No One is Safe: Abuses of Women in Iraq's Criminal Justice System
Publication Author:Human Rights Watch
[Trigger warning: details of sexual assault and torture]
This report documents abuses to which the criminal justice system subjects women during arrest, interrogation, trial, and imprisonment. Between December 2012 and April 2013, Human Rights Watch interviewed 27 women and 7 girls, Sunni and Shia; their families and lawyers; medical service providers in women’s prisons; civil society representatives; foreign embassy and United Nations staff in Baghdad; Justice, Interior, Defense, and Human Rights ministry officials, and two deputyprime ministers. We also reviewed court documents, lawyers’ case files, and government decisions and reports.
The report finds that security forces carry out illegal arrests and other due process violations against women at every stage of the justice system, including threats and beatings. Israa Salah (not her real name), for example, entered her interview with Human Rights Watch in Iraq’s death row facility in Baghdad’s Kadhimiyya neighborhood on crutches. She said nine days of beatings, electric shocks with an instrument known as “the donkey,” and falaqa (when the victim is hung upside down and beaten on their feet) in March 2012 had left her permanently disabled. A split nose, back scars, and burns on her breast were consistent with her alleged abuse. Israa was executed in September 2013, seven months after we met her, despite lower court rulings that dismissed charges against her because a medical report documented she was tortured into confessing to a crime.
The report also finds that women are subjected to threats of, or actual, sexual assault (sometimes in front of husbands, brothers, and children.) Some detainees reported a lack of adequate protection for female prisoners from attacks by male prison guards, including those from adjoining male prisons. Two women reported that sexual assault by prison guards resulted in pregnancy. Women and officials reported that the likelihood of a woman being subject to sexual assault is far higher during arrest and interrogation, prior to a woman’s confinement in prison.“[W]e expect that they’ve been raped by police on the way to the prison,” Um Aqil, an employee at a women’s prison facility told Human Rights Watch.
For example, Fatima Hussein (not her real name), a journalist accused of involvement in the murder of a parliamentarian’s brother and of being married to an Al-Qaeda member, described physical and sexual torture in early 2012 at the hands of one particular interrogator in Tikrit, Colonel Ghazi. She described Ghazi tying her blindfolded to a column and electrocuting her with an electric baton, hitting her feet and back with cable, kicking her, pulling her hair, tying her naked to a column and extinguishing cigarettes on her body, and later handcuffing her to a bed, forcing her to give him oral sex, and raping her three times. “There was blood all over me. He would relax, have a cigarette, and put it out on my buttock, and then started again,” she said.
Women who spoke with Human Rights Watch, who all explicitly denied involvement in alleged crimes, also described being pushed towards confessions by interrogators threatening to hurt loved ones. Fatima described Ghazi passing her the phone, with her daughter at the end of the line, before threatening: “I’ll do to your daughter what I did to you.” Israa Salah, arrested in January 2010 due to alleged involvement in terrorism, was told her teenage daughter, Afrah, was in solitary confinement in the same facility and would be raped if Israa did not confess. “They knew everything about her: how she was dressed, who her friends were, and they showed me pictures of her,” Israa said. She then signed and fingerprinted a blank piece of paper.
More than 10 women showed Human Rights Watch scars on their bodies that appeared to be consistent with the torture they described having undergone.
Security forces conduct random and mass arrests of women that amount to collective punishment of women for alleged terrorist activities by male family members, often their husbands. Authorities have exploited vague provisions in the Anti-Terrorism Law of 2005 to settle personal or political scores—detaining, charging, and trying women based on their association to a particular individual, tribe, or sect. According to statistics provided by an official from the Prime Minister’s Office, 4,200 women in Interior and Defense ministry facilities were Sunni and 57 were Shia.
Many women told Human Rights Watch they were forced to sign or fingerprint “confessions” they were not allowed to, or could not read, an abuse to which high female illiteracy makes women especially vulnerable. In nine cases women told Human Rights Watch they were forced to sign or fingerprint blank pieces of paper. In almost all of the cases documented by Human Rights Watch, courts based convictions on coerced confessions and secret informant testimony. Women—like many Iraqi men— have little or no access to an adequate defense, either because they cannot afford one or because lawyers are fearful of taking on politically sensitive cases. Women are frequently detained for months and even years without charge before seeing a judge or having a trial, in contravention of Iraqi laws that prohibit arbitrary arrest and detention and enshrine the right to access to counsel, and articles 9 and 14 of the International Covenant on Criminal and Political Rights (ICCPR), which enshrine detainees’ rights to beinformed of the reasons for their detention, to be charged promptly, and to be brought promptly before a judge.
In many cases that Human Rights Watch documented, judges and investigating officers colluded to extract bribes from detainees and their families to secure their release. In several cases women paid bribes but remained detained. In others, judges accepted bribes from security forces to issue or prolong arrest and detention orders, and ignored allegations of abuses by security officials against female detainees. When Laila Abd al-Rahim (not her real name), 25, who was accused of killing her husband, told an investigative judge in Baghdad al-Jadida Court that she had been raped and tortured, she said the judge told her: “What? Do you want them to pamper you?”
Finally, many women—like men—remain in detention long after judges have dismissed the charges against them or they have served their sentences. In February 2013, Deputy Prime Minister al-Shahristani acknowledged to Human Rights Watch that authorities had held detainees in prison for months or even years after judges issued orders for their release because they lacked the necessary Interior Ministry approval to be released.
Human Rights Watch’s visits to two prisons revealed conditions that failed to meet international standards on women’s detention, including no facilities for child care for the children who are frequently incarcerated with their mothers, poor hygiene, and overcrowding—amounting to what one detainee, Fatima Hussein, described as “a whole city of women.” Iraqi law allows for children under the age of four to remain in prisons with their mothers, but women reported that there have been instances of children remaining in prisons until they are 7-years-old. A prison employee told Human Rights Watch that in one instance a child who was incarcerated with his mother on death row remained in the prison for several weeks after she was executed.
The abusive practices documented in this report violate Iraqi laws and international standards on arrest and detention. The Iraqi government claims it informs prisoners about complaint mechanisms housed in the Justice, Interior, Defense and Human Rights ministries. Most women interviewed did not know about these grievance mechanisms. Two women who alleged that security forces raped them in detention said they did not receive forensic examinations or post-rape care, and that the officers remain on duty.
Factors that discourage women from filing complaints include lack of legal representation, or mistrust in representation when it is provided. Fear of retaliation, stigma, and rejection by families and the community also inhibit women’s ability to report and seek redress for abuses of their rights in detention. Such concerns are well-founded: the mere implication that a woman has been sexually abused exposes her to risk of permanent dislocation and violence from her family, and may harm her economic and social prospects.
To read the full report, please download the pdf.