The Iraqi interior ministry is holding at least 1,269 detainees, including boys as young as 13, without charge in horrendous conditions and with limited access to medical care at three makeshift prisons, Human Rights Watch said Monday. At least four prisoners have died, in cases that appear to be linked to lack of proper medical care and poor conditions and two prisoners’ legs have been amputated, apparently because of lack of treatment for treatable wounds.
Two detention centers are in the town of Qayyarah, 60 kilometers south of Mosul, and the third at a local police station in Hammam al-Alil, 30 kilometers south of Mosul. At least one detainee has been held in Qayyarah for six months, with many others detained since November 2016. According to the Qayyarah prison staff, at least 80 of their detainees are children under 18, with the youngest being 13. Children are in Hammam al-Alil as well.
“The deplorable prison conditions in Qayyarah and Hammam al-Alil show that the Iraqi government is not providing the most basic detention standards or due process,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Iraqis should understand better than most the dangerous consequences of abusing detainees in cruel prison conditions.”
On March 3, 2017, Human Rights Watch visited two of three houses in Qayyarah the Iraqi government has been using since retaking the area in August to detain men and boys suspected of being affiliated with the Islamic State (also known as ISIS). On March 12, researchers visited the local police station at Hammam al-Alil, which is holding 225 people accused of varying crimes, including ISIS-affiliation, in four rooms. Human Rights Watch was unable to interview detainees, but spoke to prison staff.
The prisons are under the authority of the Interior Ministry’s intelligence service, which provides services there together with the Justice Ministry. Staff said that Iraqi security and military services combatting ISIS hand over people they detain to the intelligence service, which holds the detainees in the facilities while individually interrogating them.
The intelligence service then takes the detainees before an investigative judge to assess whether there is enough evidence to bring charges for supporting ISIS under Provision 4 of the Federal Iraqi Counterterrorism Law (no. 13/2005). The judge then either orders their release or transfers the detainees to Baghdad to face charges.
Prison staff in Qayyarah said they had released about 80 detainees and transferred another 775 to Baghdad by early March 2017. Iraq’s Criminal Procedural Code (no. 23/1971) requires detaining authorities to bring detainees before an investigative judge within 24 hours. But Qayyarah prison staff said they had held some detainees for as long as four months, while Human Rights Watch learned of the case of the man held without charge for six months.
Prison staff in Qayyarah said that the investigative judge had cleared at least 300 men for release who are now being held unlawfully after the National Security Service, a security body under the prime minister with a mandate to screen people fleeing ISIS-controlled areas, intervened. Security forces’ failure to comply with a judicial order for release is a crime under Iraqi law. If the security forces are failing to comply with judicial orders in a systematic manner as part of a state policy to ignore such orders and detain people arbitrarily, this could represent a crime against humanity.
Prison staff in Hammam al-Alil said they had released 115 detainees and transferred another 135 to Baghdad. They said they have been holding at least 60 men since the detention site opened in November, 2016.
The prison staff and Justice Minister, Haidar al-Zamili, who met with Human Rights Watch on February 2, 2017, said that detainees held on terrorism charges have no right under the counterterrorism law (no. 13/2005) to communicate with their family during the investigation period, and that the Qayyarah detainees have not been allowed to communicate with their families. A local judge overseeing the cases told Human Rights Watch that once a detainee has been brought before the investigative judge, they have the right to contact their families, but that family visits are being delayed because of the delays in bringing detainees before the judge.
They also said that despite the Iraqi constitution and Criminal Procedure Code (no.23/1971) guaranteeing detainees the right to a lawyer during interrogations and hearings, none had been provided with a lawyer present during their interrogations and many did not have a lawyer during their hearings before the investigative judge.
Human Rights Watch observed that the facilities are all extremely overcrowded, so that no detainee can lie down to sleep. Because of the overcrowding and lack of proper ventilation, the makeshift prison cells are overheated, with an incredible stench. Detainees at the Hammam al-Alil prison called out to the visiting Human Rights Watch researchers, begging them to crack open the door because they said they could not breathe. The detainees have either no time or minimal time outside their cells, eat inside their cells, and have no access to showers and limited access to bathrooms. The facilities have no medical support, contributing to the deaths and amputations, prison staff said.
While the staff said they were trying to improve conditions, they could not reduce the overcrowding. The overcrowding may have been exacerbated due to a temporary freeze, in early 2015, on transfers of prisoners to Baghdad due to the cost of such transfers, a Qayyarah court official told Human Rights Watch on March 11, 2017. He said that the transfers had resumed in mid-January. Prison staff in Hammam al-Alil said that on March 11, they were asked to accept another 11 prisoners but refused, saying there was simply no more room.
One interrogator in Hammam al-Alil said that he sometimes beats ISIS suspects, and an observer who visited the prison in February 2017 said he witnessed the ill-treatment of three detainees.
Detainees charged and convicted may still be entitled to release under the General Amnesty Law passed in August 2016 (no.27/2016), staff said. The law offered amnesty to anyone who joined ISIS or another extremist group against their will, and did not commit any serious offense, like torture or killing. The head of the Iraqi parliament’s legal committee, Mohsen al-Karkari, told Human Rights Watch during a meeting on February 7, 2017, that it was a roundabout way to limit the scope of the wide-reaching Iraqi counterterrorism law and release of thousands of terror suspects. According to the Justice Ministry, authorities have released 756 prisoners since the law was passed.
Human Rights Watch learned from a reliable source that the Iraqi government had sent a committee to review conditions in the facility a few weeks before the Human Rights Watch visit. The committee promised to send up to 20 more interrogators from Baghdad, to speed up investigations. On March 2, 2017, 10 interrogators had arrived at the Qayyarah prisons.
The evidence documented by Human Rights Watch strongly suggests that conditions at the Qayyarah and Hammam al-Alil facilities are hazardous, unfit to hold detainees for extended periods of time, and do not meet basic international standards. As a result, holding detainees there probably amounts to ill-treatment. The state of the facilities and severe understaffing pose severe risks to the prisoners, the prison administration, and the local community.
The authorities should transfer all detainees from these facilities to official prisons built to accommodate detainees, and equipped to meet basic international standards. Until that happens, the Interior and Justice Ministries should, as an urgent priority, improve the conditions, and speed up the investigative process so that it can transfer the prisoners out of the facility as quickly as possible. The ministries should provide all detainees a medical screening upon arrival, and ensure access to medical care.
The authorities should also ensure that there is a clear legal basis for detentions, that all detainees have access to legal counsel, including during interrogation, and that detainees are moved to facilities accessible to government inspection, independent monitors, relatives, and lawyers, with regular and unimpeded access. They should immediately notify families of the detention of their loved ones and under which authority, promptly take detainees before a judge to rule on the legality of their detention, and immediately comply with any judicial order for release.
Judges should order the release of detainees or prisoners being held in inhuman or degrading conditions.
When prosecuting children alleged to have committed illegal acts, they should be treated in accordance with international juvenile justice standards. International law allows for authorities to detain children pretrial in limited situations, but only if formally charged with committing a crime, not merely as suspects. The authorities should release all children not yet formally charged.
“The Iraqi authorities should immediately release the children it is holding in these hellholes unless they promptly charge them with a crime,” Whitson said. “Iraq should recognize and treat children accused of ISIS affiliation as the victims of illegal and unconscionable recruitment and exploitation by the group.”