In Iraq, more than 200 civilians arrested daily

Sunday 25/12/2016
Iraqi man showing his documents to policemen as he returns to his home in Falluja

Baghdad - Official Iraqi statistics tell a worrying tale. They in­dicate that thousands of civilians are arrested and detained every month by a wide variety of security organisa­tions for no good reason.

One can come by these numbers by following the statistics published between January 2015 and October 2016 in the digital archive of Iraq’s Federal Judiciary Authority, the body that oversees Iraq’s courts. The news releases issued by the Ju­dicial Authority are meant to be a record of courts’ work but, when the numbers are added up, the statistics tell a more controversial story.

The releases indicate that the majority of detainees were released because the cases against them were found insubstantial. For most, the cases were thrown out before trial. Some were found not guilty in their trials.

While the numbers of those re­leased are published, the releases do not always detail what the de­tainees were charged with and whether those charges were crimi­nal or related to terrorism. Nor do they tell how long the released Iraqis awaited for that decision — whether they were detained for days or years.

Meanwhile, the various secu­rity forces involved — including the army, the police and Iraqi intelli­gence — do not publish the number of arrests they have made.

In 2016, through October, 67,749 detainees were released from pris­ons after they were found not guilty or had been wrongfully detained. Among these were 8,810 accused of terrorist acts. That averages out to 6,775 wrongfully imprisoned locals per month — 223 per day.

In 2015, there were 88,297 de­tainees released, indicating slightly more wrongful arrests per month and per day: 7,358 and 243, respec­tively.

June and May of 2016 saw the most detainees released, with close to 11,000 Iraqis discharged each month. It is highly likely that the large number of arrests and re­leases coincided with the Iraqi mili­tary’s campaign against the Islamic State (ISIS) in Anbar province that began at the end of May and ended around mid-June.

It is obviously difficult to com­pare Iraq’s catch-and-release sta­tistics with other countries’ rates of incarceration, as clearly the Iraqi situation is very different from that of the United Kingdom or the Unit­ed States.

However, given the lack of Iraqi numbers of arrests, a snapshot may be instructive: For example, Brit­ish prison reformers point out that in 2015, 10,897 citizens remanded in custody — held in prison while awaiting trial — were subsequently acquitted. Statistics from previous years show that, on average, about 12,000 locals were held in remand in Britain before being eventually released.

In the United States about “20% of detainees [who were in pretrial detention] eventually had their case dismissed or were acquitted”, according to the Americas Quarter­ly, a magazine focused on the West­ern Hemisphere. The study was based on US Justice Department figures from 1990-2004 and that percentage would add up to about 96,000 prisoner releases annually.

If both the British and US figures are adjusted for population — both countries have many more people than Iraq, with Britain about dou­ble and the United States about ten times more — the annual number of those wrongfully arrested and de­tained in Iraq looks worse. It would appear to indicate that there is a genuine problem in the way that Iraq’s security forces investigate of­fences.

To try to prevent violence, there are many random detentions taking place in Iraq. In fact, so many ran­dom detentions may be doing more harm than good, in that they dis­rupt the civilian peace and increase conflict between different political forces. Sunni Muslim politicians ac­cuse the security forces of sectarian bias while Shia Muslim politicians criticise those in Sunni-majority provinces of supporting extremists.

These are not the only unwar­ranted or illegal detentions taking place, some Sunni Muslim critics say. They complain that the Shia Muslim volunteer militias, who re­cently became a legitimate security force in Iraq, have unofficial prisons too, where they hold their enemies illegally. The heads of the militias deny this.

Ahmed al-Salmani, a member of parliament from Anbar province, has focused on issues pertaining to detainees. An estimated 3,000 residents in Anbar were detained by fighters from Shia Muslim vol­unteer militias. This includes about 2,000 from the Razazah area south of Ramadi in October 2015. Nothing has been heard from these locals since their disappearance.

In August, Iraq’s parliament passed what is known as the gener­al amnesty law. It was supposed to facilitate the release of thousands of Iraqis imprisoned on what many believe to be a political basis and was aimed at calming sectarian ten­sions in the country.

The law would encourage amnes­ty for as many as 36,000 detainees. However, looking at the numbers on the Judicial Authority website, that starts to feel like too little, too late.

To encourage a respect for the rule of law and to avoid accusations of sectarian or political bias, it may be better to begin with a reform of the policy of random and apparent­ly unwarranted detentions.