I. Summary

“They tied my hands and hit me with cables, sticks, and threw punches at me. It was two people. I do not know their names. I lost consciousness and woke up in solitary. I was later given a paper and a pen by the officer and told to write my confession. The officer told me ‘make it up if you need to,’ so I did, and I put my fingerprint on it.”

-Kurdish detainee during interview with Human Rights Watch, Sulaimaniya, May 6, 2006

Security forces known as Asayish operate in the Kurdistan region of Iraq, attached to the two dominant political parties in the region, and outside the control of the regional government’s Ministry of Interior. The Asayish have held hundreds of detainees, particularly those arrested on suspicion of terrorism-related offenses, without due process, for up to five years in some cases. Detainees have reported that torture or other ill-treatment during the initial period of detention were routine and commonplace in facilities under Asayish authority.

This report details Human Rights Watch’s concerns regarding the right to due process and conditions of detention for persons held in the custody of the Asayish. The report is based on research conducted in the Kurdistan region from April to October 2006. During that time we held regular discussion with the Kurdish authorities, who took a number of steps toward fulfilling some of the recommendations we put to them. However, these efforts have not yet translated into any discernible improvement for most detainees in Asayish facilities.

The Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) are the two principal parties in the Kurdistan region and dominate the political scene. Each maintains its own Asayish (literally, “security”).1 The Asayish have primary responsibility for suspects held for security-related offenses and, in recent years, for persons suspected of membership in or links to opposition armed groups operating both in the Kurdistan region and elsewhere in Iraq. Asayish detainees include both persons whom the Kurdistan authorities arrested in governorates under their control, as well as scores of others arrested elsewhere in joint operations conducted by United States (US) forces and the Iraqi army, then transferred to the custody of the Kurdistan authorities. The Asayish also hold criminal suspects arrested for serious felonies, pending their referral to the courts.

Human Rights Watch found that in the vast majority of Asayish detainee cases the Kurdistan authorities did not charge detainees with offenses, allow them access to a lawyer, bring them before an investigative judge, provide a mechanism by which they could appeal their detentions, or bring them to trial within a reasonable time period. Of the detainees held on suspicion of having committed serious felonies, including premeditated murder, Human Rights Watch found several cases where courts had acquitted defendants but they remained in detention, or persons had already served their terms of imprisonment but continued to be held. Most had no knowledge of their legal status, how long they would continue to be held, or what was to become of them.

Detainees reported a wide range of abuse, including beatings using implements such as cables, hosepipes, wooden sticks, and metal rods. Detainees also described how Asayish agents put them in stress positions for prolonged periods, and kept them blindfolded and handcuffed continuously for several days at a stretch. The vast majority of detainees with whom Human Rights Watch spoke also reported that they were held in solitary confinement for extended periods. With some exceptions, Human Rights Watch found that conditions of detention at Asayish facilities were severely overcrowded and unhygienic, and many detainees complained that they were allowed out of their cells only to use the toilet.

Scores of detainees also complained that the authorities denied them access to relatives, and that in some cases their relatives were unaware of where they were being held. This related in particular to the initial months after arrest, when they were still undergoing interrogation. Others, mostly terrorism suspects, complained that once granted, the visits frequently lasted only minutes, and were always conducted in the presence of detaining officials.

In routinely ill-treating detainees and denying them basic due process rights, the Kurdistan authorities have violated both international human rights law and Iraqi law. Iraq is a state party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and other treaties that prohibit torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, and which provide detainees with due process rights, including the right to be notified of charges at the time of arrest. Iraq’ s Code of Criminal Procedure (CCP), which applies to all persons in Iraq, including residents of Kurdistan, provides protections against arbitrary arrest and detention, such as requiring criminal suspects to be brought before an investigating judge within 24 hours of arrest. Amendments to the CCP enacted by the Kurdistan National Assembly provide detainees with further protections, including the right to engage legal counsel or have legal counsel appointed at the investigative stage.

During the months that Human Rights Watch conducted research for this report, it held regular discussions with the Kurdistan authorities, and acknowledges the cooperation it received from officials of both the KDP and the PUK. While the two parties formally unified in July 2006, they still maintain separate detention facilities. The Kurdistan authorities from both the KDP and PUK gave Human Rights Watch access to all Asayish detention facilities and allowed unannounced visits at times of our own choosing. With the exception of detainees undergoing interrogation or held in solitary confinement, Human Rights Watch received the full assistance of prison officials to interview any of the other inmates held at these facilities in conditions that allowed for confidential interviews. The Kurdistan authorities also facilitated the organization’s access to Asayish officials, prison directors, legal advisers and other relevant actors. This cooperation was in stark contrast to the approach of the Iraqi Ministries of Interior and Defense, and to the US and United Kingdom (UK) military forces in Iraq, which since April 2003, have repeatedly denied Human Rights Watch’s requests for access to their detention facilities.

Human Rights Watch also acknowledges the seriousness with which the Kurdistan authorities responded to the concerns now highlighted in this report, indicating a new willingness to address the issues at hand. Between April and October 2006 the Kurdistan authorities took a number of concrete steps towards fulfilling, at least in part, some of the recommendations put forward by Human Rights Watch. Asayish officials initiated a partial review of detainee cases, accelerating the release of several hundred detainees, most of whom they had held without due process. In late September and early October, President Mas`ud Barzani, with whom the organization discussed its concerns in May 2006 and who had given a commitment to address the issues raised with him, instigated the creation of a committee representing the Ministries of Justice and Human Rights, the public prosecution, the Asayish forces, and the presidency of the Kurdistan region to carry out inspection visits to several Asayish detention facilities in Duhok and Arbil governorates. At this writing, the committee has reportedly prepared an initial report on these inspection visits, but has not made public its findings. Also in October the Kurdistan National Assembly undertook a separate initiative, charging a parliamentary group with conducting prison visits and reporting back on its findings. The group has reportedly finished its visits, but at this writing the Kurdistan National Assembly has not debated the parliamentary group’s findings.

With regard to detainees whom US and Iraqi forces reportedly jointly arrested outside the Kurdistan region and then transferred to the custody of the PUK or KDP authorities, Human Rights Watch welcomed the cooperation of both Asayish officials and the General Command of Multi-National Force (MNF) Detainee Operations with whom it raised these cases. When Human Rights Watch interviewed the first of these detainees in April 2006, the Kurdistan authorities had given little if any consideration to their legal status. By December the Kurdistan authorities had released several hundred of these detainees, and Asayish officials—particularly from the KDP—had established direct contact with the US General Command to discuss these cases. At this writing, both sides were working towards finding an early resolution to these cases, either by releasing these detainees or granting them due process rights if they are to be charged and referred to trial.

While Human Rights Watch recognizes and welcomes the cooperation and efforts of the Kurdistan authorities, these efforts have not translated into any discernible improvement for most detainees in Asayish detention facilities. The measures taken by the Kurdistan authorities to address these issues—although concrete and constructive—fall well short of the independent and impartial judicial review of the legal status of detainees that Human Rights Watch has recommended as a matter of urgency.

Key recommendations

While the Kurdish authorities have made some progress, it has been incremental. Human Rights Watch urges Kurdistan authorities to implement as swiftly as possible the following recommendations in order to bring practice and law regarding the treatment of detainees into line with international standards and Iraqi law. (Detailed recommendations, to the Kurdistan authorities and to other relevant actors, are set out at the end of the report.)

  • Appoint as a matter of urgency an independent judicial committee to review the legal status of detainees held in the custody of the Asayish forces. On the basis of the review’s findings:
    • Immediately release or charge with cognizable criminal offenses all those currently held without charge.
    • Immediately release all convicted prisoners held in Asayish custody who have already served their sentences.
    • Transfer any convicted prisoners still serving time to a prison under the authority of the Ministry of Interior’s police forces in accordance with legislation currently in force.
  • Establish effective judicial mechanisms to enable all detainees to challenge the legal basis for their detention, and to provide all detainees with a prompt and fair trial on the charges against them.
  • Publicly and unequivocally condemn the practice of torture and other ill-treatment. Suspend legal provisions that permit the use of confessions and other evidence obtained through torture or other coercive methods.
  • Investigate promptly all allegations of torture and ill-treatment, and ensure that guards, interrogators, and other prison officials who are found responsible for the abuse of prisoners are subject to disciplinary measures or criminal prosecution as appropriate.
    • To that end, authorize the establishment of a transparent and independent body to investigate allegations of torture by Asayish personnel.

1 Each has traditionally placed the Asayish under the authority of their respective ministries of interior (see Section V).