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The Iraq Report: Torture in Iraq prisons continues Open in fullscreen

The New Arab

The Iraq Report: Torture in Iraq prisons continues

Human Rights Watch says torture is widespread in Iraqi prisons [Getty]

Date of publication: 23 April, 2019

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This week's round-up of under-reported news focuses on the continuing abuses of Iraq's prison system, as well as the sarcasm and mockery that has met attempts to ban video games.

Despite countless reports documenting the use of torture by Iraqi authorities and associated Shia militias leading to promises of investigations and prosecutions, human rights monitors are continuing to report persistent use of torture in Iraqi jails.

These reports come as Iraq is in talks with the United States in a proposed multibillion dollar deal to take alleged Islamic State group fighters held in Syria into Iraqi custody and put them on trial.

While government agents are routinely using violence to extract dubious confessions that lead to death sentences, including against children, Iraq's parliament has decided to prioritise the banning of popular videogames for "inciting violence". This has, predictably, irritated Iraqis who have taken to social media to mock and criticise lawmakers for being completely detached from the realities faced by Iraqis daily, including the threat of violence from Iran-backed militants, IS remnants, and armed tribes fighting for dominance over land.

Torture persists in Iraqi jails

Iraqi officers at a detention facility in the former IS stronghold of Mosul have continued to torture detainees despite rights defenders' efforts to intervene, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said on Thursday.

HRW documented new torture allegations early this year at the Faisaliya prison in northern Iraq, around six months after publishing a report on what it said were "chilling" abuses there and in two nearby facilities. The rights group said it had reached out about last year's allegations to the Iraqi premier's office, the foreign ministry and the interior ministry, without response.

"If the Iraqi government ignores credible reports of torture, it's no wonder that the abuses persist," said Lama Fakih, HRW's deputy Middle East director.

"What will it take for the authorities to take torture allegations seriously?"

The new reports come from a detainee held in Faisaliya in early 2019. He described guards beating groups of naked detainees on their feet with plastic piping until they confessed to being affiliated with IS. The prisoner said guards also waterboarded detainees and suspended them from the ceiling with their hands tied behind their backs.

But rights groups including HRW say the accused are often detained on flimsy or circumstantial evidence, their trials do not guarantee due process, and that torture is widespread in Iraq's prison system leading to life sentences or even possibly executions.

Issues relating to the use of torture by Iraqi authorities have arisen on a number of occasions since the start of the year. HRW reported in March that children were being held incommunicado in prisons in the autonomous Kurdistan Region. Kurdish authorities were using torture against children to extract false confessions of IS membership before bringing the children before investigative judges were some trials lasted minutes.

In its Thursday release, HRW again said Iraqi judges had "routinely failed" to investigate credible reports of torture in detention. In the case of the children tortured in Kurdistan, judges routinely ignored pleas that their confessions had been extracted under duress and that they had no opportunity to review the evidence against them before trial.

Earlier this month, Iraq's High Judicial Council told HRW that Iraqi courts had investigated 275 complaints against investigative officers by the end of 2018. The council said 176 had been "resolved", without providing details of the outcome, while 99 were still being addressed.

As torture is systematically and institutionally accepted across the Iraqi justice and military system, any convictions against alleged IS members in Iraq will always carry the smell of injustice as the evidence procured in each case may have been obtained under torture or the credible threat of torture. For IS' victims to truly feel that justice has been served, they need to be certain that those punished for IS' crimes are indeed guilty, and not merely offered as sacrificial lambs to appease a national desire for vengeance.

Iraq seeks billions to put IS members on trial

Although Iraq is verifiably using torture to extract false confessions, Baghdad and Washington are currently in talks to transfer tens of thousands of alleged IS members from Syria to Iraq and to place them on trial, according to a report last week by The Guardian. Iraqi officials are seeking a multibillion dollar fee to process these individuals and hold them in prison camps before bringing them before Iraqi judges.

According to The Guardian, Iraq has asked for an eye-watering $10 billion up front with a further $1 billion per annum for as long as it takes to process and put the suspects on trial. Worryingly, and in direct relation to reports of Iraq’s habitual use of torture, Baghdad has also demanded that humanitarian workers should not be allowed any access to detainees nor should Washington or its allies object to the use of the death penalty.

The United States is interested in lessening the burden on its Kurdish allies, the People's Protection Units, better known as the YPG. The YPG has said that it does not have the resources to continue to hold the suspects, and detention centres are steadily spiralling out of control. Should a breakout occur due to a lack of resources, it would undermine President Donald Trump's justification for withdrawing the bulk of US forces from Syria as IS would once again be on the loose in the war-ravaged country.

Tens of thousands of alleged IS fighters and their families are being held in detention camps in Syria, with most countries around the world being unwilling to repatriate their citizens who had willingly travelled to join IS' so-called "caliphate". Despite US pressure for allied nations to take their errant citizens back home to face trial, most have balked at the prospect amidst domestic pressure to keep suspected extremists out.

However, any possible future deal to transfer detainees from Syria to Iraq could leave the United States and other governments with citizens in those detention facilities open to allegations of rights abuses. Considering Iraq's dismal track record of human rights violations and abuses, any party to this agreement could knowingly be putting their citizens in significant danger, including death, without a fair trial proving they were IS members.

If international law is undermined or ignored for the sake of convenience it could ultimately end up serving the extremists' cause by showing the rule of law is meaningless when it comes to states wanting to enjoy expedience.

Iraqi politicians are attempting to ban 'violent' video games, but are ok with actual militias roaming the country [Getty]

Iraq parliament bans 'violent' videogames PUBG, Fortnite

Iraq's parliament on Wednesday voted unanimously to ban the popular but brutal online game PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds for "inciting violence" in the war-torn country.

Often likened to the blockbuster book and film series The Hunger Games, PUBG pits marooned characters against one another in a virtual fight to the death. It is ubiquitous across the Middle East and is extremely popular in Iraq where people resort to videogames and television as a form of escapism from the problems they face in everyday life.

Iraqi lawmakers unanimously voted to block videogames which "incite violence", according to parliament's spokesman. Specifically naming PUBG and its rival, Fortnite, among others, lawmakers said the games "threaten social security, morals, civics and education" in Iraq society. They asked Iraq's communications ministry and media commission to block access to the games, although a full ban will need approval by cabinet.

The biggest danger Iraq faces isn't video games, but the corrupt people that rule us today

The vote came a week after powerful Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr appealed to young people to stop playing PUBG or watching football matches. Iraqi media associated with Sadr and other religious clerics have, for months, alleged that addiction to playing PUBG had caused marital disputes and even divorces, and blamed videogames for a variety of societal problems.

But the vote was met with sarcasm online.

"It turns out video games are the reason for violence in Iraq," wrote Twitter user Rayan al-Hadidi.

Another, Mustafa Imad, wrote: "The biggest danger Iraq faces isn't video games, but the corrupt people that rule us today."

Others criticised the clerics who incite hate speech and sectarianism on their television channels while calling for videogames like PUBG to be banned for allegedly inciting violence.

Around 60 percent of Iraq's nearly 40 million people are under the age of 25 and the population is set to grow by another 10 million before 2030. According to the World Bank, 17 percent of young men and a whopping 27 percent of young women are unemployed.

While clerics and politicians are keen to blame videogames for violence, it is concerning that they have neglected to answer why government agents are acting as torturers in Iraqi prisons, how militias and death squads operate with impunity, or how groups like IS came into existence.

It is doubtful that videogames are responsible for the sheer level of violence in Iraq today as other countries around the world who have been exposed to videogames for far longer would show similarly shocking statistics of violence.

Scapegoating videogames and entertainment which many Iraqis enjoy as a release from the miseries they face suggests that lawmakers are completely out of touch with why violence is wracking Iraq on a near daily basis.

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