Hitting Rock Bottom: Children and Torture in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq


A 2017 report released by international watchdog Human Rights Watch (HRW) describes the worrying practices carried out by Asayish—the Kurdistan Regional Government’s (KRG) security agency—on children in the Kurdistan region of Iraq. According to the report, Asayish detained several children aged 11 to 17 on suspicion of links to ISIS, with not much of a legitimate legal basis and without granting them access to legal counsel or even the possibility to contact their families. On top of this, Asayish is reported to have carried out torture against detained children. According to the children that were interviewed by Human Rights Watch, the torture involved being held in stress positions, beaten or even shocked with electricity. Often, it would lead them to confessing things they had not done in order to stop the torture.

Even though Human Rights Watch made allegations concerning the maltreatment of children by KRG and contacted KRG authorities two years ago urging them to investigate these matters, not much seems to have changed. According to a 2019 report by Human Rights Watch, Asayish is still carrying out torture against children in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, in similar ways as those described in the 2017 report, and for the same reasons. KRG have detained all the children that were interviewed by Human Rights Watch at the Women and Children’s Reformatory in Erbil (a locked detention centre) and refused them access to legal counsel. KRG officials have also tortured and threatened these children, telling them what they should confess. The children’s testimonies are alarming. “Hussein”, whose real name was withheld by Human Rights Watch to protect his identity, said:

“They [Asayish officers] beat me all over my body with a plastic water pipe, and then tied my hands like a scorpion [one arm over the shoulder, and the other behind his back] for two hours. They asked me about ISIS, saying, “You have to confess you are ISIS.” They forced me to confess that I worked with ISIS for one month. They also said I should say I used Kalashnikovs [AK-47s], M16s, and PKCs [machine guns].”

Many children confessed to anything in a desperate attempt to put an end to the torture. “Nearly two years after the Kurdistan Regional Government promised to investigate the torture of child detainees, it is still occurring with alarming frequency,” said Jo Becker, children’s rights advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. The UN Convention of the Rights of the Child,  to which Iraq acceded in 1994, prohibits torture (Article 37(a)) and states that “the arrest, detention or imprisonment of a child shall be in conformity with the law and shall be used only as a measure of last resort and for the shortest appropriate period of time” (Article 37(b)). It also commands that a detained child shall generally be allowed to keep in touch with his or her family (Article 37(c)). According to Article 40 of the Convention, children have the right to legal counsel as well as the right “not to be compelled to give testimony or to confess guilt”. Not only is there evidence that the Kurdistan Regional Government has violated all these obligations, but it is also worrisome that it did not seem to do anything about this when accused and urged to do so.

What is reported to have happened to children on suspicion of links with ISIS in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq is alarming and constitutes a severe violation of international law. As Lama Fakih (deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch) said, “the brutal abuse of children produces false confessions, can cause lifelong suffering, and blurs the moral line between ISIS and its foes”. KRG authorities are urged to conduct a thorough investigation surrounding the ill treatment of children in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, and international attention is required to ensure that justice is achieved.

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