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Yes, more than 11,500 people are under sentence of death in Iraq

Iraqi policemen in the centre of the capital Baghdad on 22 December 2020 [AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP/Getty Images]
Iraqi policemen in Baghdad, Iraq on 22 December 2020 [AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP/Getty Images]

The interviews are harrowing. "It was the same routine, every day hanging me up and beating me. There are things they did to me there that I am too ashamed to talk about, but one thing I can tell you is that two times they made me sit on a bottle." This is from interview number 106. The detainee who gave interview number 107 said: "They cuffed my hands behind my back and hanged my handcuffs from a hook on a chain from the ceiling. They didn't really ask me questions, they just kept shouting [at me] to confess."

In the depths of Iraqi detention centres, interviews were conducted with 235 detainees. Their testimony has been included in the report titled "Human Rights in the Administration of Justice in Iraq: legal conditions and procedural safeguards to prevent torture and ill-treatment" prepared by the UN Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI) and the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (UHCHR), issued on 3 August. The report covers the period 1 July 2019 to 30 April 2020.

"Torture is a reality in places of detention throughout Iraq," it begins. This stark sentence opens the condemnation of the inhumane practices in the detention centres operated not only by the Ministries of Justice and the Interior, but also the Ministry of Defence, the Counterterrorism Service, the Baghdad Operations Command, the National Security Agency, the National Intelligence Service, and the Popular Mobilisation Forces. These are in addition to other places that the detainees do not know the location of.

The number of detainees is also unknown, as with the exception of the Ministry of Justice, which reported that there were 39,518 detainees in 2020, among them 2,115 women and 11,595 people sentenced to death, including 25 women; and 24,853 in facilities under the authority of the Ministry of the Interior, the number of people held in other detention centres has not been verified. This suggests strongly that the number of detainees in Iraq is much higher. Furthermore, the figures do not include those detained in the autonomous Kurdistan region.

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Forms of torture mentioned in the report include severe beatings, electric shocks, suspension from the ceiling, sexual violence, particularly electric shocks to genitals, and sticks and glass bottles being inserted into the anus. The mission noted that many of the interviewees spoke of "things they did to me there that I am too ashamed to talk about." The report did not include prison conditions such as poor services and overcrowding. UNAMI received information about the death of 62 detainees in Al-Hoot Prison in Nasiriyah, southern Iraq, and 355 deaths in facilities affiliated with the Ministry of Justice. The report confirms that torture and ill-treatment are officially accepted as a means to extract a "confession" and that it is a systematic and widely practiced policy whereby more than half of the detainees interviewed by UN staff gave credible accounts of torture.

Peaceful protesters have their share of ill-treatment and torture. The report documented the testimonies of 38 detainees after their abduction. They were subjected to "severe beatings, electrocution, hosing/bathing in cold water, hanging from the ceiling by the arms and legs, threats of death and sexual violence to them and their family, as well as degrading treatment (such as being urinated on and photographed naked)." The report concludes that, "The accounts of victims leave no doubt that torture and ill-treatment do take place in Iraq. The limited accountability for torture and ill-treatment outlined in this report suggests acquiescence and tolerance of these practices as a means of eliciting a 'confession'. Although the Iraqi legal framework explicitly criminalises torture and sets out the key legal conditions and procedural safeguards aimed at its prevention, respect for these provisions is lacking." There is a reference to Iraq's accession to the Convention against Torture in 2011.

The direct and frank statement that torture in Iraq is a reality that can no longer be tolerated can be counted as a point in favour of the report. It is perhaps one of the rare times that UN officials do not wrap their reports in vague vocabulary that carries contradictory interpretations and scepticism about the truth in order to avoid direct criticism of repressive governments. Terms such as "allegations" and "claims" lead, at the end of a report, to a conclusion in which the Commission expresses concern and condemnation. Perhaps UN staff are tired of being "concerned" and simply "condemning" the bitter reality that they see and hear.

While the report did not fail to note that the government made some legal changes against torture, the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, stated that, "The prevention of torture in reality, and not just on paper, would contribute to peace and stability in the long term, and is therefore in the State's interest as well as the victims'."

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This is the basis for the continuation of horrific, barbaric and inhumane practices. Among these are the 11,585 death sentences. This was confirmed in a letter sent by the Ministry of Justice to UNAMI. It is a huge number by any standard, which prompted me to read the report several times, both in Arabic and English, to make sure of its authenticity, and to find a logical answer as to why the report mentioned this just in passing. Such a figure makes Iraq a slaughterhouse akin to the Nazis under a regime where "fundamental legal conditions and procedural safeguards as set out in the international and Iraqi legal framework are routinely not respected." According to one of the lawyers interviewed by the UN, "Perpetrators are not really afraid about the consequences of torture since they know they will not be punished by the official system." This is under the auspices of a judiciary whose mission is to legitimise the government's lies.

What the report did not address, despite its importance, is the extent of the physical and psychological damage that will haunt torture victims for life. The interrogator-torturer aims not only to extract a confession for a crime, but also to rob detainees of their humanity and dignity, and to control them in a way that amounts to social and political exploitation. Pictures of the kidnapped peaceful protesters kept naked, in a manner similar to the notorious US torture in Abu Ghraib Prison, are an effective tool for intimidation and threats intended to prevent the victims and others from participating in any future protests. This requires us to expose these methods in every possible way, as torture is a criminal act, and it is the interrogator-torturer who should feel ashamed, not the victim. Whoever reveals the details of what they've been exposed to "there" deserves our respect and appreciation, because they are helping to document the crimes committed, which we hope will lead to those responsible being held to account and such treatment ending forever.

This article first appeared in Arabic in Al-Quds Al-Arabi on 9 August 2021

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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