Iraqi authorities are holding at least 1,500 children suspected of being members of the Islamic State and are using torture to extract confessions that lead to wrongful convictions, according to a report released Wednesday.
The Human Rights Watch report raises new questions about Iraq’s ability to ensure justice in a post-Islamic State landscape that has been marked by mass death sentences of Sunnis accused of ties to the terrorist group and the quarantine of families in decrepit camps rife with abuse by security forces on suspicion of being affiliated with the group.
The report comes as Iraq has recently taken custody of at least 300 people detained by the U.S.-allied Syrian Democratic Forces during the ongoing battle for the Islamic State’s last sliver of territory, near the border with Iraq. Most of the detainees are women and children and include 14 French citizens who the Baghdad government says committed crimes in Iraq before going to Syria.
Human rights groups have sounded an alarm since 2017 on Iraq’s treatment of people accused of joining the Islamic State, warning that the government and its security apparatus are ensnaring many who worked with the group against their will — thereby creating a pariah class that will not be able to reintegrate into society and could underpin a renewed insurgency.
Wednesday’s report alleges a systematic policy of revenge that does not spare minors from the same abuses that have marred the arrest, interrogation and trials of adults.
In both the autonomous Iraqi region of Kurdistan and central Iraq, children are rounded up and held with adults in unsanitary detention centers, Human Rights Watch’s investigation found. The report says they have been tortured into confessing an affiliation with the Islamic State, which is also known as ISIS.
They are denied access to lawyers, the report says, and judges ignore their claims of innocence during trials that last no more than 10 minutes.
Human Rights Watch said the practices are not just a violation of due process, but also probably constitute a breach of international law calling for former child recruits of extremist groups to be rehabilitated and reintegrated into society.
“This sweeping, punitive approach is not justice, and will create lifelong negative consequences for many of these children,” said Jo Becker, the advocacy director for children’s rights at Human Rights Watch.
“Iraq and the [Kurdistan Regional Government’s] harsh treatment of children looks more like blind vengeance than justice for ISIS crimes,” she added.
In the case of one 17-year-old boy cited in the report, his interrogators bluntly told him that the torture would not stop until he confessed.
“You need to say you were with ISIS. Even if you weren’t, you need to say it,” according to the report.
Many of the minors had been forced to work for the militant group, according to the report. Some chose to join during the group’s three-year occupation of several Iraqi towns and cities, considering it the only way to ensure their safety and gain social status.
But Iraq’s broad counterterrorism law makes no distinction between people who willingly join a terrorist group and those forced to cooperate at the barrel of a gun — giving judges wide authority to impose death sentences and life terms.
“Although Iraqi and [Kurdistan Regional Government] law require the authorities to provide access to legal counsel to criminal defendants, most of the boys said they did not know whether they had a lawyer, and that their hearings and trials lasted no more than 5 or 10 minutes,” the report stated.
Spokesmen for Iraq’s Justice Ministry did not respond to requests for comment on the report.
Judges have said that the trials of suspected Islamic State members are conducted constitutionally but claim that public pressure for revenge has contributed to the quick convictions and harsh sentences.
Few countries, including Iraq’s closest allies, have pressed the government to reform its justice system despite warnings from rights groups that the rapid-fire trials could fuel the same grievances that gave the Islamic State a foundation of support.
U.S. officials have called it an internal Iraqi matter, while African, Arab and European nations have remained silent as their citizens have been tried and convicted in Iraq.
In December 2017, The Washington Post observed several court sessions in which Iraqis and foreigners were sentenced to death in hasty trials. Children were routinely brought to the court, blindfolded and handcuffed, with adult suspects. The Post was barred from attending the children’s trials, with court officials citing privacy concerns.