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Beirut, January 8, 2019 – The Kurdistan Regional Government in northern Iraq is torturing children to confess to involvement with the Islamic State (ISIS), Human Rights Watch said today.
Children told Human Rights Watch that in 2017 and 2018, security officers, known as Asayish, used beatings, stress positions, and electric shock on boys in their custody. Most said they had no access to a lawyer and they were not allowed to read the confessions Asayish wrote and forced them to sign.
“Nearly two years after the Kurdistan Regional Government promised to investigate the torture of child detainees, it is still occurring with alarming frequency,” said Jo Becker, children’s rights advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. “The Kurdistan authorities should immediately end all torture of child detainees and investigate those responsible.”
Human Rights Watch interviewed 20 boys, ages 14 to 17, charged or convicted of ISIS affiliation, at the Women and Children’s Reformatory in Erbil in November 2018, and three boys who had recently been released. The reformatory, a locked detention center encircled by high walls and concertina wire, is one of three facilities holding children in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq.
At the time of the visit, reformatory staff reported that 63 children were being held at the facility for alleged terrorism-related offenses, including 43 who had been convicted. Human Rights Watch also interviewed staff, relatives of some of the children, and two 18-year-olds who had also been arrested and detained.
Sixteen of the 23 children said that one or more Asayish officers had tortured them during interrogation at Asayish facilities, beating them all over their bodies with plastic pipes, electric cables, or rods. Three boys said that the officers used electric shocks. Others described being tied into a painful stress position called the “scorpion” for up to two hours. Several boys said the torture continued over consecutive days, and only ended when they confessed.
Four other boys said Asayish threatened them with torture during interrogation. “If you don’t tell us the truth, I will call the guys and they will beat you and break your bones,” a 17-year-old boy recalled his interrogator telling him.
Several boys said that they had joined and worked with ISIS or received religious or military training. One worked as a driver, another as a cook. Only one said that he had participated in fighting against Iraqi military forces in Nineveh governate. Others said that they had no personal involvement with ISIS, although family members were involved. Some said that neither they nor their family were involved. Human Rights Watch was not able to independently assess their possible involvement with ISIS.
All but one of the boys interviewed said they eventually confessed. Most said they had no choice to stop the torture, and many said they had lied. “My confession says that I joined ISIS for 16 days, but actually, I didn’t join at all,” said a 16-year-old boy. “I said 16 days to stop the torture.”
Most of the boys said that their interrogators told them what they should confess. “First they said I should say I was with ISIS, so I agreed,” said a 14-year-old boy. “Then they told me I had to say I worked for ISIS for three months. I told them I was not part of ISIS, but they said, ‘No, you have to say it.’” He said that after two hours of interrogation and torture, he agreed.
None of the boys said that they were allowed to read the confession Asayish wrote for them and forced them to sign. Most only learned what it said when it was read out in court.
At least five boys said they told an investigative or trial judge that their confession was produced under torture, but that the judges appeared to ignore their statements. The boys said terrorism suspects are brought before an investigative judge, typically while in Asayish custody, and that the judge may then order the suspect’s transfer to the detention center pending trial before a three-judge panel.
The methods of torture the boys described, as well as their accounts of inadequate counsel and scarce communication with family members, were similar to the accounts of 17 boys held for alleged association with ISIS at the same detention center who spoke with Human Rights Watch in December 2016. In 2017, the regional government promised to establish an investigative committee in conjunction with the United Nations Assistance Mission to Iraq to address the allegations.
Human Rights Watch wrote to Dr. Dindar Zebari, the regional government’s coordinator for international advocacy, requesting comment on the new findings. Zebari responded on December 18 that security officials are not permitted to torture detainees, and that if detainees are tortured, they have a right to make a formal complaint. He also stated that detainees have the right to request a lawyer, that families are notified if a child is detained, and that child detainees can call their families with Asayish present. He did not provide any information regarding the investigative committee or any other measures taken to investigate Asayish officers implicated in torture.
International human rights and humanitarian law prohibit torture and other ill-treatment. Children should only be detained as a last resort and for the shortest appropriate period. International law regarding children and armed conflict calls on states to assist children illegally recruited by armed groups or forces, including providing appropriate assistance for their physical and psychological recovery and social reintegration. Children charged with criminal offenses have the right to legal assistance and a prompt determination of their case. They also have the right not to be compelled to give testimony or confess guilt, and statements derived from torture cannot be used as evidence in court.
Kurdish regional authorities should not arrest any child without credible evidence of criminal activity and should establish rehabilitation and reintegration programs for children who may have been involved with ISIS. Authorities should ensure that there is a clear legal basis for detaining any child, and that the child is promptly taken before a judge to rule on the legality of their detention.
The Kurdish government should ensure that any child charged with criminal offenses has legal representation, including during their interrogations, and contact with their family. The authorities should take immediate action to end all use of torture and coerced confessions, and to investigate and appropriately prosecute those responsible. Judges learning of torture should transfer the child to a different facility, ensure that adequate medical care is provided, and order a retrial if a coerced confession was used.
“Many of these children have already been scarred by conflict and ISIS abuses,” Becker said. “Instead of achieving justice, torture and coerced confessions only compound their suffering and contribute to further grievances.”
For more detailed accounts of torture and children’s experiences in detention, please see detailed accounts below.
For more Human Rights Watch reporting on Iraq, please visit: