WASHINGTON, D.C. — Despite the Iraqi government’s promises to reform the country’s justice system, Iraqi authorities are detaining thousands of women illegally, Human Rights Watch says in a new report.
Many women are abused, raped and tortured in the country’s prisons, the New York-based advocacy group said in the report, which was released Thursday.
The report’s conclusions raise questions about the American legacy in Iraq, where reforming the justice system was a top U.S. priority.
The Iraqi Ministry of Human Rights acknowledged “some limited illegal behaviors which were practiced by security forces against women prisoners,” but it said the report was “over-exaggerated,” according to the Reuters news agency. Neither the Iraqi Embassy in Washington nor the Human Rights Ministry in Baghdad responded to requests for comment.
Women interviewed by Human Rights Watch’s investigators described being beaten, slapped, raped and hung upside down during interrogations. Most women were detained for months without charge, often to extract information about male relatives’ activities, the report says.
Prisoner abuses are “at the heart of the current crisis in Iraq,” fueling deep-seated anger and lack of trust between the country’s diverse communities and security forces, said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at HRW. “All Iraqis are paying the price,” he said.
Nearly a year after Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki promised to reform the justice system, there are almost no signs of overall improvement, said Yanar Mohammed, an Iraqi activist who advocates for imprisoned Iraqi women.
“The justice system is a tool that is in the hands of the few in power,” said Mohammed, president of the Organization of Women’s Freedom in Iraq, an advocacy group. “We’re hearing more and more cases of abuse in detention centers, in police cars, and on the street.”
Security forces often conduct random mass arrests as collective punishment for alleged terrorist activities. Of the more than 4,200 women detained, at least 100 are held under Iraq’s anti-terrorism law, which mandates the death penalty for committing terrorist acts or helping male relatives commit these crimes, the report says.
Though both men and women suffer from the flawed criminal justice system, women suffer a “double burden due to their second-class status in Iraqi society,” said the report, which was based on testimony of 27 women, court documents, lawyers case files and government reports.
Iraq’s justice system has historically been plagued by corruption, direct political influence, convictions based on coerced confession and trials that fall short of international standards. The country also has the third highest number of executions in the world after China and Iran.
“Iraqi security forces and officials act as if brutally abusing women will make the country safer,” said Stork. “In fact, these women and their relatives have told us that as long as security forces abuse people with impunity, we can only expect security conditions to worsen.”
The country’s security situation has deteriorated in the last few months. Violence across the country has killed more than 1,000 people, mostly civilians, making January the deadliest month since April 2008.
Although the corrupt justice system predated U.S. involvement, the violent and destabilizing nature of the U.S. occupation eroded women’s rights and decreased chances of meaningful justice system reform, said Michael Wahid Hanna, a senior fellow at The Century Foundation, a nonpartisan think tank in New York.
“There is a deeply rooted and abusive culture with respect to policing and investigation that has been untouched by political change,” Hanna said.
State Department spokesman Michael Lavallee said the Iraqi government’s efforts to improve human rights in the country remain “a work in progress,” adding that the department is “encouraged that the government … is acknowledging that the treatment of women detainees is an issue and that they are working to address it.”
The Human Right Watch report captured the on-the-ground reality of abuses as the country becomes more deeply driven by sectarian divisions, said Struan Stevenson, president of the European Parliament’s delegation for Iraqi relations.
“The West thought they had achieved ‘mission accomplished’ when they got rid of Saddam Hussein and collaborated to ensure Nouri al-Maliki clung onto the reins of power,” Stevenson said in a statement. “They are now reaping the harvest of this catastrophic mistake.”