Nineveh Investigative Team / June 2020
Every day of the eleven months that “Samir”, the skinny dark boy, spent in detention following a complaint he described as malicious, he wondered about the crime he had committed, and the fate that awaits him if the charge against him was proven, “because of his sectarian affiliation, the poverty of his family and the weakness of the judiciary”.
The 17-year-old, from Mosul, who had sunken eyes, dreamed of the prison door opening and calling his name to get out and regain his freedom. On many nights, it was the same nightmare haunting him in his sleep “seeing himself trembling, with a rope pulled around his neck, while being dragged by force to a hanging gallows”.
One question he kept repeating in the detention center, which was packed with detainees on various charges, including terrorism: what crime did I commit to spend my life in prison, waiting every week for my mother to come with a broken heart and tearful eyes to convey false news and tell me that all members of my poor, unhappy family are well.
Samir was arrested in early 2019, according to a complaint that he belonged to ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) during his time in Mosul (2014-2017), trained by ISIS and took part in combat operations with them.
The boy continued to deny these charges, swearing that he thought of joining ISIS under the pressure of poverty and destitution, and that he spent one day with them, during which he only received a tactical lesson and then went home and never returned after his family refused, he joins ISIS, even if they die of hunger.
“Samir” is one of hundreds of detainees in Iraqi detention centers, who are victims of malicious complaints, slanders and inaccurate security reports. Some victims were able to prove their innocence, but they never gained their freedom because of bureaucratic procedures and overlapping corruption circles, and the failure of the implementation of release orders issued by courts of first instance, which are invalidated by decisions of the supreme courts, according to statements by the families of detainees, lawyers and civil activists.
Confession under Torture
“For the first few months in prison, I used to sit in the corner facing the detainees’ door waiting for my name to be called or my release, or to meet my mother, who promised me good news after bribing an officer, but in recent months I have stopped hoping”, said Samir who we met at his home south of Mosul in early March 2020, three months after his release.
“It was hell,” he said, ” I was tortured every day… I was hung and whipped with a plastic tube, until I confessed to belonging to ISIS, even though I never did… With a malicious complaint, I have faced this injustice for about a year,” he said.
“The hours have gone by for me like years, especially when I miss my mother’s usual visit, or when I hear that the officer who was paid the money to speed up my release had broken his promise” he said, while looking around, as if he wanted to check that there was no one watching.
“In July 2019, when I was waiting for a word from my mother that my problem was resolved after securing $2,000 for the officer, but she didn’t show up. I felt that this is the end of the world. Millions of bad thoughts came to my mind.”
On that day, his mother was outside the prison gate engaged in a fierce fight with the guard, begging him to add her name to the visitors’ register. She was struggling to tell her son that she had paid the officer a bribe and he would soon be released, but the guard did not allow her in, pulling her firmly from inside the line to fall to the ground, shouting, “You ISIS militants are causing chaos everywhere.”
Photos published by Human Rights Watch in 2019
Malicious charges invalidated by Bribes
More than ten former detainees or family members interviewed by the investigation team confirmed that the arrests were based on malicious accusations, some as a result of social problems or competition at work.
Samir’s mother says her son was arrested because of neighbor’s complaint after a fight between the children that developed into a dispute. With the difficulty to withdraw any complaint because it would hold its owner accountable, Samir was the victim of that children fight.
She stopped talking and Samir shivered, as they heard a strong knock on the outside door of the house, before continuing when they learned that it was one of the relatives who came to congratulate Samir on his release, “After weeks of detention and with Samir’s confession under torture that he belonged to ISIS and after communicating with lawyers, we knew that his release through legal means is not possible. After some advice from people who had similar experiences, we tried to communicate with mediators who can release detainees in exchange for money.”
Samir’s family paid $1,000 to one of the officers, but he disappeared, and was said to have been transferred, which was repeated with other detainees who were deceived by members of the security services who claimed to be able to release detainees
Months later, the family paid the $2,000 they had collected from donors to another officer, and Samir was released. However, it took three months of waiting because of problems between the officer and another official.
“I couldn’t believe it when the judge acquitted me,” he says with a smile. I thought it was a new game. How did everything change? … Even the lawyer was talking about a reduced sentence and I ruled out my acquittal on the grounds that I confessed to belonging to ISIS.”
Three Years under Investigation
“Saif”, a young blond 30-year-old car repairman, is another victim of malicious complaints, for which he spent three years in detention, during which time he tasted torture that broke one of his ribs, and his leg suffered severe infections, despite his denial of belonging to ISIS and the lack of evidence to convict him.
Saif says, “I was repeatedly beaten, but I denied the charges… I was afraid that my end would come if I confessed something I did not do, especially since my family did not have the money to pay for my innocence. “I waited all these years with bureaucratic procedures, delays, procrastination and extortion, until I was eventually released.”
The delay in resolving cases, which hundreds of detainees face for security reasons, is due to the large number of detainees, the lack of evidence to convict many of them, and the extortion and procrastination of some officers.
Ali al-Bayati, a member of the Council of Commissioners of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (UHCHR), said the problem of delays in resolving cases “is one of the most prominent violations in detention centers (Tasfirat, Tal Kayf & Faisaliah) in the province”.
According to Al-Bayati, between one third and half of the detainees have gone through detention periods ranging from six months to two years without resolving their cases. Some cases took three years. The argument was that the number of detainees was high.
In addition to the problem of overcrowding, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights cites other violations in detention centers, including the prohibition of defendants from meeting their lawyers to prepare for defenses before the court, particularly in cases of terrorism, and the interruption of family visits even under normal circumstances.
UHCHR estimates the current number of detainees and inmates, in the Tasfirat and other Nineveh detention centers on various cases, is about 5,500 (who were arrested after the liberation of Nineveh at the end of 2017), including some 3,500 arrested and 2,000 convicted, and the number of juveniles (under 18 years) detained on terrorism cases is about 1,000.
Al-Bayati said overcrowding in detention centers is between 150% and 200% of their capacity, especially in (Faisaliah, Tal Kayf, Tasfirat and the Investigation Department) detention centers.
He notes that the detention centers have recorded high mortality rates, including (180) deaths in 2018, 40 cases in 2019, and (22) cases as of June 2020, attributed by the concerned authorities to multiple medical reasons between kidney failure, heart attack and myocardial infarction or stroke, although “40% of the deceased are young and born between 1985 and 1995.”
A Human Rights Watch report, in July 2019, revealed large overcrowding in the three detention facilities in Nineveh. “The maximum capacity of the three detention centers (Tal Kayf, Faisaliah and Tasfirat) is 2,500 detainees, but there are at least 4,500 detainees living in poor and degrading conditions,” he said.
Photos published by Human Rights Watch in 2019
According to Daoud Sheikh Jundi, a former member of the Nineveh provincial council: there are 12,000 arrest warrants issued by authorities in Nineveh following the liberation of the province, against wanted ISIS suspects.
Jundi believes that a large number of these arrest warrants are based on malicious complaints, especially since the majority of ISIS members involved in crimes were either killed or fled after retaking the areas under their control.
“There are thousands of Nineveh detainees because of malicious complaints, 1,000 people on death row, more than 1,000 are under investigation, and hundreds of women and juveniles are accused of terrorism,” said Sherwan Doberdani, a member of the Iraqi parliament in Nineveh province.
Doberdani asserts that most of the arrests made after the liberation of the city were based on ” complaints from undercover secret informants, without material evidence”, and that “others were arrested following normal complaints in civil or criminal cases, but after being subjected to security checks, they were detained for months because their names correspond to names of ISIS members, which requires investigation, or because they are wanted in other cases”, pointing out that some of them confessed under torture to belonging to ISIS.
He adds, “Security permits proving that a person is not wanted for security reasons have become offered in exchange for money, and have turned into a trade with some corrupt elements in the security services… “Therefore, we see a lot of terrorists at large, and we also see that many people are arrested during security check procedures and investigating them is sometimes prolonged with the intention of blackmail.”
Since 2017, Security permits are essential for obtaining personal identity cards and civil documents, without which freedom of movement is restricted, and a person loses his right to education, work, welfare benefits, even birth and death certificates necessary to inherit or marry again.
No citizen can go to any government department to complete a transaction or issue any official document if he does not present his security clearance.
Paragraphs of the Fact-Finding Commission report
Paragraphs of the Fact-Finding Commission report
Pre-Extortion and the price of Innocence
In addition to malicious complaints, some arrests are made on charges fabricated by some influential members of the security services and the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) for the purpose of extortion and forcing the accused to pay money or face charges that keep them in detention centers, which are experiencing very poor conditions of overcrowding, psychological and sometimes physical torture.
This is precisely what “S.M”, who owns a food industry factory in Nineveh, claims. He says that twice in a row he had to pay money to distance himself from malicious charges enough to imprison him for many years or perhaps even execute him. “The first time I paid a small sum but in the second, they asked me for twenty thousand dollars in exchange for a protection guarantee and preventing any party from obstructing my work, and when I refused, I was arrested for more than a week and I finally had to pay twice as much to be released.”
“Thamer”, who works at a car showroom, had to pay $2,500 to expedite his release, despite being acquitted of a car he had bought when ISIS took control of Nineveh. At that time, with no government departments and official papers registering the car in his name, it was only a paper in which the details of the purchase were recorded.
But after the city was liberated, and car prices increased fivefold, the former owner refused to officially register the car in his name in the traffic department and accused him of forcibly taking his car with the help of ISIS.
“I was acquitted, after the testimony of some witnesses, that I bought the car and paid for it at the time, but yet I remained in detention for security checks that lasted about two months, which forced me, after bargaining, to pay (2,500) dollars to one of the officers who promised to speed up my release ” he said.
“Releasing the detainees by paying bribes takes place at all stages of detention, especially in the preliminary investigation and before the verdicts, as security members can easily manipulate investigative papers in the absence of material evidence and the fact that investigators and judges usually rely on the complaint and witness testimony,” said a well-known civil activist in Nineveh who declined to be named for fear of prosecution.
He warned that this would allow many ISIS members to obtain innocence verdicts, “and that has happened. I know more than one person who had a role or a direct relationship with ISIS, they were initially arrested, but later released in exchange for sums amounting to 10,000 dollars. Some of them have left the country, others are still in Mosul and no one can question them, even though the truth is known.”
Your State is a Failure, and your System is Corrupt!
The investigation team contacted “A.B” on Facebook, who was an ISIS Emir. He was briefly arrested in Mosul after it was recaptured and is currently living in Turkey. He said in response to how he got out of prison: “Your state is a failure, its system is corrupt, I bought my innocence for (15,000) dollars, but in the Islamic State, whoever is convicted cannot be acquitted even if he pays the money of the whole universe. ISIS is a state of truth and justice.”
The investigation teams were also able to see a list circulated by a security agency, containing the names of (150) ISIS members who had been released in exchange for money by various parties. The list shows the names of the people and those who mediated their release.
According to a military officer, who declined to be named, “corrupt security forces members contact some of those on the list and blackmail them in exchange for not moving their files or concealing them”.
One of the extortion operations was carried out by a member of the security services, which targeted the owner of a pharmacy in Mosul, and ended with the arrest of the security service member.
He says, “Someone called me and mentioned that my pharmacy name was listed in a dangerous security file related to drug trafficking and cooperation with ISIS. He said that the matter could be settled because he was not convinced with the accusation, but I had to pay him, so he can close the case.
He added, “After a long debate, I agreed to pay $2,000 to close the file, and the location and time of delivery were agreed in a public street in central Mosul, where he was arrested by the security forces whom I informed through a relative of mine.”
Sherwan Doberdani, a member of the Iraqi parliament in Nineveh province, confirms the release of ISIS members, “Yes, many of them are free to move freely in Mosul after receiving acquittal verdicts in exchange for money, or as a result of interventions, some have simply changed their place of residence,” he said.
Doberdani pointed out the spread of cases of extortion by some officers, “This normally happens at the stage of investigating detainees, sometimes when requesting security clearances,” he said.
He added that at an earlier stage, 70,000 people were wanted on suspicion of terrorism ” with no action taken against the majority of them because there were no prisons to hold this large number, and many of them were innocent but were listed on malicious or false charges or as a result of having similar names of ISIS members “.
A report by the parliamentary fact-finding committee set up in November 2018 to follow up on conditions in Mosul, warns that “it is easy to blackmail the well-off with fake cases and to arrest them by bringing in two false witnesses, but after they pay, they are released.”
The report, which was prepared by a committee that included 43 deputies, noted that “presenting detainees in front of the judge can be delayed for more than two years, which increases the tragedy of detainees and their families and creates an environment hostile to the state”, the report called for “the resolution of the cases of detainees according to a specified time limit.”
Amidst the increasing numbers of security detainees, a number of lawyers have specialized in their cases. They are highly paid, arguing that they have to pay security personnel to be able to release their clients.
Their rival lawyers talk about prior agreements between security associates and those lawyers in the cases they pursue. A lawyer, who declined to be identified, said: “In terrorism cases, not every lawyer can defend a detainee. There is a specific group that is allowed to do so, and sometimes the relatives of the detainee are told the name of a specific lawyer they can turn to”.
He adds, “The number of lawyers who plead for detainees willing to pay for their release or sentence reduction, is no more than ten.” “Other lawyers cannot defend these cases because of the pressures and prosecutions they may face.”
Parliament member Qusay Abbas, from the Fatah alliance, denies the existence of random arrests, and confirms that the arrests are made only after obtaining judicial warrants and sometimes with the participation of the PMF according to the district of responsibility, with the joint operations of the army.
Regarding the continuation of arrests after 3 years of liberating the city, Abbas, who is known for his support for the presence of the PMF in Nineveh plain, says “Security information shows that thousands of Nineveh arrest warrants were not executed after the liberation, because of lack of places in detention centers to accommodate these large numbers”.
Abbas does not deny relying on secret undercover informants and citizen testimony through statements that may sometimes be “mere snitches against innocent people, which can be proven by investigations and courts.”
Abbas responds to accusations by civil activists that the leaders of the PMF control the security file and have such considerable influence that any detainee can be released, even if he is a criminal, saying: “I do not rule out the existence of releases based on personal or favoritism relations, and possibly even in exchange for money, but on a small scale.”
Iraqi parliament member, Abdul Rahim al-Shammari, who has been monitoring violations in Nineveh prisons for years, says “violations are continuing despite a decline this year”.
He adds, “The number of detainees in Nineveh, immediately after liberation, was as high as 6,000 at the police intelligence (Interior Ministry), a large proportion of them were arrested because of the similarity of names and the presence of corrupt officers, secret informants and extortion”.
“In 2019, there was a positive development after we succeeded in transferring those officers and bringing in others, dropping the number from 6,000 detainees to only about (400). We are constantly following up their cases in order to present them to the specialized judges. This file is now moving in the right direction and it is no longer a file that bothers us as much as it was in the past,” al-Shammari said.
Regarding the release of detainees in exchange for money, al-Shammari responds, “Yes, this happens, and the amounts range from 2,000 to 50,000 dollars, the commission and extortion gangs still exist, and there are corrupt officers, but in general the situation is much better today than it was two years ago, when no one was arrested without being financially blackmailed or subjected to torture. Now the situation has changed after the transfer of officers, punishment and imprisonment of other officers. Arrests and extortion have been significantly reduced, but they have not stopped”.
Al-Shammari attributes that the leaders of ISIS manage to escape from punishment, to the law’s requirement for the presence of a complainant and two witnesses who confirm that the person is affiliated with ISIS and has committed crimes, but normally “the complainants cannot bring witnesses, as they refuse to cooperate, perhaps out of fear, so there is not enough evidence to convict them, therefore many of them eventually succeed in getting out”.
According to a Human Rights Watch report released this year, security forces “arbitrarily detained people suspected of belonging to ISIS, and detained many of them for several months,” and quoted witnesses and detained relatives as saying that security forces “regularly detained suspects without any court order or arrest warrant, and often without a reason for arrest.”
The Iraqi Constitution stipulates that no accused should be arrested, except by a decision of the judiciary, and the investigating judge must question the accused within 24 hours of his presence after verifying his identity and informing him of the crime against him. This does not happen in many cases.
Lawyer Ahmed Fathallah Murad said that article 109 of Iraq’s Code of Criminal Procedure obliges the investigating judge to arrest the accused for 15 days each time he is arrested. The article requires that the periods of detention shall not exceed a maximum of six months. The Juvenile Welfare Act allows the juvenile to be arrested only if the offence committed is punishable by death sentence and he is over 14 years of age.
I am still in Detention
A monitoring carried out by an investigation team, of the official Nineveh operations website, showed that, in the first four months of 2019, a total of 393 people were arrested, including 193 on terrorism charges. This indicates the scale of the arrests, which continued even two years after the liberation of Nineveh.
For two weeks, the investigation team tried to communicate with the body that manages the security file, which is the Nineveh Operations Command, by telephone and via internet, to comment on the testimonies and statements obtained by the investigators on violations, but the operations commander refused to respond except through a direct face-to-face meeting, which was impossible due to the curfew.
This security chaos and breaches in the judiciary, which opened the door to random arrests and malicious complaints following the liberation of Nineveh, “is threatening the stability of the largest Sunni provinces, which may bring them back to the time before their fall in the hands of ISIS, which took place within days, as a result of security corruption and administrative chaos.” says human rights activist Mohamed Fawzi.
Nearly six months after his release, “Samir” did not return to his normal life and did not know if he could return to his studies from which he was separated. He is still taking sedatives prescribed by the doctor because of mental disorders and frequent nightmares. He says, “Every day I have moments when I think I’m still in detention. When the door is knocked hard, I feel like they are coming to take me again… They released me, but I am still in detention.”
*The investigation was carried out with the support and supervision of the editors of the NIRIJ network for Investigative Journalism *