The torture of children in Iraqi Kurdistan must stop

It is not known why Iraqi Kurdish authorities failed to bring those in their security forces to justice for torturing children.
Sunday 03/02/2019
More than meets the eye. A Kurdish Peshmerga soldier watches a boy while he is transferred from a Kurdish position near Bashiqa.  (Reuters)
More than meets the eye. A Kurdish Peshmerga soldier watches a boy while he is transferred from a Kurdish position near Bashiqa. (Reuters)

Those casually following the war against the Islamic State (ISIS) often hear how various Kurdish factions in Iraq and Syria are at the forefront of the battle against the hard-line militants.

Groups such as the People’s Protection Units in Syria or the Kurdistan Regional Government’s (KRG) peshmerga fighters in Iraq have been lionised as bastions holding the line for the civilised world against the radical jihadist threat emanating from ISIS.

However, those who have followed the so-called heroics of these actors will know there is simply nothing “heroic,” let alone “civilised,” about torturing children.

In a damning report, Human Rights Watch (HRW) claimed the KRG detained children on terrorism offences linked to ISIS and Kurdish security forces used electric shocks and beatings to extract confessions of ISIS membership from vulnerable minors.

Children interviewed in detention centres by HRW in Iraqi Kurdistan said they signed confessions just to make the torture stop and they were not allowed to read the confessions until they were taken before judges who would invariably convict them based on confessions extracted under torture.

Most children were denied access to lawyers and when they complained of the torture to judicial officials, they were ignored and their confessions processed as evidence against them, HRW said.

While some might argue this may be an isolated incident, it most assuredly is not. In December 2016, HRW interviewed children held by Kurdish authorities at the Women and Children’s Reformatory detention facility in Erbil, the KRG’s capital. HRW said children — all from the Sunni Arab demographic apart from one Kurdish child — had been held arbitrarily, denied contact with their families, denied access to lawyers and were tortured to again extract confessions of association with ISIS terrorists.

Children were beaten with pipes and cables, punched and kicked, forced into stress positions, electrically shocked and burned with cigarettes by Kurdish interrogators. Many of the children were arrested by Kurdish security operatives from camps for the internally displaced. In other words, these children were fleeing ISIS and the Iran-sponsored Shia jihadists battling them.

HRW’s investigation led KRG officials to promise to investigate allegations of torture and to ensure that no child was tortured. However, more than two years on from those promises and more than a year since ISIS was formally declared defeated by the Iraqi government, HRW said the KRG continues to detain and torture children and the security organisation still behaves like the Gestapo rather than dealing with actual threats and safeguarding the citizens it is charged with protecting.

Every year, the KRG has events to remind people of the crimes committed against the Kurdish people, commemorating such events as the gassing of Halabja and arbitrary arrest and killing of Kurdish civilians. These horrific crimes should never be repeated. Yet one would hope that, after having suffered such tragedies, Kurdish authorities would be the first to make sure that crimes against humanity would not occur on their watch.

It is not known why Iraqi Kurdish authorities failed to bring those in their security forces to justice for torturing children. It is quite possible that they are motivated by a desire to force demographic change over the region by forcing mostly Arab but also Turkmen populations out of areas they wish to claim as part of a future state.

In behaving this way, separatist factions that have a vested interest in pursuing racist policies are no different from the Ba’athists they despise.

Those casually following the war against the Islamic State (ISIS) often hear how various Kurdish factions in Iraq and Syria are at the forefront of the battle against the hard-line militants.

Groups such as the People’s Protection Units in Syria or the Kurdistan Regional Government’s (KRG) peshmerga fighters in Iraq have been lionised as bastions holding the line for the civilised world against the radical jihadist threat emanating from ISIS.

However, those who have followed the so-called heroics of these actors will know there is simply nothing “heroic,” let alone “civilised,” about torturing children.

In a damning report, Human Rights Watch (HRW) claimed the KRG detained children on terrorism offences linked to ISIS and Kurdish security forces used electric shocks and beatings to extract confessions of ISIS membership from vulnerable minors.

Children interviewed in detention centres by HRW in Iraqi Kurdistan said they signed confessions just to make the torture stop and they were not allowed to read the confessions until they were taken before judges who would invariably convict them based on confessions extracted under torture.

Most children were denied access to lawyers and when they complained of the torture to judicial officials, they were ignored and their confessions processed as evidence against them, HRW said.

While some might argue this may be an isolated incident, it most assuredly is not. In December 2016, HRW interviewed children held by Kurdish authorities at the Women and Children’s Reformatory detention facility in Erbil, the KRG’s capital. HRW said children — all from the Sunni Arab demographic apart from one Kurdish child — had been held arbitrarily, denied contact with their families, denied access to lawyers and were tortured to again extract confessions of association with ISIS terrorists.

Children were beaten with pipes and cables, punched and kicked, forced into stress positions, electrically shocked and burned with cigarettes by Kurdish interrogators. Many of the children were arrested by Kurdish security operatives from camps for the internally displaced. In other words, these children were fleeing ISIS and the Iran-sponsored Shia jihadists battling them.

HRW’s investigation led KRG officials to promise to investigate allegations of torture and to ensure that no child was tortured. However, more than two years on from those promises and more than a year since ISIS was formally declared defeated by the Iraqi government, HRW said the KRG continues to detain and torture children and the security organisation still behaves like the Gestapo rather than dealing with actual threats and safeguarding the citizens it is charged with protecting.

Every year, the KRG has events to remind people of the crimes committed against the Kurdish people, commemorating such events as the gassing of Halabja and arbitrary arrest and killing of Kurdish civilians. These horrific crimes should never be repeated. Yet one would hope that, after having suffered such tragedies, Kurdish authorities would be the first to make sure that crimes against humanity would not occur on their watch.

It is not known why Iraqi Kurdish authorities failed to bring those in their security forces to justice for torturing children. It is quite possible that they are motivated by a desire to force demographic change over the region by forcing mostly Arab but also Turkmen populations out of areas they wish to claim as part of a future state.

In behaving this way, separatist factions that have a vested interest in pursuing racist policies are no different from the Ba’athists they despise.

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