Renewal of anti-terror law threatens human rights in Iraqi Kurdistan

The Iraqi Kurdistan parliament has extended an austere law put in place to combat the Islamic State, raising serious concerns about human rights abuses and trials behind closed doors.

al-monitor General view of the Kurdistan parliament meeting in Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan, Sept. 15, 2107.  Photo by REUTERS/Azad Lashkari.

Jul 19, 2018

SULAIMANIYAH, Iraq — Shortly after the Islamic State (IS) took over Mosul in June 2014, 16-year-old Harem (not his real name) from Halabja, who had failed his exams that year, set off from the city without any identification. At the first checkpoint manned by the Kurdish government's Asayish (security) force, Harem was asked where he was heading, given that he had no identification with him. “I am going to Mosul to join Daesh [IS]," the teenager replied. The startled Asayish officers detained him immediately.

But Harem was lucky, according to his lawyer, Sargul Qaradakhi. The judge took mercy on him because of his age. Had he been older, he would have been tried under Iraq's draconian Anti-Terror Law, passed in 2006 by the Kurdistan parliament, and probably would have ended up in prison for 15 years.

Instead, "he was tried in a juvenile court and was freed on the condition that he work under the supervision of a social worker for two years," Qaradakhi told Al-Monitor on July 17.

The Kurdistan parliament's renewal of the Anti-Terror Law on July 1, the fifth time since 2006, has brought to light the plight of some 1,200 people, mostly Arabs, who are in jails across the Kurdish region. They are charged as terror suspects under this law in a process plagued with "rampant due process violations," according to Human Rights Watch.

"We didn't vote for the Anti-Terror Law, because we believe this law has not eliminated terrorism and has disproportionately targeted Muslim youths," Hawraman Gachinayi, a parliament member from the Islamic Group (Komal), which opposed the law with the Islamic Movement of Kurdistan, told NRT news July 2. "These poor youths are forced to confess to terrorism, but in reality, they are not terrorists and have not associated with terrorists."

Many argue that the scope of the law is so wide that anyone could be charged with terrorism in the Kurdistan region. “Basically, if an angry resident of Sulaimaniyah comes here and throws a stone at this parliament’s building where we are sitting, that resident could be charged with terrorism,” parliament member Bestun Fayeq told Al-Monitor. "The problem with the legislation is it is too elastic and can be interpreted in many ways.”

The legislation came into existence two years after the worst terrorist attack in the Kurdistan region's history, when two suicide bombers struck two social gatherings in Erbil in February 2004, killing 101 people — mostly officials, but children too. Since then, there have been around half a dozen terrorist attacks in the three main provinces of the Kurdistan region, killing dozens of people. 

Security services and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) say the threat of terrorism is still real and the law is needed to deal with these offenses. The counterterrorism officials told Al-Monitor that around 700 Iraqi Kurds had joined IS and other extremist groups in Iraq and Syria since 2013. IS is also making a comeback in some areas bordering the Kurdistan region.

However, the KRG-funded Independent Human Rights Commission in the Kurdistan region released a damning report in March stating that people in KRG prisons were tortured in 2017 during investigations, and seven detainees had died for various causes while in prison. “The Asayish detention facilities are not in accordance with principles of human rights. Most of those detained by Asayish — in particular in terror-related cases — their families aren't informed for a long time. In reality, they should be informed within 24 hours,” Diya Butros, head of the independent commission, said March 18. After several critical reports about the Kurdistan human rights situation were published this year, Butros told Kurdistan 24 news July 10 that the KRG ministries disregard the commission's reports, but make extra effort to respond to international reports.

The United Nations Assistance Mission in Iraq and the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights are highly critical of the law in their joint "Report on Human Rights in Iraq, January to June 2017." They say the law in its current format doesn't respect the KRG's human rights obligations under international human rights law. “The law does not include a comprehensive definition of terrorism, yet it criminalizes terrorist acts,” the report says. It names ongoing breaches of human rights, in particular “in proceedings relating to terrorism charges, including long delays in bringing detainees before a judge, restrictions on or denial of access to legal counsel, or prolonged periods of detention without trial.” Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have raised similar concerns.

The US State Department Bureau for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor said in its 2017 annual report, “Abusive interrogation, under certain conditions, reportedly occurred in some detention facilities of the KRG’s internal security unit, the Asayish, and the intelligence services of the major political parties.” 

However, Dindar Zebari, head of the KRG’s High Committee to Evaluate and Respond to International Reports, accused the United States and other international organizations of “copy-pasting” — recirculating information from other sources rather than actually investigating — and failing to take into account the measures the KRG has adopted to deal with the shortcomings. ”We don’t believe the Americans have written this report; this report relies on [information from] outside channels" that should be corroborated. "America is a big power, and it should not depend on some opposition channels that have an ax to grind with the KRG," Zebari said, adding that there is a political movement to "taint" the KRG's human rights achievements.

Aram Qader, who has been active in Islamic movements in Iraqi Kurdistan since 1980, believes that while the law was necessary when it was enacted in 2006, authorities haven't paid enough attention to the ideological and economic causes of terrorism. "We have many graduates that leave universities and are jobless," Qader told Al-Monitor on July 16 in Sulaimaniyah.

Qader, who works in a secular party now alongside Muslims, Yazidis, Christians and followers of other religious denominations, believes the KRG needs to adopt a multifaceted approach to deal with the real threat of extremism in Kurdistan. "The political and economic situation in the Kurdistan region is bad," said Qader. "If we don't find a solution, we could face a serious threat of extremism." 

KRG authorities appear to have given in to amending the anti-terror law through their parliamentary blocs in the coming months. Fayeq, the Change Movement parliament member whose bloc voted to renew the law July 1, says his group has received guarantees that the law will be amended soon. "The interior and legal committees of parliament will prepare two reports about the legislation and hopefully the law will be amended within the next three months." 

As for the boy, Harem, "He went about his normal life after spending two years under the supervision of a social worker,” his lawyer said.

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