Saddam Hussein and former government officials and foreign terror suspects.  The Iraqi Interim Government has assumed responsibility for the detention and prosecution of common criminal suspects and insurgents apprehended by Iraqi security forces.1 

Considerable international attention has rightly focused on torture and other abuse inflicted on detainees by U.S. forces at Abu Ghraib and other detention facilities in Iraq.  Accountability for these violations, and confidence that they are no longer occurring, has not been achieved.  At the same time, far less attention has been focused on the treatment of persons in the custody of Iraqi authorities.  In its February 2004 report to the U.S. government on conditions in 2003, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) found that Iraqi authorities had “allegedly whipped persons deprived of their liberty with cables on the back, kicked them in the lower parts of the body, including in the testicles, handcuffed and left them hanging from the iron bars of the cell windows or doors in painful positions for several hours at a time, and burned them with cigarettes (signs on bodies witnessed by ICRC delegates).  Several persons deprived of their liberty alleged that they had been made to sign a statement that they had not been allowed to read.”2  Public follow-up on this issue has been insufficient.

This report details serious and widespread human rights violations by Iraqi police against national security suspects, including insurgents, and suspected common criminals since late 2003.  As of mid-2004, Iraqi intelligence forces also committed serious violations, principally against members of political parties deemed to constitute a threat to state security. 

Human Rights Watch investigations in Iraq found the systematic use of arbitrary arrest, prolonged pre-trial detention without judicial review, torture and ill-treatment of detainees, denial of access by families and lawyers to detainees, improper treatment of detained children, and abysmal conditions in pre-trial detention facilities. Trials are marred by inadequate legal representation and the acceptance of coerced confessions as evidence.  Persons tortured or mistreated have inadequate access to health care and no realistic avenue for legal redress.  With rare exception, Iraqi authorities have failedto investigateand punish officials responsible for violations.  International police advisers, primarily U.S. citizens funded through the United States, have turned a blind eye to these rampant abuses.  

The Iraqi Interim Government, led by Prime Minister Ayad ‘Allawi and presented to the international community as a sign that the violence and abuses of the Saddam Hussein government are a thing of the past, appears to be actively taking part, or is at least complicit, in these grave violations of fundamental human rights. Nor has the United States, the United Kingdom or other involved governments publicly taken up these issues as a matter of concern. 

Human Rights Watch recognizes the enormous difficulties inherent in reconstituting a police force in Iraq today, where prevailing security conditions affect all aspects of life and new police recruits are among the prime targets of attack.  Those involved in law enforcement additionally have to contend with the legacy of the Saddam Hussein government, whose human rights record stood out as being among the worst anywhere.  Iraq nonetheless remains bound by its obligations under international law.  International law is unambiguous in that no government -- not Saddam Hussein’s, not the occupying powers and not the Iraqi Interim Government -- can justify ill-treatment of persons in custody in the name of security.  International human rights agreements to which Iraq is a party, most notably the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), ensures basic protections for persons even in the midst of emergencies now faced by Iraq.3 

Human rights law recognizes that respect for rights and the rule of law cannot be built on fresh abuses.  A new Iraqi government requires more than a change of leadership; it requires a change of attitude about basic human dignity. The new authorities must state unequivocally and publicly that the torture and ill-treatment of detainees will not be tolerated.  Equally, it must be made clear to law-enforcement personnel, many of whom held the same jobs under the previous government at a time when torture was the norm, that such abuses are no longer acceptable and will not go unpunished.  The current Iraqi authorities have failed to deliver this message, as have their international advisers in assisting them to assume that responsibility.  In allowing such abuses to go unchecked while continuing to give absolute priority to bringing the security situation under control, it may prove very difficult further down the line to deliver a police force that the Iraqi people can have confidence in, threatening the ultimate aim of lasting security where basic human rights are respected.     

[1] The Iraqi authorities, in the form of the Iraqi Interim Governing Council (IGC), began taking responsibility for detainees within the criminal justice system in September or October 2003, taking into their custody individuals accused of so-called “Iraqi-on-Iraqi” crimes. 

[2] International Committee of the Red Cross, Report of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) on the Treatment by the Coalition Forces of Prisoners of War and Other Protected Persons by the Geneva Conventions in Iraq During Arrest, Internment and Interrogation, February 2004, p. 16.  This report, which has not been released by the ICRC, was reportedly leaked by a U.S. official to the media after the Abu Ghraib scandal broke in May 2004.  Several of the detention facilities cited in the ICRC report in connection with the abuse of inmates were among those from where Human Rights Watch also received similar allegations, including the Major Crimes Directorate and police stations in al-Dora, al-Bayya’, al-Qanat and al-Salhiyya.

[3]  Article 4 of the ICCPR is explicit: during a state of emergency, states parties may not derogate from the prohibition on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, among other fundamental rights.  It reads: “1. In time of public emergency which threatens the life of the nation and the existence of which is officially proclaimed, the States Parties to the present Covenant may take measures derogating from their obligations under the present Covenant to the extent strictly required by the exigencies of the situation, provided that such measures are not inconsistent with their other obligations under international law and do not involve discrimination solely on the ground of race, colour, sex, language, religion or social origin.  2. No derogation from articles 6, 7 [torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment], 8 (paragraphs 1 and 2), 11, 15, 16 and 18 may be made under this provision.”  Iraq ratified the ICCPR in 1971. 

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