(Beirut) – The Iraqi government and parliament should pass legislation to address key human rights shortcomings in Iraq’s legal system and take measures to minimize the risks Covid-19 poses to people in prison, Human Rights Watch said today. With the formation of Iraq’s government on May 7, 2020, parliament can now focus on legislative reform.
Human Rights Watch has identified four key areas to advance human rights in Iraq, around which previous governments and parliaments have drafted and reviewed legislative proposals but did not pass them. There are many areas for which legislative reform is needed to bring Iraqi law in line with international standards, but the bills already offered address legal representation, torture, enforced disappearance, and domestic violence.
“Iraq has entered a new phase, with fighting against the Islamic State (also known as ISIS) largely over,” said Belkis Wille, senior crisis and conflict researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The government should seize this opportunity to focus on protecting Iraqis’ basic rights and bringing Iraq’s laws in line with international standards.”
On March 29, 2018, before the May 2018 elections, the previous parliament completed an initial review of amendments to the Bar Association Law of 1965 that would guarantee defendants the right to have their lawyer in the room during an interrogation. Following this first reading, parliament members transmitted the amendments to the parliamentary legal committee for a second review. The bill carries no budgetary implications so is still pending before parliament and does not require further government action.
The Iraqi Constitution grants detainees the right to pick their own lawyer, or to ask to have one appointed by the government, who is allowed to be present throughout the investigative period. But detainees and lawyers have reported to Human Rights Watch for years that the authorities are not allowing lawyers to be present during interrogations. The amendments would require all facilities housing detainees and all courthouses to provide adequate space to allow for consultations with lawyers, including private rooms.
The amendments would require all authorities to allow lawyers to be present throughout judicial and investigative functions, to review all related documents, and to be alerted in advance about upcoming procedures in a case. It would prohibit interrogation of a suspect unless they are accompanied by a lawyer and nullify any interrogation in which that did not happen. The amendments include sanctions for authorities who interfere with lawyers’ rights and professional duties and order the authorities to inform the Bar Association if any criminal complaint is filed against a lawyer.
The parliamentary legal committee should support passage of the bill, Human Rights Watch said.
With the support of Heartland Alliance International, a human rights organization working in Iraq on detainees’ rights, a group of parliament members also prepared a draft Anti-Torture Bill in May 2017. The bill would require a judge to order a medical examination of any detainee alleging torture within 24 hours of learning of the allegation, which is often not occurring, Human Rights Watch said.
The bill also lays out the criminal sanctions for those who torture someone in their custody, calls on judges to dismiss all evidence gathered through torture and to dismiss the person who allegedly used torture from their role in the criminal case, and requires having a lawyer present for all detainees throughout the investigative period. Passage of this bill will help to address the extensive use of torture to extract confessions, Human Rights Watch said. The government should resubmit it to the parliament for review.
On May 14, 2020, Human Rights Watch sent a letter to the new government urging it to take steps to immediately further reduce the number of people of prisons, jails, and other places of detention in Iraq to prevent the spread of Covid-19. For years, Human Rights Watch has documented the acute overcrowding in Iraqi prisons in extremely unsanitary conditions. Media reports allege that authorities released 20,000 prisoners in April as a preventive measure, but they have not shared any information publicly on which detainees were selected for release and the criteria for selecting them.
Human Rights Watch has repeatedly asked Iraqi authorities over the past four years to share or make public the total number of people in Iraqi prisons. So far, authorities have refused to do so, making it impossible to assess whether the releases thus far have sufficiently reduced the acute overcrowding to enable social distancing.
An individual with knowledge of the situation inside Iraqi prisons told Human Rights Watch that he knew of at least one prison in Baghdad where prisoners and guards contracted Covid-19. Human Rights Watch was unable to verify this information.
In May 2017, Heartland Alliance International and a group of parliament members prepared the Bill for the Protection of People from Enforced Disappearance, which would make enforced disappearance a distinct crime under Iraqi law. The International Commission on Missing Persons, which has been working in partnership with the Iraqi government to help recover and identify the missing, estimates that the number of missing people in Iraq could range from 250,000 to 1 million. The International Committee of the Red Cross states that Iraq has the highest number of missing people in the world. Some of them are the subjects of enforced disappearances, including most recently some participants in the protest movement that began in October 2019.
Since 2014, Iraqi military and security forces have disappeared hundreds of people, mostly Sunni Arab men and boys, often during counterterrorism operations. The bill calls for appropriate restitution for victims of enforced disappearance and their families. The government should resubmit it to the parliament for review.
Prime Minister Mustafa al-Khadhimi committed on May 9 that the government would investigate the killings of over 600 protesters since October 2019. As part of the investigations, it should identify and make public the groups and security forces who engaged in or coordinated these killings and hold those responsible to account. It should compensate victims of all unlawful killings. Efforts are needed to locate demonstrators who were abducted and are still missing, with full accountability.
Finally, the government should make key amendments to an Anti-Domestic Violence bill and resubmit it to Parliament. The strengths of the draft bill, which has been pending before the previous parliament since 2015, include provisions for services for domestic violence survivors, shelters, protection orders, restraining orders and penalties for their breach, and the establishment of a cross-ministerial committee to combat domestic violence. Measures to combat domestic violence are all the more urgent in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic.
“In recent years, security has dominated the legislative and governmental agenda in Iraq,” Wille said. “Under this new government, human rights should be the priority.”