“This bill will be the last one. The first and the last one.” That is how Emmanuel Macron answered the question I had just asked him: “What would happen, Mr. President, if France were hit by another terrorist attack in the coming months? Would you propose yet another bill?”

French police and anti-crime brigade (BAC) members secure a street as they carried out a counter-terrorism swoop at different locations in Argenteuil, a suburb north of Paris, France, July 21, 2016. 

© 2016 Reuters/Charles Platiau

The exchange took place last Friday, in the late afternoon. I was in the Elysée as part of a delegation of leading human rights organizations, lawyers and magistrates to meet President Macron and two of his advisors. We had come to express our concerns and criticisms of two bills drafted by the government and submitted to Parliament: a sixth extension of the state of emergency until November, and a counterterrorism bill directly inspired by the provisions of the state of emergency. This bill would make permanent special powers which were supposed to be temporary, introduced as necessary only for the extraordinary circumstances of a time-limited state of emergency.

For over an hour and a half, we set out methodically the abuses committed against ordinary citizens when those powers were used under the state of emergency. We warned the President that the counterterrorism bill would entrench what were exceptional powers into regular law and pose grave dangers for fundamental rights and the rule of law. We denounced the lack of evaluation of the effectiveness of state of emergency measures and of the existing legal arsenal for counterterrorism. We lamented the choice of an accelerated procedure for the parliamentary review of these two proposed bills, depriving the country of what ought to be a meaningful democratic debate about the concept of liberty, one of France’s founding values.

But despite this discussion, President Macron did not waver.

Far from reinforcing freedoms, as the President claimed this past Monday in his speech to Parliament, the new bill would entrench in regular law abusive powers introduced under the state of emergency. It would normalize the considerable powers awarded by the state of emergency to the Ministry of the Interior and the administrative police. The drastic weakening of judicial safeguards, which are the foundation of the rule of law and an essential defense against abuse, would become permanent. In effect it treats France as if it is always in a state of emergency. By authorizing “assigned residence orders”, whereby individuals’ freedom of movement is severely limited even though they have not been accused of a crime, this new bill also confirms a dangerous shift towards so-called preventive justice. Just this week we’ve learned that since the state of emergency was declared in November 2015, there have been 708 assigned residence orders. More than one a day. This is a trend, not a small set of isolated actions. The “logic of suspicion”, on which these orders are predicated, opens the door to significant abuse.

During the meeting, the President admitted that the state of emergency can foster “arbitrary behaviors” and has led to « excesses ». Emmanuel Macron, then a candidate, had himself expressed in his book, Revolution “that reducing the freedoms of all, and the dignity of each citizen, has never anywhere led to an increase in security.” Despite that, Emmanuel Macron chose to follow in the footsteps of governments that, over the last two decades, have responded to the threat of terrorism with ever harsher laws, turning France into the country with the most expansive counterterrorism laws in Europe. Members of Parliament, a large majority of whom are supportive of the President, will most likely adopt the bill without much opposition. Macron may well say this is his “first and last law” on security; but recent history in France and elsewhere teaches us that once states start down this legislative slope, more repressive laws follow.

If we refer to the past 18 months, France may well be addicted to emergency powers. As a responsible leader, however, the French President’s job is to break that dependency and resist the temptation to react to the fear of another attack with laws that do more harm to rights than they do good to security. As activists, lawyers, and voices of civil society, that is what we will keep telling the President and our elected representatives. End the state of emergency, don’t simply inject a dose of it into ordinary law. 

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

French soldiers from Operation Barkhane stand outside their armored personnel carrier during a sandstorm in Inat, Mali, May 26, 2016.

© 2016 Reuters
“The jihadists are the law now,” an elder from central Mali told me. “The very day the French-supported operation finished, the Islamists were back in the villages,” confided another villager last week, referring to a military operation near the Mali-Burkina Faso border in April.

The endurance of the jihadist recruitment success and their appeal to many villagers suggests that military operations on their own will not be sufficient to defeat the threat. President Emmanuel Macron should keep this in mind when he visits the country this Friday.

Hailed as a military success, the 2013 French-led military intervention in northern Mali ended the region’s occupation by ethnic Tuareg separatists and armed Islamists linked to Al-Qaeda. But since 2015, attacks against Malian forces and abuses by Al-Qaeda-linked groups have moved southward to Mali’s previously stable central regions and, last year, spread into neighboring Burkina Faso.

Since 2015, I’ve interviewed scores of witnesses and victims to abuses in central Mali. They described how, in recent months, groups of up to 50 Islamist fighters closed down schools, banned women from riding on motorcycles driven by men other than their husbands, and imposed their version of Sharia (Islamic law). “We used to spend days celebrating a marriage or baptism, dancing and singing together,” one man said. “Not anymore.”

Men accused of being informants for the Malian government often turn up dead. Since 2015, Islamists have executed at least 40 men in their custody, including village chiefs and local officials. Some were murdered in front of their families. Several people said they felt pressured to send one of their sons to join the Islamists.

However, an equal number of villagers told me they welcomed the presence of the Islamist groups in central Mali; they saw them as a benevolent alternative to a state they associate with predatory and abusive governance. Many seethed as they described Malian army abuses during counterterrorism operations, including arbitrary arrests, torture, and executions.

Since late 2016, I have documented the alleged extrajudicial killing by soldiers of 12 detainees, the most recent in early May, and the forced disappearance of several others. Villagers described how soldiers detained and executed three family members in January. “We heard gunshots in the distance,” one witness said. “I followed the tracks of the army truck and found our people in a shallow grave.” This week, I received a desperate email from the brother of a man forced into a white pickup by men in uniform on February 3. “We have heard nothing; we have searched everywhere,” he said.

While the behavior of the state security services has improved in recent years, Malian authorities have made no meaningful  effort to investigate those implicated in violations.

The jihadists speak a lot about corruption… how the authorities steal, torture and do bad things to us. Honestly, they don’t need to try very hard to recruit the youth.

Villagers said the Islamists are recruiting by exploiting frustrations over poverty, abusive security services, rampant banditry, local Peuhl clan rivalries, and, especially, corruption.

“The jihadists speak a lot about corruption… how the authorities steal, torture and do bad things to us,” one elder said. “Honestly, they don’t need to try very hard to recruit the youth…”

Villagers also said the Islamists are increasingly filling the governance vacuum. They welcomed Islamist efforts to investigate and punish livestock thieves, including by executions. Others praised Sharia rulings in favor of victims of domestic violence or spousal abandonment. Elders from both the sedentary Bambara and pastoral Peuhl communities credited the Islamists’ efforts in late 2016 to resolve deadly land disputes. This meaningfully reduced communal violence in some regions, they said.

“We are fed up with paying bribes every time you meet a man in uniform or government official,” one villager said. “The Islamists get all this done without asking for taxes, money, or one of our cows.”

It was corruption, poor governance, and abusive security force conduct that significantly contributed  to Mali’s spectacular collapse in 2012. The burden to resolve this situation lies first and foremost with the Malian government. But the French strategy in Mali and the wider Sahel won’t succeed without helping Mali to address the issues underlying decades of insecurity and the growing support for abusive armed Islamist groups. Military operations, including those supported by the French, are not enough to pull Mali from this deepening quagmire.

When President Macron visits Mali on Friday, he should urge the government to professionalize the security forces and hold them accountable, to support the chronically neglected judiciary, and to take concrete action against rampant corruption. Strengthening Mali’s weak rule of law institutions is complicated work, but no counterterrorism strategy can succeed without it.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Like an addict, France does not know how to quit its state of emergency even though it has become clear that maintaining it erodes the rule of law and fosters human rights abuses while not keeping the country safer. The February 22 report by the parliamentary commission tasked with monitoring the state of emergency provided yet another reminder that it no longer serves any meaningful purpose.

French police and anti-crime brigade (BAC) secure a street they carried out a counter-terrorism swoop at different locations in Argenteuil, a suburb north of Paris, France, July 21, 2016.

REUTERS/Charles Platiau

The commission president, Dominique Raimbourg, from the governing Socialist Party, noted that activity under the state of emergency has been “greatly reduced” since the last extension. His fellow commission member, Jean-Frédéric Poisson, from the main opposition party Les Republicains, noted that “time that passes erodes the efficiency and nature of the state of emergency.” A French commission of inquiry into the Paris attacks had already concluded back in July 2016 that  the state of emergency had “limited impact” on improving security and any effect it may have had “quickly dissipated.”

Human Rights Watch’s own research has found repeated abuses against ordinary people during policing operations under emergency powers.

So why is France maintaining the state of emergency despite repeated warnings by its own oversight mechanisms?

It is mainly due to confusion by politicians about the purpose of a state of emergency. Many have said that it is justified by an ongoing terrorist risk. This was clearly displayed in December 2016 when Interior Minister Bruno Le Roux justified his request for a fifth extension by saying that “the terrorist threat was at its highest.” Under this reasoning, a state of emergency is needed as long as there is a high security risk.

This reasoning is dangerous on many levels. By suggesting that regular laws, procedures, and oversight mechanisms are not sufficient to counter threats, it weakens the premise of the rule of law and relegates it to a luxury for “normal” times. But it also sets the stage for the trap in which France finds itself. French leaders have implied that they will only lift the state of emergency when the security risk has subsided but since they can’t predict the risk of future terrorist attacks, they prefer to maintain it rather than pay a political price if a subsequent attack takes place.

So lifting the state of emergency becomes less dependent on security considerations and more on political calculations. This would explain why France’s latest extension was driven by the electoral calendar, punting the issue to the next president and legislature. Call it political procrastination, or perhaps more aptly, political cowardice.

This disconnect between its initial purpose and current raison d’être was captured nicely by Sébastien Pietrasanta, a parliamentarian and rapporteur for the commission investigating the state’s response to the November 2015 attacks, who recently noted that “the effect of the state of emergency is fading and yet we extend it…even though the link with terrorism is quite tenuous.”

I have seen this logic at play in the Middle East. Egypt and Syria, countries I have worked on for years, maintained their states of emergency for 31 and 48 years respectively. Every time the state of emergency was up for renewal, the country’s rulers argued that the risk was still there or that the timing was not right to lift it. France is not a tin-pot autocracy and its rulers are not despots, but there is a cautionary tale in these experiences.

It is time to reframe the debate in France. A continuing state of emergency should not be dependent on the existence of risk – an exogenous measure that cannot be controlled by political calculations. It should be restricted to situations where there is an exceptional need for exceptional measures at an exceptional moment. It may have been justified for a few days immediately after the November 2015 attacks as the country’s security forces were caught unprepared. But it should have been lifted as soon as the institutions resumed their normal functioning – regardless of whether the underlying security threat has been addressed.

It is time to reframe the debate in France. A continuing state of emergency should not be dependent on the existence of risk, it should be restricted to situations where there is an exceptional need for exceptional measures at an exceptional moment.

Nadim Houry

Director, Terrorism and Counterterrorism Program

The French government’s own website on the fight against terrorism noted in August 2016 that the government has “completed its legal arsenal and put in place an unprecedented reinforcement of its means in the police, justice, army and intelligence services.” France already has a raft of laws under the non-emergency regime that permit the authorities to investigate, detain, and prosecute terrorism suspects. Judicial controls in no way impede their effectiveness.

France needs to adopt a clear path out of the state of emergency. The parliamentary commission monitoring the state of emergency suggested in December setting an upper limit on the extension of a state of emergency but parliament ignored it and voted a fifth extension with almost no debate. Candidates in the upcoming presidential election have largely avoided talking about the issue, perpetuating the procrastination strategy by the political class, and journalists have not pushed them on the issue.

It is no longer enough to wait and hope that the security threat will simply vanish or that the future president or legislature will finally decide to tackle the issue. The debate about lifting the state of emergency should become a priority topic in this presidential election. Like any addict hoping to recover, France needs to start by recognizing the problem and begin a serious conversation on how to quit.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

A girl stands in the annex of al-Hol camp in northeast Syria, where more than 11,000 women and children from nearly 50 nationalities are confined as family members of Islamic State (also known as ISIS) suspects. The Kurdish-led coalition controlling northern Syria wants home countries to take the women and children back. But most governments have only repatriated small numbers of their citizens.

© 2019 Sam Tarling

“They won’t shoot us, my darling. Mummy is right here with you, don’t worry.”

The German mother’s words, spoken in almost a whisper, did not stop her young son’s whimpers.

Desperate text and voice messages have been furtively emerging from al-Hol, a desolate camp holding about 70,000 women and children related to Islamic State suspects in northeastern Syria, a de facto autonomous region controlled by a Kurdish-led coalition until Turkey invaded from the north on October 9.

The women locked up without charge in the open-air camp spoke of armed, masked guards from the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) — who, as of Monday, still controlled al-Hol — snatching sons over age 12 from their tents during the night. They wrote that the medical clinic inside an annex that holds 11,000 foreigners from four dozen countries has been shut for days — a fact confirmed by aid workers. They described overflowing latrines and dwindling food and water supplies. They begged to be brought home even if prison awaited them, writing that they were terrified of being transferred to Syrian prisons, notorious for mass deaths and torture, under a deal announced Sunday in which Kurdish authorities agreed to let the forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad advance into northeastern Syria to stave off the Turkish assault.

But none of the texts or voice messages I have received conveyed the women’s despair as palpably as the exchange between the mother and son. The woman’s voice and the boy’s cries sounded muffled and frozen with fear, as though the fighting would sweep into the desert camp at any moment, like the dust storms that leave babies in al-Hol coated in grimy sand.

For months, Human Rights Watch and a host of other human rights defenders, including the United Nations human rights commissioner and the UN special rapporteur on countering terrorism, have issued largely unheeded appeals for governments to bring home their nationals detained in al-Hol and in two smaller camps in northeastern Syria used to house family members of ISIS suspects.

More than two-thirds of detainees in the camps are young children who never chose to be dragged to or born in the so-called caliphate. Between December 2018 and September, nearly 340 children died in al-Hol — most from preventable diseases such as severe diarrhea or malnutrition, according to the International Rescue Committee.

I have been unable to reach the camps since Turkey’s military offensive began and cannot verify all the women’s latest stories. But during three visits to al-Hol in late June, conditions were dire. Almost every child I saw was bone thin with a swollen belly, a deep cough and a shell-shocked gaze. Many dragged jugs of water larger than their own slight frames under a blistering sun. A boy and a girl struggled up gravelly paths on crutches, each with a leg amputated above the knee. Infants lay listless on the floors of tattered tents, flies on their faces.

One sunburned boy with a shock of blond hair, who looked about 5, stood alone by a mound of stinking garbage, clad in a soiled yellow shirt with the words, “Who Am I?” The answer is clear: these children are victims, not only of ISIS but of their current conditions of captivity.

The embattled Kurdish-led Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria that, until Turkey’s incursion, governed the region, has repeatedly called on all other countries with nationals inside the camps to repatriate them. In many countries, grandparents and other family members are begging their governments to let them take in and care for women and children stuck in the camps.

But most governments, including those of Western Europe, argue that most of these nationals are not their responsibility unless they can, by some miracle, leave their locked camps and cross conflict zones and borders to reach consulates often hundreds of kilometers away. These governments also balk at taking responsibility for their nationals who are ISIS suspects, including boys as young as 12, whom the SDF is holding in inhumanely overcrowded, makeshift prisons. These governments insist that security concerns and logistical difficulties preclude swift returns except, occasionally, of a few orphans.

Perversely, the refusal of Western governments to take responsibility for their nationals may result in ISIS criminals and camp members breaking free, as the SDF diverts its forces to fighting the Turkish military. Already in recent days, several Syrian ISIS suspects reportedly escaped an SDF-controlled prison and hundreds of women and children escaped Ain Issa, another camp for family members of ISIS suspects, after both were struck by Turkish artillery.

A few foreign governments, including those of Kazakhstan and Kosovo, have taken back citizens held in northeastern Syria, and in some cases, male prisoners by the planeload, demonstrating that where there is political will to bring citizens home for rehabilitation and reintegration, there is a way. The Kurdish-led coalition has also worked with local authorities in Syria to return many Syrian women and children, who make up about half of the camp’s detainees, as well as Syrian men and boys they have imprisoned separately or prosecuted, to their communities.

Once back home, former detainees can be investigated and, if appropriate, monitored or prosecuted in line with international fair-trial standards. Children should only be prosecuted in exceptional circumstances, as a last resort.

Helping these women and children come home advances two basic legal obligations: ensuring everyone’s right to return to their home country, without their home state throwing up direct or indirect barriers, and ensuring justice for serious crimes committed by ISIS through fair trials for those most responsible.

As the battle rages in northeastern Syria, the need is greater than ever for countries to respond to the plight of their citizens trapped in camps and detention centers, including young children too scared to cry instead of whimper.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Detainees in what The Times of London describes as an informal detention center for Islamic State (ISIS) suspects in northeast Syria.  

© 2019 The Times/Anthony Loyd
(Beirut) – A Kurdish-led armed group backed by the United States-led coalition against the Islamic State (also known as ISIS) is detaining thousands of Syrian and foreign men and boys in severely overcrowded informal detention centers in northeast Syria, Human Rights Watch said today. The heightened possibility of a Turkish invasion of northeast Syria underscores the urgent need for countries to immediately ensure that their imprisoned citizens can return home for rehabilitation, reintegration, and appropriate prosecution in line with international standards.

On October 7, 2019, US President Donald Trump announced a pullout of US troops from northeast Syria, an area controlled by the Kurdish-led armed group, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which had been a key member of the international coalition against ISIS. The group is detaining thousands of Syrian and foreign men and boys in severely overcrowded schools and other buildings in northeast Syria.

“Thousands of people, including children, are stuck in what amounts to shockingly overcrowded prisons on suspicion of being ISIS, but no one is accepting responsibility for them,” said Letta Tayler, senior crisis and conflict researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Any authority that effectively controls these informal prisons is legally bound to urgently improve conditions and ensure that each and every detainee is held lawfully.”

The SDF says it is holding 12,000 prisoners, including 4,000 foreigners, in 7 detention centers in northeast Syria. Human Rights Watch spoke to two witnesses, including a former prisoner, who described harrowing conditions and severe overcrowding in the detention centers. The Kurdish-led Autonomous Administration controlling northern Syria says it lacks the resources to detain the prisoners properly and that their own countries should bring them home for investigation and potential prosecution. Most countries have failed to do so.

Human Rights Watch interviewed a journalist who said he had visited one of the detention facilities and reviewed his video footage published in The Times of London on September 30. The footage showed cells with dozens of men in orange jumpsuits packed together tightly, their bodies touching, and an equally crowded medical block in a detention center holding boys. The journalist said the detainees included British, French, Belgian, and US citizens, and that they were held in “terrible, terrible conditions.” CBS news published similar images on September 17. Human Rights Watch was not able to verify the images independently.

According to The Times, the people pictured were captured during the battle of Baghouz, which ended in February, and held on suspicion of being ISIS members.

Another person who visited one of the detention centers showed Human Rights Watch two recent photos that also showed severe overcrowding as well as male prisoners who appeared to be children sharing cells with men.

The journalist, Anthony Loyd, said he saw more than 450 detainees in the hospital block of one detention center, including children as young as 12. Many patients were not receiving adequate care and some had died of their injuries in the detention center, he said.

“Several prisoners had multiple amputations and I saw one with his intestines hanging out beneath a bloody dressing. The situation was pretty bleak,” Loyd said. “There were children there.”

The SDF is detaining many boys, some as young as 12, in informal detention centers, but others, particularly younger boys, are held with their parents in camps for suspected ISIS family members or in centers for children apprehended without their parents. One 16-year-old, who spoke with Human Rights Watch in June at a center for unaccompanied boys, said that the SDF and US forces appeared to decide at random which boys to imprison and which to send to the camps or centers.

“One American twice put me in a line to go to jail. But another American cursed him and said, ‘Why are you putting him back? The boy is small,’” the boy said.

The evidence and images reviewed by Human Rights Watch strongly suggest that conditions are unfit to hold detainees and fail to meet basic international standards.

Countries that have refused to allow the return of their nationals held in informal detention centers, or in squalid northeast Syrian camps holding more than 100,000 women and children related to ISIS suspects, nearly half of them foreigners, cite national security concerns and insufficient evidence for prosecution as justification for leaving them there.

Local authorities claim they do not have the necessary infrastructure to prosecute foreign ISIS suspects in line with international due process standards. They have nevertheless set up courts that have tried thousands of Syrian ISIS suspects in flawed proceedings. But neither the Syrian government nor the international community – including the Autonomous Administration’s own international partners – recognize the courts, raising doubts about the enforceability of the rulings.

The United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners (the “Mandela Rules”) require that “[a]ll accommodation provided for the use of prisoners … shall meet all requirements of health, due regard being paid to climatic conditions and particularly to cubic content of air, minimum floor space, lighting, heating and ventilation.” The rules state that “sanitary installations shall be adequate to enable every prisoner to comply with the needs of nature when necessary and in a clean and decent manner” and that “[a]dequate bathing and shower installations shall be provided.”

The Autonomous Administration should stop detaining children solely for suspected ISIS membership. Children who have been associated with armed groups should be treated primarily as victims who need rehabilitation assistance and help reintegrating into society. Children who may have committed other violent offenses should be treated in accordance with international juvenile justice standards and detained only as a last resort. Child suspects should be held separately from adults, unless it is considered in the child's best interest not to do so.

In addition to immediately ensuring that citizens trapped in northeast Syria can return to countries that guarantee due process, countries including members of the International Coalition against ISIS should also press and provide support to detaining authorities to end the inhumane conditions for those who cannot be promptly taken home or be involuntarily resettled without risk of torture or ill-treatment, including citizens of Iraq. The detaining authorities should ensure that anyone it is holding has been detained according to law, including prompt judicial review of each detainee to ensure the legality and necessity of detention, and that no one is held in inhumane or degrading conditions.

Under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, anyone detained on suspicion for committing criminal offenses should be taken promptly before a judge or an equivalent authority to order their release. Anyone so detained is entitled to a trial within a reasonable time or release. The UN Human Rights Committee, which interprets the covenant, has said that the right to a judicial review of detention continues at all times, including in emergency situations.

Pending repatriation or third-country resettlement of non-Syrian prisoners to countries where they are not at risk of torture, ill-treatment, or unfair trials, the US-led coalition and countries with nationals held in northeast Syria should provide financial and technical support to the detaining authorities. The funding should be used to ensure that the authorities house all detainees in official prisons that are built to accommodate detainees and meet basic international standards including standards regarding juvenile justice.

“That those detained are ISIS suspects is no excuse for home countries to look the other way,” Tayler said. “If conditions in these prisons don’t improve, then home countries’ fears of radicalization and ISIS resurgence could become a reality.”

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

 Al-Hawl camp in Syria

© 2019 Human Rights Watch
(Sydney) – The Australian government should bring home Australian children of parents who may have joined armed groups and who are living in deplorable conditions in camps in Syria, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and Save the Children said today. The following is their statement:

Civil Society Groups Call for the Urgent Repatriation of Australian Children of Foreign Fighters

Ahead of tonight’s ABC “Four Corners” program, three civil society groups are jointly urging the Australian government to bring home dozens of Australian children of foreign fighters languishing in Syrian camps.

There are currently more than 60 Australian children and women living in desolate camps in northeast Syria, where there is no running water, poor access to education, and extremely limited health facilities.

Save the Children, Human Rights Watch, and Amnesty International stand united in their call for the Australian government to urgently repatriate all these children and women.

Save the Children Australia CEO Paul Ronalds said:

“Children are the innocent victims in all this, they have been through hell and they must not be punished for the actions of their parents. We cannot forget about them and let them continue to suffer in dangerous camps that simply aren’t fit for children. Like millions of Syrian children, these Australian children have lived through conflict, bombardment and acute deprivation. We appreciate that there will be serious questions to answer for the adults involved, but that shouldn’t stop us from doing the right thing by these children.”

Amnesty International Australia Refugee Coordinator Dr Graham Thom said:

“We know conditions in the camps are dire. Children are going without food and water and their safety is constantly threatened by violence, disease and malnutrition. These Australian children did not choose the hardships they are currently enduring. We urge the government to intervene immediately and save these mothers and children as soon as possible so that they can all return to Australia, where they belong.”

Human Rights Watch Australia Director Elaine Pearson said:

“Children should be treated first and foremost as victims. The Australian government should be doing what it can to protect its child citizens and bring them home, not abandon them to disease and death in a foreign desert.”

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Presidency of the Federal Court of Cassation of Baghdad

© 2019 SABAH ARAR/AFP/Getty Image

(Beirut) – A close study of appeals court decisions in terrorism-related cases in Iraq shows that judges in close to two dozen cases in an 18-month period appeared to ignore torture allegations or to rely on uncorroborated confessions, Human Rights Watch said today. Some of the torture allegations had been substantiated by forensic medical exams, and some of the confessions were unsubstantiated by any other evidence and were apparently extracted by force, including by torture.

In each of these cases, the trial courts took the torture allegations seriously, found them credible, assessed the evidence, and acquitted the defendants. These cases show that gaps in Iraq’s criminal justice system extend to the highest level. Under international law, courts should never rely on evidence obtained by torture. Member states of the Global Coalition To Defeat ISIS (also known as the Islamic State), who are meeting on September 26, 2019 on the margins of the UN General Assembly session in New York to discuss accountability measures for ISIS crimes, should agree not to transfer ISIS suspects from Syria to Iraq until the Iraqi justice system can ensure that criminal prosecutions meet international fair trial standards and until the government imposes a death penalty moratorium.

“Our investigation into a large number of Iraq’s court rulings found what may be repeated miscarriages of justice in terrorism cases,” said Lama Fakih, acting Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “How can Iraqi lawyers and counterterrorism judges stand by and watch this unfold?”

Human Rights Watch reviewed the appeals court case files in 27 decisions issued between September 2018 and March 2019 by the Federal Court of Cassation’s criminal committee. In 21 cases, the appeals court overruled the trial court’s acquittal and ordered retrials; in two cases, it upheld the acquittal; and in four cases, it upheld the trial court’s conviction but increased the sentences. Human Rights Watch was unable to confirm the outcome of the cases following retrial.

Of the 27 terrorism cases, 23 were prosecuted under Iraq’s counterterrorism law, three under the penal code, and one under the Weaponry Law No. 51 of 2017. The veracity of the court documents was confirmed by an independent Iraqi legal expert.

Criminal courts in Iraq are divided into courts for serious offenses, here referred to as “criminal courts,” and courts of minor offenses. The public prosecution, defendant, and complainant each have the right to appeal an acquittal, conviction, or sentence in a criminal court ruling. Appeals are heard by the criminal committee, consisting of a presiding judge and a minimum of four other judges, within the Federal Court of Cassation in Baghdad. The criminal committee automatically reviews all cases with a sentence of 25 years, life imprisonment, or death. The committee may uphold a decision or overrule it and return the case to the trial court for a retrial or a repeat judicial investigation.

In six cases, the defendants alleged at trials that investigators had tortured or otherwise coerced them into making a confession. The criminal committee overruled the acquittals and ordered retrials, relying on the recanted confession and mentioning evidence either not considered during the defendant’s trial or dismissed as unreliable. In two cases, the confession was the sole evidence. It was unclear from court documents whether trial judges had investigated those who had allegedly tortured or otherwise coerced the defendants, or if judicial investigators, police, or the public prosecution conducted criminal investigations into the allegations of torture and other crimes toward defendants who had made a complaint.

In two cases, the defendant submitted a forensic medical report that found signs he had been “subjected to external force,” yet the criminal committee ignored or dismissed the report. In one case, the criminal committee stated, “What the defendant’s medical report mentions does not affect the value of the evidence available in the case,” though the allegedly coerced confession was the only evidence presented at the trial.

While the issue of torture was not explicitly raised in seven cases, criminal courts in Anbar, Karkh, and Kirkuk acquitted defendants because no evidence was presented beyond their confessions, the case files showed. In each case, the criminal committee found that the disputed confession was sufficient evidence to proceed with the charges, and ordered a retrial.

These cases raise concern, particularly in light of comments made by an Iraqi judicial expert and two experts on Iraqi law and on terrorism cases. They all said that in their experience, when the criminal committee overruled an acquittal and ordered a retrial, it was sending a clear message that the trial court should change its ruling. They said that these retrials could not be seen as a neutral judicial order to reassess the facts of the case, but rather an implicit order to find the defendant guilty.

Human Rights Watch wrote to Iraq’s chief justice on June 10, 2019 with the findings. The High Judicial Council, which manages and supervises the federal judiciary’s affairs, responded on June 20, asking for the details of the cases reviewed, which Human Rights Watch provided on June 26. It also stated that, “independent experts were unable to properly assess the decisions taken by the distinguished judges at the Federal Court of Cassation because they lacked the appropriate expertise.” On July 18, it shared with Human Rights Watch an order from the chief justice to examine the cases Human Rights Watch shared but had not provided more information by the time of publication.

In line with international legal standards and Iraqi criminal procedures, Iraq’s High Judicial Council should issue guidelines obliging judges to investigate all credible allegations of torture and the security forces responsible, and to transfer detainees to different facilities immediately after they allege torture or ill-treatment, to protect them from retaliation. It should reiterate to judges that they are obliged to dismiss any evidence obtained by torture. Judicial authorities should investigate and determine who was responsible for any torture, punish abusive officers, and compensate the victim.

The High Judicial Council should immediately review all terrorism-related decisions issued by the criminal committee since the beginning of 2018, followed by consideration based on the result as to whether a full review since 2005 is necessary, and remedy any miscarriages of justice that it identifies.

The authorities should also ensure that there is a clear legal basis for detentions; that all detainees have access to legal counsel, including during interrogation; that they appear before a judge within 24 hours of their initial detention and at regular intervals thereafter, with the judge determining the legality and necessity of their continuing detention; and that detainees are moved to facilities accessible to government inspection, and with regular access by independent monitors and relatives.

The US-led coalition and other countries with nationals facing potential terrorism trials in Iraq should press the High Judicial Council to share the findings of any review it conducts into Iraq’s Federal Court of Cassation and ensure implementation of reforms to address the serious flaws raised in this report.

“This investigation shows that detainees in Iraq face a significant risk of unfair trial at every stage of the criminal justice process,” Fakih said. “The High Judicial Council needs to take a very close look at the terrorism-related decisions of the criminal committee.”


As of early 2018, Iraq authorities were holding an estimated 19,000 men and boys on charges of ISIS affiliation. Authorities have not responded to Human Rights Watch’s repeated requests to share updated statistics on those in custody. As of early 2019, according to an Iraqi security official, the US-backed Syria Democratic Forces (SDF) in northeast Syria were holding an estimated 20,000 Iraqis detained during fighting against ISIS, as well as over 2,000 non-Iraqis who are at risk of being transferred to Iraq for investigation and possible prosecution as ISIS members. At least 900 Iraqis with alleged links to ISIS have already been transferred from northeast Syria to Iraq in recent months.

Given the findings, and the risk of torture and unfair trials leading to the death penalty, neither the Syrian Kurdish forces nor any country should transfer detainees to Iraq for prosecution for terrorism or related crimes. Despite extensive credible reports of torture in detention, Iraqi judges routinely do not investigate these allegations.

Flaws in the Federal Court of Cassation

While the defendants’ arrest dates were not cited in most cases, one showed that the defendant had been arrested in March 2016 but only brought to trial in June 2017. The criminal committee overruled his acquittal in September 2018. While one case went from the trial to the appeals stage in just under six weeks, some cases took as long as a year or more. Two cases tried in 2018 related to crimes allegedly committed in 2006.

The right to a fair trial and the absolute prohibition of torture are set out in human rights treaties ratified by Iraq, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Convention against Torture. Key guarantees include that courts should not consider any evidence obtained by torture; that no defendant should be compelled to testify against themselves or confess guilt; and that defendants should have adequate time to prepare their defense, be able to consider and challenge the evidence and witnesses used against them, and present their own evidence and witnesses.

In March 2019, the Interior Ministry endorsed new Standard Operating Procedures for criminal investigations. These include articles to strengthen the defense, including by ensuring defense lawyers’ access to detained clients, case files, and interview records. The Interior Ministry should ensure that investigators are fully trained on the procedures and that they are put into practice across all detention facilities and during all investigations.

Torture Allegations

In October 2017, a man went on trial at Anbar Criminal Court for ISIS affiliation in 2014 in Fallujah, according to his case file. The defendant recanted his confession, saying he had been tortured. Witnesses testified that he had no links to ISIS. The court acquitted him, but the criminal committee overruled the acquittal in October 2018, finding that the confession was credible, and ordered a retrial. It found that, “the accused has confessed during the investigation and in the presence of all legal guarantees of committing the crime. Therefore, the evidence against him as previously described is sufficient and convincing enough to convict and sentence him.” It said nothing about the torture allegation.

In November 2018, the Karkh branch of the Central Criminal Court in Baghdad acquitted a man accused of complicity in the murder of an Iraqi Security Forces officer and of injuring others in 2013. The court ruled that his confession, the sole evidence, was not enough to convict him, citing an attendance sheet showing that he had been in a university class at the time of the incident, and witnesses who stated the same. The defendant said he had been coerced into confessing, and presented a forensic medical report finding that he had been “subjected to external force.”

The Federal Court of Cassation’s criminal committee found in March 2019 that the confession had been “clear and detailed” and cited statements made almost five years after the attack by other two officers who had been present at the time of attack. It stated that the forensic medical report findings did not affect “all the other evidence” and ordered a retrial.

In January 2018, the Anbar Criminal Court tried a man for ISIS affiliation and participation in two specific terrorist attacks. The defendant recanted his confession, stating he had been tortured, and the court, determining that there was no other evidence of his alleged links to ISIS, acquitted him.

The criminal committee overruled the decision in November and ordered a retrial, finding that the confession was credible because the defendant made it in the presence of the general prosecutor and his state-appointed lawyer, and citing statements made by plaintiffs not mentioned during the trial. It added that, “his confession was not refuted by any medical report that confirmed that his confession was forced,” and did not address the torture allegations deemed credible by the trial court anywhere within the decision.

According to the case file, in February 2018, a man charged with ISIS affiliation at the Anbar Criminal Court stated that he had been tortured into confessing. His brother, a juvenile in custody and accused of another crime, testified against him. The court said that it could not rely on his brother’s statement because he was a juvenile himself on trial, and that it was suspicious that his own confession to investigators was identical – word for word – to the confession he later made to the investigative judge. It reasoned:

After careful consideration of the facts of the case and evidence obtained in it, the court found that the accused’s statements given to the investigator and the investigative judge were the same, word-for-word, and that the statements given by the accused as a witness, and who is the brother of the accused mentioned above, cannot be accepted since it came from a juvenile defendant, hence it cannot be admitted as evidence in a capital crime.

The criminal committee overruled the decision, finding both the defendant’s confession and his brother’s statements credible, and ordered a retrial.

In January 2019, the Karkh court acquitted a man charged with ISIS affiliation, the case file shows. He recanted his confession at trial and presented a forensic medical report in which the doctor had found that he had been subjected to “external force.” A witness who had implicated the defendant as a member of ISIS also recanted. The court acquitted him for lack of evidence. In April, the criminal committee overruled the acquittal and ordered a retrial, referencing the defendant’s confession while ignoring the forensic medical report, and also relying on the retracted witness statement and two security agency reports that were not mentioned at trial.

On April 1, 2019, Iraq’s High Judicial Council told Human Rights Watch that Iraqi courts had investigated 275 complaints against investigative officers by the end of 2018 in both terrorism and non-terrorism cases. The High Judicial Council stated that 176 of the cases have been “resolved,” while 99 cases were still being addressed. The council did not indicate what the term “resolved” meant in this context, nor how many of the 176 cases were being further investigated or had been dismissed.

Confession-based Prosecution

In one case in which the criminal committee ordered a retrial solely on the basis of a confession, in February 2019, it found that:

The decision issued by the Karkh Criminal Court to drop the charge against the accused and release him is incorrect and against the law as the accused had explicitly, and with the availability of all legal guarantees consisting of the presence of the deputy public prosecutor and the appointed lawyer, confessed to the crime. The accused confessed to belonging to a terrorist group and to have continued supporting it. Therefore, there is sufficient and convincing evidence to convict him. 

In two cases, the additional evidence mentioned by the criminal committee was a single witness statement against the defendant that had not been presented at his trial. In a November 2018 case, the Risafa branch of the Central Criminal Court acquitted a man accused of selling weapons to the Islamic State because his confession was the sole piece of evidence against him. The criminal committee said a witness statement that had not been considered at trial was enough to substantiate the charges and ordered a retrial. In two other cases, the additional evidence the criminal committee relied on was a witness statement that did not implicate the defendant.

Extended Sentences

In four of the 23 cases in which defendants were convicted under the Anti-Terrorism Law No. 13 of 2005, two received 15-year sentences and two life sentences. Upon appeal by the prosecution in two cases in an effort to increase the sentences, and the automatic appeal in the life sentence cases, the criminal committee ordered an unspecified increase in sentencing which in the case of life sentences could only be death. The committee said the initial sentences had been too light. One of the cases involved an elderly man sentenced to 15 years because of his age who was accused of working in a Mosul mosque and of pledging support to ISIS in religious speeches.

In two of the 27 cases, the criminal committee upheld a decision to acquit the defendants, in one case based on the defendant’s claim that he had been coerced into confessing. It was unclear from the court documents whether the judges initiated any investigations into the allegations of coercion.

Exonerating Evidence

In December 2018, according to court documents, the Karkh branch of the Central Criminal Court in Baghdad acquitted three men charged under the penal code for detonating a car bomb targeting Iraqi Security Forces in 2005. All three men recanted their confessions and the court said it had evidence that US forces had been behind the explosion and had claimed responsibility. It also found that the men’s confessions diverged from one another’s significantly. In March 2019, the criminal committee overruled the acquittals, saying the men had confessed to Al Qaeda membership in the presence of a prosecutor and their appointed lawyer, and ordered a retrial. It stated that: 

Upon examination and deliberation, it is evident from the facts of the case that the defendants have explicitly confessed to belonging to the terrorist Al Qaeda group and to carrying out several terrorist attacks, one of which is the crime at hand, in the presence of a member of the public prosecution and the appointed attorney. Their confessions were consistent with the course of the investigation, and the bomb being detonated by American troops does not affect the accused’s confessions. Therefore, there is sufficient and convincing evidence to convict them. 

In December 2018, the Karkh Criminal Court acquitted two men who were accused of detonating a bomb in 2011, court documents show, because both defendants recanted their confessions, which had been inconsistent. In addition, witnesses to the attack stated that both defendants had nothing to do with it. The court stated in its decision to acquit that:

Statements given by the injured complainants... show that they did not complain against the accused regarding this crime since they had nothing to do with the incident and since they already knew them as they are from the same area.... The court found that the evidence against the accused amounted only to their confessions written during the investigation, which they recanted. The court also found that the confessions were not validated by any legally admissible evidence. In addition to that, the court found that the confessions given by both accused were inconsistent with each other.

The criminal committee cited the confessions and the exonerating witness statements, overruling the acquittal and ordering a retrial.

Guilt by Association

In August 2018, the Karkh Criminal Court acquitted the only woman among the 27, who was charged with ISIS affiliation based on her husband’s membership. The criminal committee found that her acknowledgment that her husband had joined ISIS, and fake documentation she had while trying to smuggle herself to Turkey after he was killed, constituted enough evidence to convict her on terrorism charges and ordered a retrial. It reasoned: 

The accused had confessed during investigation, with the availability of legal guarantees, that she is the wife of a member of the terrorist group ISIS, and that after her husband was killed by the Peshmerga… an individual called her in order to transport them to Turkey, and she was given a fake civil identity card. They headed to Baghdad and were received by a defendant who owns a guesthouse and transports families from the ISIS terrorist group to safe areas. He took their photos and prepared fake IDs for the purpose of smuggling them out of Iraq, where they were arrested upon their attempt. Her confession was validated by witness statements of the arresting contingent and other witness statements, and the circumstantial evidence consisting of finding fakes IDs of the defendant. Therefore, there is sufficient and convincing evidence to convict and sentence her for the crime. 

The criminal committee ruled that the fact that she was married to an ISIS member and had attempted to leave Iraq using false documentation was enough to secure a conviction under the Anti-Terrorism Law. If prosecuted for the crime of false documentation, the woman would have faced a sentence of as little as six months, But because she was tried under the Anti-Terrorism Law, she was instead potentially facing a sentence of up to 25 years in prison for being an accessory to a crime. 

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Nigeria: Military Holding Children as Boko Haram Suspects

The Nigerian military has arbitrarily detained thousands of children in degrading and inhuman conditions for suspected involvement with the armed Islamist group Boko Haram. 

(Abuja) – The Nigerian military has arbitrarily detained thousands of children in degrading and inhuman conditions for suspected involvement with the armed Islamist group Boko Haram, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. Many children are held without charge for months or years in squalid and severely overcrowded military barracks, with no contact with the outside world.
The 50-page report, “‘They Didn’t Know if I Was Alive or Dead’: Military Detention of Children for Suspected Boko Haram Involvement in Northeast Nigeria,” documents how Nigerian authorities are detaining children, often based on little or no evidence. Children described beatings, overwhelming heat, frequent hunger, and being packed tightly in their cells with hundreds of other detainees “like razorblades in a pack,” as one former detainee said.
“Children are being detained in horrific conditions for years, with little or no evidence of involvement with Boko Haram, and without even being taken to court,” said Jo Becker, children’s rights advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. “Many of these children already survived attacks by Boko Haram. The authorities’ cruel treatment adds to their suffering and victimizes them further.”
Between January 2013 and March 2019, Nigerian armed forces detained over 3,600 children, including 1,617 girls, for suspected involvement with non-state armed groups, according to the UN. Many are detained at Giwa military barracks in Maiduguri, the main military detention facility in Borno State.
Nigerian authorities have released at least 2,200 children from detention, nearly all without charge. According to the UN, 418 children were detained in 2018, a significant decrease from 2017, when over 1,900 children were detained. Human Rights Watch does not know the number of children who may be currently detained.
The Nigerian government should sign and put into effect a United Nations handover protocol to ensure the swift transfer of children apprehended by the military to child protection authorities for rehabilitation, family reunification, and community reintegration. Other countries in the region, including Chad, Mali, and Niger, have already signed such protocols.
In June 2019, Human Rights Watch interviewed in Maiduguri 32 children and youth who had been detained as children at Giwa barracks for alleged involvement with Boko Haram. None of the children said they were taken before a judge or appeared in court, as required by law, and only one saw someone who he thought may have been a lawyer. None were aware of any charges against them. One was detained when he was only 5 years old.
Nigerian authorities arrested the children during military operations, security sweeps, screening procedures for internally displaced people, and based on information from informants. Many of the children said they were arrested after fleeing Boko Haram attacks on their village or while seeking refuge at camps for internally displaced people. One said he was arrested and detained for more than two years for allegedly selling yams to Boko Haram members. Several girls had been abducted by Boko Haram or forced to become Boko Haram “wives."
Approximately one-third of the children interviewed said security forces beat them during interrogation after their arrest or at Giwa barracks. One girl who was forced to marry a Boko Haram member said that after soldiers captured her, “The soldiers were beating us with their belts, calling us names and telling us they will deal with us because we are Boko Haram wives.” Others said they were beaten if they denied association with Boko Haram.
Children described sharing a single cell, approximately 10-by-10 meters, with 250 or more detainees. They said the stench from a single open toilet was often overwhelming and that detainees sometimes fainted from the heat. In Maiduguri, the average annual maximum temperature is 35 degrees Celsius and temperatures can exceed 40 degrees.
Nearly half of the children said they saw dead bodies of other detainees at Giwa barracks. Many said they suffered frequent thirst or hunger.
Fifteen of the children had been detained for more than a year, and some had been held for more than three years. None had been allowed to contact family members outside the detention center, nor had the authorities contacted their families. Such cases may constitute enforced disappearances, a serious human rights violation.
The children said that Giwa has a cell for boys under 18 with children as young as 7, or even younger. The military also detains children in adult cells, where children said food and water were scarcer and conditions even more crowded. Very young children and babies are kept with their mothers and older girls in a separate cell. Three girls said they saw male soldiers making sexual advances toward female detainees or removing girls from the cell for long periods for what they believed was sexual exploitation.
The military provides no formal education or rehabilitation activities for children at Giwa. Children reported that their only activities were prayer, watching television, and informal lessons that some children provided for others. The overcrowded conditions made physical activity impossible, and some children said they developed sores from restricted movement.
Following their release, some children said they suffered social stigma from presumed involvement with Boko Haram, even if they had no ties to the group. Nearly all said they wanted to go to school, but many said that available schools were too far away, or that they didn’t have money for transportation.
Nigerian authorities should immediately release children currently in military custody. If military or intelligence authorities have credible evidence of criminal offenses by children, they should transfer them to civilian judicial authorities to be treated in accordance with national and international juvenile justice standards.
“Nigeria faces formidable challenges from the Boko Haram insurgency, but detaining thousands of children is not the answer,” Becker said. “Children affected by the conflict need rehabilitation and schooling, not prison.”
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

A destroyed home near Ashqala al-Sagheer village in Hamdaniya, July 2019. Hasansham camp is in the background.

© 2019 Belkis Wille/Human Rights Watch

(Beirut) – The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) is preventing about 4,200 Sunni Arabs from returning home to 12 villages east of Mosul, Human Rights Watch said today. More than three years after the Hamdaniya district was retaken from the Islamic State (also known as ISIS), in one area KRG authorities have only allowed Kurdish residents and Arabs with KRG ties to return, in violation of international humanitarian law.

The Arab families seeking to return home had fled primarily to ISIS-controlled Mosul during fighting in 2014. Approximately 3,400 Sunni Arabs have been residing in camps for the displaced with dwindling services, according to aid workers. Affected families said they have been blocked from their homes and farmland and unable to earn a living. A KRG official wrote in an email to Human Rights Watch that residents were free to return to their homes, but provided Human Rights Watch with a list of Nineveh villages that were difficult to return to, identifying six from Hamdaniya as “blocked” for return.

“The Kurdistan Regional Government is preventing thousands of Arab villagers from returning home without a lawful reason,” said Lama Fakih, acting Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “The fact that the KRG is permitting Kurdish and well-connected Arab residents back suggests that these villagers are being improperly punished.”

Human Rights Watch has conducted three investigations into the KRG’s prevention of returns to the Hamdaniya district since 2016, most recently in June 2019, when we interviewed 11 Arab residents of Hasansham camp from the villages of Hasansham, Manquba, Shirkan, and Tal Aswad.

The KRG’s coordinator for international advocacy, Dr. Dindar Zebari, wrote on August 10 in response to a Human Rights Watch letter that in the 15 villages Human Rights Watch investigated, population counts showed that there had been few or no returns to 6 of the villages and minimal returns to 2. In 4 villages, about half the population had returned. In only 3 villages had all or nearly all residents returned. Residents blocked from returning said that these 3 villages were either predominantly Kurdish or had Arab residents with strong KRG ties.

Zebari’s information matched satellite imagery analysis from 2016 to 2019 that identified signs of reconstruction and needed reconstruction of many area buildings.

Sunni Arab residents and aid workers disputed claims that authorities were willing to investigate reported cases of blocked return. After anti-ISIS forces retook Mosul in November 2016 and the KRG had put in place a security and civil administration system in the area, former residents sought to return to Hamdaniya district. However, Iraqi forces redirected the displaced to the nearby Hasansham camp. After one month at the camp, the KRG’s security forces, Asayish, informed them without a clear explanation that they were not allowed to return home. Families and aid workers said that in late 2017, Asayish reiterated that they were not allowed to return home but could leave the camps to move to the broader Mosul area or to KRG-controlled Erbil, leading some families to leave the camps.

“Families like mine have become victims of abuse because we went to Mosul when ISIS came, instead of fleeing towards the Kurds,” said a 69-year-old Arab villager from Manquba. “Now we are punished because we didn’t go to [Kurdish-controlled] Kalak.”

KRG officials, in communications with residents, aid workers, and Human Rights Watch, have provided reasons for blocking returns to the district: inadequate services, unexploded ordnance, uncleared landmines (including those of an improvised nature), property destruction; social conflicts and property and land ownership issues, concerns about attacks by villagers who had joined ISIS, and security issues arising from the September 2017 KRG referendum on independence, which makes the area a front line if there is future fighting between Kurdish and Iraqi forces.

Under international humanitarian law, the forced displacement of civilians is prohibited except when necessary to protect civilians or for imperative military reasons, and then only for as long as needed. Possible future hostilities are not a lawful basis. Under the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, it is a war crime to order the unlawful displacement of civilians. Furthermore, people may only be punished for crimes for which they are responsible, after a fair trial to determine individual guilt. Imposing collective punishments on families, villages, or communities violates international humanitarian law and amounts to a war crime.

Actions imposed for security reasons need to be according to law, proportionate, and have a legitimate aim, Human Rights Watch said. In addition, Human Rights Watch found that the displacement camps are also located in the so-called “front line” area and that the KRG has allowed some residents to return to certain villages in the area. With respect to landmines, international demining organizations have conducted considerable survey and clearance activity in the vicinity since 2016 and, if mines remained a genuine threat, no villagers should have been allowed to return.

Satellite imagery analysis shows that since 2016 the KRG military forces, the Peshmerga, have deployed and built significant military infrastructure in four of the villages, none of which have received significant population returns. The KRG should immediately remove all restrictions preventing the return of residents where there is no military necessity for doing so and investigate government officials who have been preventing lawful returns, Human Rights Watch said.

“KRG authorities should not prevent families from returning to their villages because they want to punish the community,” Fakih said. “These villagers have the right to return to their own land and homes.”

Flight and Impact of Displacement

In August 2014, ISIS forces, after capturing the city of Mosul, took control of Hasansham and surrounding areas, which had been under KRG control since 2003. Residents said they fled their villages once fighting between ISIS and the Peshmerga broke out. They said that most Arab families fled in the direction of Mosul, because ISIS told them the city was safer. However, almost all Kurdish families fled in the direction of Erbil, taking refuge in Kalak and other KRG-controlled areas.

A 50-year-old man from the village of Shirkan said that the local Kurdish families fled to areas under KRG control while most Arab families fled to Mosul. “I heard in 2017 from camp security that the Peshmerga allowed the 20 Kurdish families from our village to return home,” he said. Human Rights Watch verified the return of Kurdish villagers to Shirkan during a July visit. He said that camp officials had told him he was not allowed to return home, without providing him with a clear reason why.

A 63-year-old man from Ehsar said that only his Arab neighbors who had personal ties to the Peshmerga said they were allowed to return to his village. Only 8 people out of an original population of 60 have returned to Ehsar, according to the KRG’s population count.

Three camps in the Hasansham and Khazir areas are holding about 3,400 displaced people from 11 surrounding villages, according to camp management. Another 800 people, including some from a twelfth village, were living outside the camp in another location, aid workers said. Some of the villages are historically Arab while others are mixed Arab-Kurdish. The camps are run by a nongovernmental organization linked to the Kurdistan Democratic Party, one of the governing parties in the KRG, and the Asayish manages camp security. Management at all three camps said that funding shortfalls over the last two years had resulted in aid agencies suspending and reducing services to camp residents.

Most of the families interviewed said that before fleeing their homes, farming had been their main source of income. All said that since 2014 they had not been able to farm their land, even after the KRG regained control and fighting had ceased. Almost all the families said that they had been unable to find any paid employment since moving to the displacement camp.

One former camp resident, 36, said he moved to Mosul and was living with his family in an abandoned building and working as a taxi driver. In his village he used to make about US$16 a day but now makes as little as $8. His 14-year-old daughter is not going to school because he cannot afford a bag, books, and appropriate clothing for her.

A 45-year-old laborer from Hasansham who has not been allowed to return said he can see his destroyed home from his tent in the displacement camp: “I want to go back to my village because here in the camp we don’t have a future. How long are we going to stay here? No work, bad education, no proper health care, we are without hope.”

Health professionals providing mental health and psychosocial support in the camps identified that families showed signs of heightening psychological distress and frustration because they were being prevented from returning home, findings consistent with a recently published report on displaced families in Iraq.

Advocating Villagers’ Return

Several aid workers in the camps told Human Rights Watch that senior aid officials had been advocating since 2018 for the return of the 4,200 people with senior KRG officials, local mayors, the governor of Nineveh, the local Peshmerga unit, and members of Parliament in Baghdad. In June 2018, then-Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani agreed with aid agencies that all Arab families should be allowed to return and instructed the KRG’s Ministry of Interior to follow up, two aid workers present said. The Erbil Joint Crisis Coordination Centre, established under the KRG’s interior ministry in 2014 to “coordinate all matters related to crisis management and response in the Kurdistan Region,” informed humanitarian partners in September 2018 that the KRG’s interior ministry and Baghdad authorities had agreed to allow the families to return. However, in October, a high-ranking Peshmerga commander told senior aid officials that returns would only be permitted if there was a political agreement between the KRG and the Iraqi government to “ensure no hostilities in the area,” the aid workers said.

Families that sought permission to return with KRG and Baghdad officials said the officials told them the decision was “not in their hands” but in the hands of the Peshmerga.

Area Contamination

At a July 2018 meeting with senior aid officials, a high-ranking Peshmerga commander raised concerns that Hamdaniya villages were contaminated with landmines (including those of an improvised nature) and unexploded ordnance, according to several aid workers. Zebari’s email to Human Rights Watch also noted the presence of unexploded ordnance and landmines. However, these concerns do not appear to be the reason KRG authorities have not allowed families to return to their villages.

Three demining organizations provided Human Rights Watch with maps showing clearance activities in the area, which demonstrates that considerable clearance activity was conducted in and around the villages since 2016. Human Rights Watch and aid workers have also observed shepherds grazing their sheep throughout the area, including in abandoned villages, and Peshmerga driving through the villages. The KRG authorities have allowed some residents to return to certain villages, so it is unclear why return would be safe for some but not others.

If landmine or explosive remnants of war contamination concerns persist in some of the villages of blocked return, KRG authorities should direct mine clearance organizations to provide additional mine risk education to the families in the camps. They should ensure, with the Iraqi government’s Directorate of Mine Action, which oversees work in the return areas, that demining organizations survey and clear high priority areas like main roads and public spaces, and mark other areas of contamination. The KRG should also instruct security forces to accompany camp residents on “go-and-see” visits, assisting them in avoiding any possible unexploded ordnance or landmine.

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Government buses waiting to move families from one camp in Anbar governate to another during a previous wave of camp closures in December 2018. 

© 2018 Belkis Wille/Human Rights Watch

(Beirut) – Local authorities have forcibly expelled more than 2,000 Iraqis from camps for displaced people in Nineveh governorate since August 23, 2019, Human Rights Watch said today.

Some were forced to return to their home regions, despite fears for their safety, including from former neighbors who perceive them as being linked to the Islamic State (ISIS). Some have come under attack since being forced home. Authorities in Nineveh have also blocked families who tried to leave the camps to avoid expulsion.

“Displaced people, like all other Iraqis, have the right to move freely in their country and decide where they feel safe to live,” said Lama Fakih, acting Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Authorities can’t move people without first consulting them, especially not to places where they and their families face danger.”

Authorities in Salah al-Din have also announced plans to close camps for displaced people or are already forcing people to return to their governorates of origin.

In early July, the National Security Council, which coordinates Iraq's national security, intelligence, and foreign policy strategy, passed “Resolution 16.” The resolution is not public, but officials have described its contents in letters to humanitarian organizations. It orders people from areas other than Nineveh – currently at least 38,040 people – to leave the Nineveh camps. It mandates security forces to develop a database of residents and isolate families who are perceived as ISIS-affiliated. The resolution also calls for increased security to keep people from entering or leaving camps without permission and assigning more police to the camps, to “control” people’s movement and to “assess and audit” the work of nongovernmental organizations who work in the camps.

In response, the authorities began screenings across the Nineveh camps. On August 21, Migration and Displacement Ministry officials informed aid workers at the two camps in Nineveh where screenings had been completed that they intended to expel everyone there from other governorates, starting with those from Anbar governorate, two aid workers said. Anbar is a former ISIS stronghold.

On August 23, security forces from the Nineveh Operations Command expelled 36 families from Anbar, most headed by women, totaling about 150 people , and transported them to their areas of origin in Anbar against their will and without letting them bring their belongings. They were told they were being taken to a camp in Anbar, three families told Human Rights Watch. The families called aid workers to express fears when they found they were actually being taken back home, and aid workers unsuccessfully tried to intervene.

An aid worker in Ramadi said that one of the families fled to a camp for displaced people 25 kilometers away after local residents threatened to kill them because of their perceived ISIS affiliation. Since August 25, 16 families who security forces had taken back to the Haditha area have been living in a public school encircled by police about three kilometers away because they feel unsafe, two told Human Rights Watch. They said that on August 28, someone threw a hand grenade at the school. No one inside was injured.

Two aid workers said that elsewhere in Anbar, local security forces said they denied at least six families entry to their areas of origin because of perceived ISIS affiliation. They said several more families have contacted aid groups asking for help to relocate to nearby camps because they feel unsafe.

Camp management did not have time to issue the deported Anbar families departure letters to help them pass through checkpoints, obtain security clearances in areas they returned to, and to apply for funds available for people returning.

After the expulsions, other families who are not from Nineveh started leaving the camps to avoid expulsion but on August 25, the Iraqi Army’s 16th division ordered camp management in at least two of the camps to prevent families from leaving. The army forced some departing families to return to the camps under threat of arrest, three of the families and aid workers said.

On August 28, security forces forcibly expelled from the same camps 151 families – at least 610 people – originally from Hawija, an area in western Kirkuk that continues to experience ISIS attacks and military operations, to camps in the Kirkuk area, an aid worker there said, causing food shortages in the camps they were transferred to. But two aid workers have since told Human Rights Watch that the Kirkuk governor later agreed to allow the families to continue living in camps there, instead of forcing them to return home.

Security forces also expelled at least another 671 people from Nineveh camps to a camp in Salah al-Din on August 31. Two families said that the morning after they arrived, two grenades hit the camp fence. One man, 50, said that he and other families did not feel safe there after social media posts – some containing veiled execution threats – urged local people to protest the families’ presence. Aid workers present said security forces transferred the families to another Salah al-Din camp on September 2 because of increased security concerns for the families. Residents at the new camp location launched protests when they heard of the families’ arrival.

On September 2, authorities expelled another 481 people from Nineveh camps to Salah al-Din, after keeping them waiting on buses for over five hours without a bathroom, food, or water.

The deputy governor of Salah al-Din, which currently houses at least 105,390 displaced people, told aid workers in June that he aimed to close most displaced people’s camps and informal settlement sites by early September, with statements from local officials in late August and early September that at least two camps would be closed by early September. By August 24, security forces had expelled more than 500 families from an informal settlement in Salah al-Din, an aid worker said.

The UN Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement ensure displaced people’s rights to free movement and freedom to choose their residence, as well as their right to move freely in and out of camps.

Authorities in Iraq should not force people to return to or remain in specific locations and respect their right to free movement. They should immediately facilitate the return of families who want to return to areas not affected by ongoing military operations. And if authorities cannot ensure families’ safety, they should allow families to remain in or relocate to camps that allow for free movement or other areas where authorities can properly protect them.

In line with these standards, authorities should ensure that displaced people have at least seven days’ notice of their expulsions and provide a range of detailed options for safe assisted relocation. Authorities should ensure that camp management has time to issue departure letters needed to travel, resettle, and apply for assistance, and allow people to take their belongings with them.

“Over the last two weeks government has effectively transferred people into situations where they are being targeted with grenades and death threats,” Fakih said. “Before people board buses provided by the government transporting them from the camps, authorities should clarify where the buses are traveling so families can make an informed decision about how to keep themselves safe.”

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

The school at Hammam al-Alil 1 camp for displaced people south of Mosul that security forces occupied on July 6, 7, and 9 in order to conduct security screenings of camp residents. 

© 2019 Belkis Wille/Human Rights Watch

(Beirut) The Iraqi government is denying thousands of children whose parents have a perceived Islamic State (also known as ISIS) affiliation of their right to access an education, Human Rights Watch said today. The children, who were born or lived in areas under the control of ISIS between 2014 and 2017, lack the civil documentation the Iraqi government requires for school enrollment and the government is making it difficult for them to acquire it.

A September 2018 document signed by senior Education Ministry officials endorsed a discussion that appears to allow children missing civil documentation to enroll in school. But officials are instructing school principals and aid groups providing support services for education that undocumented children are still barred from enrolling in government schools.

“Denying children their right to education because of something their parents might have done is a grossly misguided form of collective punishment,” said Lama Fakih, acting Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “It undermines any potential government efforts to counter extremist ideology by pushing these children to the margins of society.”

Iraq: Not a Homecoming

Iraq: Not a Homecoming

At the peak of the fighting between Iraqi forces and ISIS in 2017, at least 5.8 million people had been forced to flee their homes. Dozens of camps sprang up across Iraq to house the displaced, and as fighting subsided some families started to go back home. But many remain displaced and those returning home face significant challenges.

An aid worker coordinating an education program in Nineveh and three school principals there told Human Rights Watch that ministry officials told them that despite the September 2018 decision, as of January 1, 2019 students could only attend school if their parents pledged in person at their governorate’s General Directorate of Education that they would obtain their child’s civil documentation by the end of the school year or within 30 days of making the pledge.

The principal of a primary school adjacent to a camp for displaced families 30 kilometers southeast of Mosul said that the ministry instructed schools to expel students whose parents failed to carry through on their pledge. At least 1,080 children of school age are living in the camp next door to the school, camp management told Human Rights Watch, but only 50 of these children, all with valid documentation, were enrolled at the school.

The principal of a school in a camp 30 kilometers south of Mosul said that since 2018 he had been allowing all children in the camp to enroll but that after he received the ministry’s new instructions, “at least 100 kids stopped coming to school. Either their parents couldn’t afford to go to Mosul to make the pledge, or they didn’t see the point because they knew that they would not be able to get civil documentation for them within 30 days.”

A 13-year-old girl who had been in 6th grade at the school said she had to stop attending in January. Her mother has no death certificate for the girl’s father who, the mother said, joined ISIS and died, and thus cannot get her daughter a valid identity card. “I like to learn and I want to keep studying and become a teacher but I don’t know if I will be allowed to,” her daughter said.

Many families who lived under ISIS rule between 2014 and 2017 are missing one or more of the civil documents schools are requiring parents to provide to enroll these children. Human Rights Watch interviewed more than 20 families whose children could still not enroll in school for this reason after the September 2018 decision. It could not identify any families missing documentation who were able to enroll their children in school.

When in control of territory, ISIS regularly confiscated Iraqis’ civil documentation and issued their own, which the Iraqi authorities do not recognize. Iraqi security forces also confiscated some families’ documents as they fled fighting or when they arrived at camps for displaced people. Families whose children were born in ISIS-run hospitals have faced difficulties obtaining birth certificates and all subsequent documentation for their children, particularly if the husband is dead, missing, or detained. Authorities ask women to provide a valid death or divorce certificate in order to issue them and their children documentation, which most women in that situation do not have.

Ten women in that situation said that under those circumstances, neighborhood mukhtars, government-paid community leaders, have to sign off for security forces to grant the security clearances required to apply for civil documentation for the mother and subsequently the child. However, a mukhtar from Sinjar, an area in Nineveh governorate ISIS formerly controlled, said that security forces there had ordered him and other mukhtars not to stamp women’s documents if their husbands had joined ISIS unless the woman went before a judge and opened a criminal complaint against her husband for his ISIS membership. He said that not all women have been willing or able to do that.

As a result, many women married to men who joined ISIS have not been able to obtain divorce or death certificates. Government forces have even threatened them with arrest or other forms of collective punishment when they tried to obtain civil documentation. A woman from the town of Qayyarah, Nineveh, said that when she presented her 3-year-old son’s ISIS-issued birth certificate at the local civil status directorate in early 2018 in an effort to get a state-issued birth certificate, an official tore it up. “He said to me, we won’t give your son a birth certificate, his father was ISIS,” she said.

An upcoming joint study by the Norwegian Refugee Council, Danish Refugee Council, and International Rescue Committee, “Paperless People of Post-Conflict Iraq: Denied rights, barred from basic services and excluded from reconstruction efforts,” revealed another barrier for some families. They found that officials at some schools have been requiring not only the child’s documentation, but also various types of civil documentation for the parents, including their identity cards, or the death or divorce certificate of a parent not present.

Even those children who have valid documentation because they were born before ISIS took control in 2014 may be excluded by schools that demand these documents if their father is no longer present and their mother has no divorce or death certificate.The joint study found that nearly half of the families interviewed could not enroll their children in school without presenting the father’s civil identity card or death certificate.

On July 26, Human Rights Watch wrote to the Iraqi government asking for clarification on the government’s position on whether children missing civil documentation are able to enroll in school but has received no response.

In addition to their fundamental obligation to guarantee the right to education to all children, free from discrimination, governments should adopt measures to ensure education is not interrupted during humanitarian crises, Human Rights Watch said.

Article 18 of the Iraqi Constitution stipulates that all children born to an Iraqi father or mother shall be granted citizenship and are therefore entitled to identity documents. Parliament should amend or revoke other laws and policies in force that thwart this constitutional right and Parliament should consider enacting a proposal submitted in June by the parliamentary human rights committee for the judiciary to set up special courts to issue civil documentation to children of families with perceived ISIS affiliation. In any case, Iraq should remove requirements for families to obtain security clearance from security services as a prerequisite for obtaining civil documentation.

To ensure that children can enroll by September 15, the beginning of the school year, the Education Ministry should urgently notify all school staff not to require civil documentation as a condition for enrolling, taking examinations, or obtaining certificates until a procedure is in place facilitating the issuing of civil documentation for all Iraqi children. The ministry, working with aid agencies, should seek to notify parents living in areas formerly under ISIS control and in camps for displaced people that the civil documentation requirements have been waived.

“Some Iraqi children lost three years of education under ISIS.” Fakih said. “The government should be doing everything in its power to ensure that children do not miss any more years of crucial education.”

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

 Al-Hawl camp in Syria

© 2019 Human Rights Watch
(Al-Hol Camp, northeast Syria) – Sitting on the floor of a shack in a locked desert camp in north-east Syria, her baby boy in her lap and her two other children nestled by her side, Radhia* had only one question.

"Please, can you tell me," she asked, "when will Australia bring us home?"

That same week in June, Australia evacuated eight Australian children from al-Hol, the same camp where Radhia and her children have been detained since January.

Radhia and her children, too, are Australian citizens. While the eight evacuated children were brought home to Australia, Radhia and her children remain indefinitely detained by a Kurdish-led coalition in al-Hol, a camp rife with disease and despair.

"People think we are monsters," said Radhia, who did not want her real name used in order to protect her children. "Please tell them we are humans, just like them."

At least 50 Australian women and children remain in al-Hol, according to Save the Children, which has urged Australia to bring them all home. They are among about 11,000 foreigners — more than 7,000 children and about 3,000 women — from about 50 countries who are held in the camp.

The self-declared Autonomous Administration for North and East Syria, which is detaining the foreigners, says it will not prosecute them and has urged their governments to repatriate them. But most countries are bringing home only token numbers, leaving the rest in legal limbo.

Indeed, just days after the evacuations of the eight children from al-HOL, Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton introduced draconian revisions to Australian law that would ban alleged foreign fighters as young as 14 from returning to Australia for two years.

During visits to al-Hol from June 21 to 23, I found dire conditions including overflowing latrines and sewage trickling into tattered tents.

Young children with skin rashes, emaciated limbs and swollen bellies were drinking wash water from tanks containing worms. Other children lay limp with fever on tent floors, their bodies dusted with flies and dirt.

Children are dying from acute diarrhea and flu-like infections, aid groups and camp managers told me.

A key reason for the squalor is donor nations' reluctance to assist potential Islamic State members or sympathizers, camp managers and aid workers said. But international law forbids denying essential aid based on religious or ideological affiliation. Moreover, children who lived under Islamic State are victims first and foremost, and many of their mothers are, too.

Speaking softly and stroking the hair of her children, ages 3, 1 and a half and 6 months, Radhia said she had never planned to leave Australia to live under Islamic State. But one day, she said, her Australian husband told her, "'I am going, you are coming with me.' I was thinking, 'Why? We are comfortable.' But as a Muslim woman you follow your husband."

She said the couple crossed into Syria via Turkey in 2014 and settled in Tal Abyad, an IS-held town on the northern border. After Tal Abyad fell in 2015, they moved from one shrinking IS-held pocket to another.

In 2017, Radhia's husband was killed in a coalition drone strike. Radhia said she could not find a way out until January, when the caliphate lost its grip on Deir al-Zour. Then she and her children joined thousands of starving, shell-shocked families streaming out.

Radhia did not want to talk about her husband or the father of her third child. But she spoke at length about her dreams for her children: a real roof over their heads, clean water, fresh food, school.

Like all detainees at al-Hol, Radhia and her children live in a tent and subsist on scant dry rations. The shack where she sat was a shared kitchen whose concrete floors and walls were her greatest luxury.

While I can't verify Radhia's story, her children deserve to be rescued and promptly brought to Australia from al-Hol like the children evacuated in June.

Absent clear, compelling evidence that they could harm their children, women like Radhia should be brought home as well. Leaving mothers behind places children in even greater danger and risks fueling instability and grief. International law provides all nationals the right to return to their home country.

If the Australian authorities have grounds to believe that Radhia or other Australians have committed crimes during their years under Islamic State, they should investigate them in line with international standards, and prosecute them in Australia as appropriate.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison himself said that children born in IS areas or brought there by their mothers or fathers "should not be punished for the crimes of their parents".

Yet that is precisely what Australia will do if it abandons Radhia and her three children to indefinite detention without charge in al-Hol.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

A girl stands in the annex of al-Hol camp in northeast Syria, where more than 11,000 women and children from nearly 50 nationalities are confined as family members of Islamic State (also known as ISIS) suspects. The Kurdish-led coalition controlling northern Syria wants home countries to take the women and children back. But most governments have only repatriated small numbers of their citizens.

© 2019 Sam Tarling

(Al-Hol, Northeast Syria) – The Kurdish-led Autonomous Administration for northeast Syria is holding more than 11,000 foreign women and children related to Islamic State (also known as ISIS) suspects in appalling and sometimes deadly conditions in a locked desert camp in northeast Syria, Human Rights Watch said today. At least 7,000 of the children are under 12.

During three visits to the section of al-Hol camp holding foreign women and children in June 2019, Human Rights Watch found overflowing latrines, sewage trickling into tattered tents, and residents drinking wash water from tanks containing worms. Young children with skin rashes, emaciated limbs, and swollen bellies sifted through mounds of stinking garbage under a scorching sun or lay limp on tent floors, their bodies dusted with dirt and flies. Children are dying from acute diarrhea and flu-like infections, aid groups and camp managers said.

“Foreign women and children are indefinitely locked in a dustbowl inferno in northeast Syria while their home countries look the other way,” said Letta Tayler, senior terrorism and counterterrorism researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Governments should be doing what they can to protect their citizens, not abandon them to disease and death in a foreign desert.”

At least 240 children have died en route or upon arrival to al-Hol, according to the United Nations. Authorities from the camp, which is overseen by the Autonomous Administration, do not appear to consistently record deaths, international aid group members said. The groups did not want to be identified for fear of losing access to al-Hol.

Al-Hol camp in northeast Syria has rapidly expanded with the influx of more than 63,000 women and children displaced by the offensive against the Islamic State (also known as ISIS) in Baghouz between December 2018 and April 2019. The area at lower right shows the annex, now housing more than 11,000 non-Iraqi foreigners.

© 2019 Planet Labs

Al-Hol guards do not allow the women and children to leave the camp except when escorted out for emergencies such as surgery not available in camp hospitals.

Officials from the Autonomous Administration told Human Rights Watch they do not intend to prosecute the women and children. Asked about the legal status of the women and children, they said only in a brief written statement that when the women and children left ISIS-held areas, they were “transferred to al-Hol to work on delivering them to their countries given that they are from different nationalities.” The Autonomous Administration has repeatedly called on home countries to take back all foreigners in their custody. “We are overwhelmed,” a camp manager said.

Countries should immediately assist efforts of their citizens held in al-Hol camp to come home if they choose to do so. The Autonomous Administration, as well as home countries, should ensure that detention is only imposed according to law, on an individual basis, and with all basic rights of detainees under international law including judicial review of detention.

Donor governments, the United Nations, and humanitarian agencies should also immediately increase aid to all camp inhabitants, more than 7,000 of them children.

From June 21 to 23, Human Rights Watch interviewed 26 foreign women confined in al-Hol annex from countries including Australia, Belgium, Canada, France, the Netherlands, and Trinidad. The women included mothers who begged camp guards for news of husbands or sons whom US-backed, Kurdish-led troops, called the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), had separated from them when they fled ISIS-held areas over the past several months.

“Please, tell me, where are my sons? Please, let me visit them,” pleaded “Aisha,” a pregnant woman from Trinidad. The SDF took her two sons, ages 14 and 15, and their father when the family fled ISIS-held Abu Badran in January, she said.

“First they said they would bring my boys to me in a month. Then they said two more weeks. Then they said they were sick in the hospital,” Aisha said of camp officials. Like other women interviewed, Aisha did not want her real name used. “Then for the past two months, nothing.”

Conditions are dire throughout al-Hol, which holds 62,000 Syrians and Iraqis in the main camp sections, most of them also wives and children of men accused of ISIS membership. However, the worst conditions are in the annex holding the 11,000 non-Iraqi foreigners. The annex receives less aid from donors and annex inhabitants must wait for armed escorts to bring them to the camp market, hospitals, and food distribution center, which Syrian and Iraqi women and children can reach freely, aid workers said.

All but one of the foreign women interviewed by Human Rights Watch said they wanted to go home. One, from Uzbekistan, said she wanted to go to a third country because she feared persecution if repatriated. All said they are not allowed to leave the locked camp. None said she had been taken before a judge to review whether she should be detained or been contacted by a representative of her government.

“We were prisoners under al-Dawla [ISIS] and now we’re prisoners of our liberators,” said “Layla,” a 29-year-old Frenchwoman. “I’ll go to prison again back home if I have to but please, just get me out of here.”

International law allows imposing punishment for crimes only on people responsible for the crimes, after a fair trial to determine individual guilt. Imposing collective punishment on families by preventing them from leaving the camps violates the laws of war.

Unless they are lawful places of detention such as prisons, camps for displaced people should respect the free movement right to leave the camps and return. Movement restrictions are only permissible if they are provided by law and necessary to protect national security, public order, public health or morals, or the rights and freedoms of others. Any restrictions must be nondiscriminatory, proportionate, and necessary to achieve legitimate aims.

Anyone detained, including civilians initially detained in wartime as security threats, should be detained on a clear legal basis, and have the right to challenge the necessity and legality of their captivity before a court. No one should be detained in inhuman or degrading conditions. International law obligates all countries to ensure justice through fair trials for the gravest crimes, such as those by ISIS.

International law also grants everyone the right to return to their home country and obligates countries to fulfill a child’s right to acquire a nationality. This duty has been interpreted to extend to children born abroad to a country’s citizens who would otherwise be stateless.

“The conditions in al-Hol annex are untenable and unconscionable,” Tayler said. “Abandoning citizens to indefinite confinement without charge will only make the problem worse.”

More than 7,000 foreign children and 3,000 foreign women from about 50 countries are held in the al-Hol annex according to officials from the Autonomous Administration, which is led by the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD). Several hundred more foreigners are held in two other camps in northeast Syria, Ain Issa, and Roj. In addition to Westerners, the foreigners include Algerians, Indonesians, Malaysians, Moroccans, Russians, Tunisians, Turks, and Uzbeks, among others. About two-thirds of the foreign children are under age 12 – with most under age 5 – and hundreds are orphans, their parents missing or dead, aid workers said. While most women and children are recent arrivals, some said they had been held at Al-Hol for over a year.

Reluctant Donors, Insufficient Access

Autonomous Administration authorities blamed the conditions in al-Hol annex on insufficient aid from foreign donors. “We feel abandoned by the international community,” Abdulkarim Omar, the administration’s co-chair for foreign affairs, told Human Rights Watch. “Taking care of these foreigners is a big, big problem for us. Countries should take back their people and rehabilitate them.”

The Autonomous Administration and SDF have already made significant sacrifices as part of the international coalition fighting ISIS, Omar said. About 12,000 SDF troops were killed and another 20,000 were injured fighting ISIS, he said, in part “so that people in Europe can sleep calmly at night.”

About three dozen aid agencies including the UN Refugee Agency and UNICEF work in al-Hol. But many donor countries are wary of supporting a camp population that may include ISIS members or sympathizers, Autonomous Administration authorities and humanitarian workers said, even though the majority of people in the camp are young children who had no choice but to live with their parents under ISIS.

“We are seeing the stigmatization of a vast section of the camp population that is perceived as affiliated with the Islamic State group,” said Fabrizio Carboni, who heads Near and Middle East operations for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). Carboni warned against a “good victim-bad victim” double standard. International standards prohibit denying essential aid, including if the denial is based on ideological or religious affiliation.

Some organizations are also concerned that their assistance could enable indefinite detention of women and children without charge. “It is one thing to assist a refugee camp and another to assist a prison,” one aid worker said.

The three field hospitals in the main camp areas are understaffed and under-resourced, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) reported in July. Doctors Without Borders runs a health clinic inside the annex and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) runs a mobile clinic there, but their hours are limited due to staff shortages and security concerns.

Two-fold access problems also hinder delivery of services, aid groups said. Humanitarian agencies with agreements to work in Syria must obtain permission to access al-Hol through Damascus because the Autonomous Administration controlling the northern third of Syria, including al-Hol camp, is not an internationally recognized government. Negotiations with the Syrian government on humanitarian access are often difficult, as Human Rights Watch documented in a June report.

But even agencies that receive Syrian government permission, or that work under the radar in al-Hol without it, sometimes face delays in obtaining the Autonomous Administration authorities’ permission to deliver assistance inside the annex, aid workers said. In its July report, OCHA said that humanitarian access to the annex “remains restricted” in ways that “continue to impact and prevent delivery of services.”

Dire Health Conditions

One reason for poor conditions at al-Hol is that the camp population soared from 10,000 people in December 2018 to more than 73,000 by April, camp managers and aid groups said. During that period, a US-led military coalition routed ISIS from its last stand in Baghouz, a town in eastern Deir al-Zour governate. Many new arrivals from Deir al-Zour were severely injured, traumatized, and malnourished. Yet while conditions are dire throughout al-Hol, they are worse in the annex than in the main areas where Syrians and Iraqis are confined, camp officials and aid workers said.

During Human Rights Watch visits, al-Hol annex was filled with the sounds of children wailing and women and children coughing. A funnel-shaped dust whirl blew hot dust and debris into tents.

Many women and children had visible skin sores from leishmaniasis, a sand fly-borne parasite. Some inhabitants have been diagnosed with tuberculosis, camp managers said. Drinking water is insufficiently chlorinated and remains in short supply, aid workers said. Human Rights Watch saw children drink water from a wash-water tank that had worms coming out of the spout.

In July, OCHA reported a “sharp increase” in acute diarrhea and a “slight increase” in acute malnutrition throughout al-Hol.

Some women, including those with risky pregnancies and pre-natal complications such as anemia or high blood pressure, are giving birth in their tents without a doctor or midwife, aid workers said. One reason is that Asayish – Autonomous Administration security agents who guard the camp –sometimes delay or refuse their requests to go to a hospital, or they arrive at a hospital only to be turned away because the facility is full, they said. In an added disadvantage, women who give birth in a hospital automatically receive post-natal care and essentials such as diapers whereas women who give birth in tents must request such assistance, they said.

Three women said that a young girl had died from kidney failure in the annex the previous week.

Human Rights Watch saw several wounded children in the annex. One was a bone-thin, 12-year-old Russian boy wearing a patch over his left eye. “Shrapnel in Baghouz,” he said, adding that he had lost vision in that eye.

Another boy, a 4-year-old from Uzbekistan, sat with a blank stare as his mother pushed him across the rubble in a stroller, his right leg missing up to his mid-thigh. The boy’s leg was blown off during a US-led coalition strike in the Syrian town of Sousa in late 2018, his mother said, adding: “I have been trying to get him crutches and a prosthetic leg for four months.”

Worse Conditions for Foreigners

In addition to problems accessing essential services in the main camp areas, nearly all the women interviewed in the annex said they had scant if any means to buy fresh food for their children to supplement their rations of lentils, grains, oil, and sugar, or extra diapers. SDF troops and Asayish agents have confiscated women’s cash and other valuables and barred them from selling any possessions that they may have been able to hold onto, camp inhabitants and aid workers said.

Camp administrators allow Syrian and Iraqi women in the main camp areas to make purchases through the Hawala alternative money transfer system but the foreigners cannot, aid workers said.

Autonomous Administration authorities also bar women in the annex from using cell phones for fear they may contact ISIS members, although cell phones are allowed in sections holding Syrians and Iraqis, aid workers said. The ICRC has begun helping women send letters to family members, but many have not yet made contact and communications have been irregular for those who have.

On all three visits Human Rights Watch saw dozens of women pounding on the chain-link fence that cordons off the annex, clamoring for escorts to reach supplies or health services. Human Rights Watch saw some of the women waiting for hours, with no shade, in 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit) heat. The temperature at al-Hol has soared as high as 50 degrees Celsius (122 degrees Fahrenheit) this summer.

“I am going into labor,” shouted a visibly pregnant woman. “What about our human rights?” demanded another. By the time they reach the food distribution point, the rations are sometimes gone and they have to return the next day, the women said.

Living in Fear

Tensions run high in al-Hol, and many women said they were terrified for their safety and that of their children. Women in the camp who adhere to ISIS’ extremist ideology have threatened and set fire to tents of women and children who they consider infidels. Twice, in separate attacks in June and July, a woman stabbed a guard with a knife hidden in her abaya, camp managers and aid workers said.

Guards raid tents at night and frequently shoot in the air to keep order. On July 3, guards shot and wounded two boys, ages 12 and 10, who they said were throwing rocks at them, aid workers said. Twice while at the camp in June, Human Rights Watch heard gunshots fired.

Interviewees also consistently said they feared the Asayish security agents who frequently search tents and take away families in the middle of the night. Camp managers said that the night raids were necessary to remove women or children who were security threats, or to relocate families who feared for their safety to other areas of al-Hol or other camps.

Many women said they also feared tent fires caused by women cooking inside tents; at least one child died in a cooking fire. Others spoke of insects and snakes that crawl onto their sleeping pallets at night.

Piecemeal Repatriations

Repatriations of ISIS suspects and family members from northeast Syria, as well as from neighboring Iraq, have been piecemeal. Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Russia, Kosovo, and Turkey have organized the return home of more than 1,250 nationals held in northeast Syria and Iraq, most of them children.

But most countries have ignored the Autonomous Administration’s calls for them to repatriate citizens or have taken back only small numbers, primarily orphans, calling them a security threat and citing complications in verifying citizenship of children lacking documents or born in areas under ISIS control.

Norway in June repatriated 5 orphans from northeast Syria. France in March and June flew home 18 children – 17 from northeast Syria and 1 from Iraq. In June, Sweden brought home 7 children and the Netherlands brought home 2 children from Syria. Germany has flown home fewer than 10 from Iraq. Australia in June brought home 8 children from Syria. The US, which has criticized Western allies for refusing to repatriate all its nationals, has brought home 16 adult suspects and children since July 2018. Italy in June took back one suspected ISIS fighter.

France has allowed 11 citizens to be prosecuted in Iraq although the defendants were sentenced to death in rushed proceedings tainted by allegations of torture. The UK has stripped citizenship from nationals including Shamima Begum, who joined ISIS abroad, and Denmark in March proposed stripping children of ISIS members of citizenship. Australia in July introduced draconian revisions to Australian law that would ban returns of citizens as young as 14 for two years if they are suspected of being foreign fighters abroad.

Expressions of Regret

All the women interviewed said they realized soon after arriving in Syria that they had made a mistake. They all insisted that during their life under ISIS their roles had been solely those of housewives and mothers. Human Rights Watch is not in a position to judge the veracity of these claims and it is clear that some women in the camp support – and seek to enforce – ISIS ideology. Women who have committed international crimes should be charged and those who do not face criminal charges should be freed. But children brought to or born in ISIS-controlled areas should not be punished for their parents’ poor judgment or crimes.

“My children did not choose this life,” said “Fatima,” a 27-year-old Belgian widow held in al-Hol with her four young children. Fatima said her 7-year-old daughter did not even learn to read and write under ISIS. Her 6-year-old daughter has a viral infection; unable to obtain medical care in the annex, she scrounged funds to buy rehydrating fluids and inserted an intravenous drip in her daughter’s arm with a friend.

“My children don’t even have a working toilet,” Fatima said. “When there is shooting, they cry and remember the fighting. They deserve a second chance.”

Additional Recommendations

As part of measures to assist repatriation efforts, countries should immediately take all possible steps to ensure that their citizens trapped in any areas of al-Hol or in other camps or prisons in northeast Syria have a way to request repatriation and expedite efforts to verify citizenship, particularly of children. Countries that can guarantee fair trials and humane conditions should investigate and, if appropriate, prosecute returnees responsible for international crimes such as war crimes and torture.

Children should be treated first and foremost as victims, including those recruited by ISIS, and decisions about their future should be made based on their best interests. Parents should be brought home with children unless separation is in the child’s best interest. Children should face prosecution only in exceptional circumstances.

In the meantime, Autonomous Administration camp administrators, humanitarian organizations and donor governments, including those with nationals confined to camps in northeast Syria, should improve sanitary conditions, access to food and clean water, shelter, and medical and psychosocial services for all camp inhabitants. The Autonomous Administration should increase annex inhabitants’ access to essential services in other camp areas.

The Autonomous Administration and US-led coalition fighting ISIS should facilitate contact between camp inhabitants and their families including relatives held in separate prisons or camps.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres should press and assist UN agencies including the UN Refugees Agency and member states to coordinate a swift global response that upholds international human rights protections and includes repatriations and resettlements.

Statements from Women Confined in al-Hol annex

This is a nightmare I cannot wake up from. As Muslims we wanted to experience the Islamic State like Christians want to visit Jerusalem. It was so easy to get to Syria through Turkey. But then we found there was no way out. Bombs were falling everywhere and we could not afford a smuggler. In the end they [ISIS] even hid food from us. The only people they fed were their fighters. We are so broken. We are not threats to anyone. We just want our children to go to school and to stop stressing about where is the next meal coming from.

  • “Ayisha,” 37 weeks pregnant, from Trinidad. Mother of five children including two boys, ages 14 and 15, who were taken with her husband when the family surrendered to SDF forces in January.

From the first day I got to Syria I wanted to go home. They [ISIS] treated us like garbage. There was so much injustice. But my husband kept saying, “Forget going back. If they know we want to leave they will put us in prison or kill us.” Then my husband died two years ago. He just never came home. Since then I have been trying to find a way home. The Prophet…says the Sham [Levant] is a blessed place. But I never saw a blessing.

  • “Maria” from Belgium, widow, mother of two children born in Syria.

One day my husband said, “I am going, you are coming with me.” I was thinking, “Why? We are comfortable.” But as a Muslim woman you follow your husband. I just want to go back to Australia. My family says they will take me and the children back. People think we are monsters. Please tell them we are humans, just like them.

  • “Radhia” from Australia, widow, mother of three children born in Syria.

I thought, “Now I’ll be able to practice my religion and cover my face without being harassed the way I am at home.” I heard there was bombing and stuff but I didn’t think I’d be living under it. But then I got here [to Syria] and realized how dangerous it was. My husband became disillusioned, too. A year ago, we found a smuggler to take us out. We wanted to start over. But then Kurdish [SDF] forces took us.

  • “Miriam” from Canada, mother of two children born in Syria, husband in SDF-controlled prison.

I came to Syria because I was having problems at work and at home. It sounds so cliché. I was 20 when I left. I got the idea while I was conversing online with sisters [ISIS members]. I married two weeks after I arrived. They gave me a paper with three men’s names, ages, and hometowns. I chose the man from my hometown. We met and we liked each other. Then he was killed by a bullet in the head. If I have to go to prison I will. I just want to come home.

  • “Hanneke” from the Netherlands, widow.
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

The beginnings of a gate erected in Jadah 5 camp intended to enclose a section of the camp to prevent free movement. 

© 2019 Belkis Wille/Human Rights Watch

(Erbil) – A local Iraqi organization managing a camp for displaced people is making preparations to unlawfully confine families scheduled to be transferred from northeast Syria, Human Rights Watch said today.

The Jadah 5 camp, 65 kilometers south of Mosul, has forcibly relocated 175 families from one sector of the camp to another in order to make room for the families, mostly women and children. Iraqi authorities have previously arbitrarily detained families perceived to have possible ISIS affiliation.

“Authorities in Iraq are planning to detain returning families arbitrarily, in violation of Iraqi and international law,” said Lama Fakih, acting Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Segregating families – mainly women and children – coming from Syria is a step toward stigmatizing and labeling them in the absence of any credible allegation that they have committed a crime.”

Human Rights Watch visited the Jadah 5 camp, estimated to house over 16,000 people on July 16, 2019. Four residents in the sector known as “400,” because of the number of tents, said that camp management told the 175 families there on July 10 that they had to relocate to other camp areas. The rest of the tents in the sector were empty. The families currently living in the camp are generally able to move freely within and outside the camp within its immediate vicinity.

They said the camp head told them they had to move, apparently because they planned to detain the new arrivals. “If you don’t move you will regret it,” two of the residents quoted one camp management official as saying. “It will become like prison and you will need permission to come in and out, you won’t be able to move freely.” He said the families would be brought from al-Hol camp in northeast Syria, which holds Iraqi, Syrian, and foreign families who lived under ISIS in Syria.

Another camp management official told the group that the arriving families “have the same extremist ideology… it is not in your interest to live next to them,” the residents said.

Iraqi authorities said on July 9 that al-Hol families would be relocated to the camp. But the National Security Council, which coordinates Iraq's national security, intelligence, and foreign policy strategy, told aid groups and camp management on July 10 that Jadah 5 would not house the al-Hol families, three aid workers said. They said that authorities have not indicated when these families will be transferred or how long they would be confined in camps before being allowed to move freely.

By the evening of July 11, the families from “400” had all relocated within the camp, with the exception of four or five families who left the camp, residents told Human Rights Watch.

Human Rights Watch visited the section on July 16 and found it empty, with the beginnings of a fence being erected around it. Two other residents said camp management also told families in sector “500,” which holds about 240 families, that they would need to relocate. But the families interviewed refused and threatened to protest and had not been forced to move at the time of the visit, possibly because aid agencies intervened. Both “400” and “500” areas are isolated outcrops of the camp.

Al-Hol camp holds 30,000 Iraqis in northeast Syria, the vast majority of them female-headed households, often including many children. Some fled ISIS when it controlled parts of Iraq, and others lived under ISIS control in Syria until the battle to retake Baghouz, ISIS’s final pocket in Syria in early 2019. Few, if any, have been charged with any crime. Human Rights Watch has not been able to determine the extent to which the families in al-Hol, who aid workers say have signed up to voluntarily return, have done so with informed consent, given that that Iraqi authorities seemingly plan to arbitrarily detain them in camps.

A United Nations plan from early 2019 for the return of Iraqi families from al-Hol, which Human Rights Watch has reviewed, calls on Iraqi authorities to ensure that the families are not sequestered into one specific camp but are instead mixed with existing camp populations. It said this would ensure that the families would not be further stigmatized and marginalized. The plan said that international assistance to these families would depend on compliance with these conditions.

International human rights law prohibits arbitrary detention. Any deprivation of liberty must be according to law that is “accessible, understandable, non-retroactive and applied in a consistent and predictable way” and allows people to seek judicial review of their detention. Any detention that lacks such legal basis is both unlawful and arbitrary.

International human rights law and humanitarian law allow punishment only for people found responsible for crimes after a fair trial to determine individual guilt. Imposing collective punishment on families, villages, or communities violates the laws of war and amounts to a war crime. Under international human rights law and the laws of armed conflict, children may be detained only as a measure of last resort and for the shortest appropriate period. If children are detained, detaining authorities must fulfill their rights, including to appropriate food and medical care, education and physical exercise, legal assistance, privacy, complaints mechanisms, and contact with their families.

The UN Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement stipulate that if displacement occurs in situations other than during the emergency stages of a conflict, “Adequate measures shall be taken to guarantee to those to be displaced full information on the reasons and procedures for their displacement and, where applicable, on compensation and relocation… The free and informed consent of those to be displaced shall be sought… The authorities concerned shall endeavour to involve those affected, particularly women, in the planning and management of their relocation… The right to an effective remedy, including the review of such decisions by appropriate judicial authorities, shall be respected.”

In light of recent developments, authorities should suspend all transfers until they are able to ensure that they are voluntary and that Iraqis have adequate information about what awaits them upon their return, Human Rights Watch said. Once people are in Iraq, if they are not wanted for a crime, authorities should ensure that their rights to free movement are respected, including either to return home or to relocate where they choose, as security allows. Iraqi authorities should ensure that they do not confine people not charged with any crime in camps.

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am