According to the Human Rights Watch, Iraqi and Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) forces have detained at least 37 men from areas around Mosul and Hawija suspected of being affiliated with ISIL since the beginning of the Mosul operation, Human Rights Watch said today.
Human Rights Watch spoke to 46 relatives and witnesses, who described how security forces took the men from checkpoints, villages, screening centers, and camps for displaced people. Most said that they did not know where the men are being held and all of them said that the men have not been able to contact them while in detention.
“On top of the danger and anxiety facing civilians fleeing ISIS control, some are now being detained and denied contact with their families by Iraqi and KRG authorities,” said Lama Fakih, deputy Middle East director. “When detainees are held without contact with the outside world, in unknown locations, that significantly increases the risk of other violations, including ill-treatment and torture.”
Iraqi and KRG authorities should make efforts to inform family members, either directly or indirectly, including through camp management officials, about the location of all detainees. The authorities should make public the number of fighters and civilians detained, including at checkpoints, screening sites, and camps during the conflict with ISIS, and the legal basis for their detention, including the charges against them. Iraqi and KRG authorities should ensure prompt independent judicial review of detention and allow detainees to have access to lawyers and medical care and to communicate with their families.
On October 17, 2016, the Iraqi central government and KRG authorities, with the support of an international coalition, announced the start of military operations to retake Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, which ISIS captured in June 2014. Anti-ISIS forces also encircled the city of Hawija, 57 kilometers west of Kirkuk and 120 kilometers southeast of Mosul, which ISIS also captured in June 2014, and began operations to retake the city. Since the operations began, at least 41,900 people have fled into northern Syria, the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI), and elsewhere in Iraq.
The people Human Rights Watch interviewed individually and in groups had recently escaped from ISIS-held areas near Mosul and Hawija. The interviews were conducted in the Jadah camp for displaced persons, 65 kilometers south of Mosul and under the control of Iraqi Security Forces, and the Zelikan camp, 43 kilometers northeast of Mosul and under the control of the KRG’s security forces.
Those interviewed in both camps consistently said that detainees held by both Iraqi and KRG forces had not been able to contact them and that in many cases they did not know where the detainees were being held. Even in one instance in which family members knew that their loved ones were being held in the building where they had been screened, the detainees had been denied the right to communicate with the family members and with a lawyer, relatives said.
On October 27, Human Rights Watch issued a report on the screening procedure facing displaced men and boys from ISIS-held territory at Debaga screening center and camp, in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. It found that KRG forces have detained men and boys ages 15 and over for indefinite periods stretching from weeks to months, even after they pass an initial security check for possible ties to ISIS. While being screened, detainees told Human Rights Watch, they are denied access to lawyers and detained even in the absence of evidence that they are not individually suspected of a crime.
In a follow-up visit to Debaga camp on October 28, four families told Human Rights Watch that after KRG security forces detained seven male family members at checkpoints and in the screening area at the camp, none of the families were able to get answers from KRG security forces at the camp about where their relatives were being held. The men had been held for up to 11 days, they said.
Enforced disappearances, which occur when security forces detain and then conceal the fate or whereabouts of a detainee, placing them outside the protection of the law, are violations of international human rights law and can be international crimes. Depriving detainees of any contact with the outside world and refusing to give family members any information about their fate or whereabouts can qualify their detentions as enforced disappearances.
Dr. Dindar Zebari, chairperson of the KRG’s High Committee to Evaluate and Respond to International Reports, provided Human Rights Watch with an explanation of KRG security force screening and detention processes for displaced persons. In it, he stated that KRG authorities are committed to informing the families of detainees of the process and status but, “due to a lack of personnel and financial resources this task may at times be a difficult one.”
“Iraqi and KRG authorities should take steps to make sure that their efforts to keep civilians safe from ISIS attacks don’t undermine basic rights,” Fakih said.