BAGHDAD, Iraq — On the 10th anniversary of the fall of Saddam Hussein, violence and political crisis plague Iraq. The government blames its problems on regional interference, the unceasing threat of terrorism and the specter of Saddam Hussein’s Baathism. Implicit in their thinking is the idea that rights violations are justified by the state’s responsibility to prevent terrorism.
There is another, more sinister implication that those in authority sometimes suggest: some, but not all, who suffered in the past have rights in today’s Iraq.
The persecution of Shia communities in Iraq has far-stretching roots. British colonial rulers repressed a Shia rebellion in the 1920s. Post-colonial governments were majority Sunni. Later, under Baath Party rule, Sunni, Shia or Kurdish Iraqis perceived as belonging to any form of political opposition suffered harshly. Cruelty against Shia reached new heights under Saddam Hussein, who banned Shia festivals, executed Shia clerics and massacred Shia citizens as part of a crackdown on Shia opposition parties in the late 1970s and 1980s.
After crushing a 1991 Shia uprising, Hussein ordered the execution of thousands of Dawa party members, then buried them in mass graves. He drained southern Iraq’s marshes, forcing the Marsh Arabs to flee. After 2003, Sunni insurgents were thought to be responsible for attacks on Shia holy sites, neighborhoods and citizens, culminating in the bombing of the Askari mosque, one of the holiest sites in Shia Islam. This was the event that sparked Iraq’s descent into full-blown civil war.
Government officials claim that sectarianism — both through violence by Sunni extremist groups and in the form of political paralysis in Iraq’s parliament — is responsible for Iraq’s instability.
Despite the appealing simplicity of the sectarian narrative, sectarianism is not the cause of violence and Iraq’s political crisis. In recent months, the government has announced broad reforms in response to weekly mass demonstrations in majority Sunni provinces. These demonstrations began in December, after the arrest of Sunni Finance Minister Rafi al-Essawi’s bodyguards.
Early on protesters demanded the release of prisoners — especially female prisoners, who have been held illegally for long periods of time — and reform of Article 4 of the Anti-Terror Law.
Over the last several weeks in Baghdad, I’ve spoken with more than 30 women who are in detention or were recently released, along with lawyers and families of detainees, researching allegations of torture in Iraqi detention facilities.
People told me over and over about random arrests, torture during interrogation and prolonged detention in unofficial facilities. They said corruption was rife among Interior Ministry officials, that there was collusion between officials and judges, and that trials lacked the most basic due process protections.
Detainees repeatedly told me the government uses the broad provisions of Article 4 to detain people without arrest warrants in detention centers overseen by security forces that answer to the Interior and Defense Ministries, or directly to the Prime Minister’s Office.
I asked officials I met about promises to release detainees and about the broader problems with the criminal justice system. By the government’s own admission, some detainees have been held illegally for months — even years.
There is little evidence, though, that the government is carrying out the pledged reforms, or that the reforms target illegal arrests, coerced interrogations and arbitrary detentions.
For my research I interviewed well-educated and illiterate Shia and Sunnis from both urban and rural areas.
Speaking with Hanan in Baghdad’s Central Women’s prison, known as “Site 4,” I was struck by how her story confounded the government’s claims that such draconian measures are justified to fight terrorism and sectarian violence, and that sectarian divisions are behind all of the country’s ills.
As one official put it: “Human rights do not only mean the rights of prisoners, of terrorists, they also mean the rights of the victims of terrorism — and our rights, the people who have suffered under Saddam.”
Hanan is Shia like many who suffered under Saddam Hussein and who rule the country now, but her case had nothing to do with terrorism.
Hanan had spent 10 months in Site 4. She told me that unidentified security forces dressed in civilian clothing kidnapped her last May at a market where she was grocery shopping. The men took her to the headquarters of a state institution, she said, where they beat her, tortured her with shocks from electric cables, and poured cold water over her trying to force her to confess to taking a bribe.
As a manager of a government office with responsibility for approving construction projects, she said she had refused to approve a project because materials being used were not up to standard.
“I made a mistake,” Hanan told me. “I didn’t know someone important in the government had a stake in the project.”
She said she withstood confessing until they threatened her daughter: “They pulled up her picture on my mobile, and said, ‘Is this Suhair?’ They knew her name, where she went to school, everything. They said ‘We can take her just like we took you.’ I would have said anything at that point.”
They took Hanan to an investigative judge, who refused to acknowledge the bruises and swelling on her face. She did not have a lawyer. Months later, a Baghdad court convicted her of forgery in a single trial session and sentenced her to three years in prison.
Later, I met Israa in a facility that houses female death row prisoners. She uses crutches and walks with great difficulty. Nine days of beatings and electric shocks last March left her permanently disabled. Her nose is split. Interrogators hung her upside down by a rope hanging from the ceiling, leaving scars on her back where handcuffs dug into her skin. She has a burn mark on her right breast where interrogators gave her an electric shock.
Israa was sentenced to death after signing a confession that she participated in a kidnapping and murder. She is illiterate and said she saw only a stack of pages with words on them. As in Hanan’s case, interrogators threatened to rape her daughter to force her to confess, she told me.
Israa said she didn’t know what she had confessed to until a year later, when she finally had access to a lawyer, who told her she was charged with the murder of two people who died in an explosion in a rural area north of Baghdad. Israa’s sentence is not yet confirmed because other people have been convicted of the same crime. She wasn’t sure why she had been transferred to death row that week.
The experiences of Hanan and Israa are extreme but not uncommon examples of the government’s treatment of its citizens in a system that is both chaotic and repressive.
In this moment, in which Iraq is once again commanding attention 10 years after the 2003 invasion, influential governments — the United States chief among them — need to take stock of the role they played in supporting systematic use of torture and brutality as the cornerstone of the government’s means of fighting terrorism.
And they need to make clear that the invocation of sectarian narratives by Iraqi politicians to guard their own privileges are a harmful distraction from the government’s responsibility to institute meaningful institutional reform and accountability for torture.
Erin Evers is a Middle East researcher at Human Rights Watch. She has been in Iraq, interviewing women in prison and officials, lawyers and others about the justice system.