“When they first held me, there was no case against me. They didn’t accuse me of any crime. An officer in Alweya police station demanded $6,000 from me and said they wouldn’t let me go if I didn’t pay.”
Israa Salah (not her real name) was interviewed by HRW in Iraq’s death row facility in Baghdad’s Kadhimiyya neighborhood on crutches. She endured nine days of beatings, electric shocks and falaqa (when a victim is hung upside down and beaten on their feet). In March 2012 the abuse left her permanently disabled. A split nose, back scars and severe burns on her breasts were consistent with her alleged abuse. Israa was executed in September 2013 despite lower court rulings that dismissed charges against her because a medical report documented she was tortured into confession to a crime.
More than 1100 Iraqi women sit in prisons and detentions in Iraq, according to Iraqi parliament’s Human Rights Committee and the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI). The estimated population of male prisoners is estimated to be over 40,000, proving that there are far fewer women in Iraqi prisons than men. While both men and women suffer from the severe flaws of the criminal justice system, women suffer a double burden due to their second-class status in Iraqi society. According to information from numerous civil society activists and non-governmental organizations, women are frequently targeted for not only for crimes they themselves are said to have committed, but to harass male family or tribal members. Once detained, even if they are released unharmed, Iraqi women frequently face stigmatization by their family or tribe, who perceive them to have been dishonored.
In late 2012, Sunnis took to the streets demanding that the Shia-led government release women who were being held without charge or because of acts of terrorism allegedly committed by their relatives.
Nearly a year after campaigns by media and mass public protests against the treatment of women in detention, there have been no desperately needed reforms made by the government, despite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s announcement of tasking the Deputy Prime Minister Hussein al-Shahristani with overseeing reforms to the criminal justice system. The Iraqi justice system remains plagued by corruption and abused against women from all sects, class and regions.
A report by Human Rights Watch (HRW) documents abuse to which the Iraqi criminal justice system subjects women during arrest, interrogation, trial and imprisonment. Between December 2012 and April 2013, HRW interviewed 27 women and 7 girls, Sunni and Shia; their families and lawyers; medical service providers in women’s prisons; ministry officials, and two deputy prime ministers. 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.
Women are subjected to threats of, or actual, sexual assault – often in front of their husbands, brothers or children. Some women reported a lack of adequate protection for female prisoners from sexual attacks by male prison guards, including those from adjoining male prisons. Two women reported that sexual assaults by prison guards resulted in pregnancy. Women and prison officials report that the likelihood of a woman being subject to sexual assault by police is far higher during arrest and interrogation, prior to a woman’s confinement in prison.
An Iraqi journalist accused of being married to an Al-Qaeda member was stripped and tied to a column, electrocuted with an electric baton, beaten on her feet and back with a cable and kicked. Later her interrogator extinguished his cigarettes on her body, handcuffed her to a bed, forced her to give him oral sex and raped her three times. “He would relax, have a cigarette, put it out on my buttock, and then start again,” she said.
Many women who explicitly denied involvement in alleged crimes describe being pushed towards confessions by interrogators threatening to hurt loves ones. They were told that their daughters were also being held in the same facilities that they were being held in, and would be raped if the women did not confess. Interrogators would often have photos of detained women’s daughters and know who their friends were. Detainees described this torture and threat of violence against their daughters as the reason they signed blank pieces of paper.
In almost all the cases documented by Human Rights Watch, courts based convictions on coerced confessions and secret informant testimony. According to statistics provided by the Prime Minister’s Office, 4200 women in Interior and Defense ministry facilities were Sunni and 57 were Shia.
The official response of the Prime Minister’s office and other officials in the Justice and Interior ministries is that claims of abuse of women in prisons are exaggerations on the part of media and NGOs based on lies that detainees have fed them. The argument is that atrocities and abuse of women cannot be committed against women in Iraqi society, therefore although women are reporting abuse in the prison system, the government is refusing to acknowledge the abuse.
Despite being pressed for transparency the Justice, Interior and Defense ministry officials could not provide information regarding any official who had been prosecuted and convicted of torturing a detainee. One obstacle to ensuring justice that has been cited by ministry official is the tremendous amount of danger that judges face when performing their duties. Current judges are frequently harassed and threatened by government officials and armed groups, who have no protection from attacks. In 2012 at least eight judges were killed and ten others were victims of assassination attempts. Additionally, the Office of the General Prosecutor appears to rarely investigate allegations of torture by law enforcement officers. A former judge who asked HRW to not identify him said, “If someone is arrested as part of an emergency operation, no matter how urgent, an investigative judge must still issue an arrest warrant. In exceptional cases, where there is an explosion, for example, the arresting unit can collect testimonies at the scene while they await the issuance of arrest warrants. But what happens in fact is that they arrest them and later have a judge provide a warrant that justified the arrest.”
Problems plaguing the criminal justice system are massive and the system needs an overhaul. There are immediate steps that the government can take to begin to address the abuses that women suffer in the criminal justice system. To start, the government must acknowledge the prevalence of abuse of female detainees and condemn torture and ill-treatment in pretrial detention. There must be an investigation of allegations of torture and abuse, and those who are found guilty of committing these acts need to be prosecuted. With respect to arrests of women, the courts should disallow coerced confessions and ensure the arrests of women comply with the Code of Criminal Procedure, which requires defendants have access to a lawyer with adequate time to prepare an effective defense and to challenge evidence against them.