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Women and the criminal justice system in Iraq

Shayma Bashawieh

March 2, 2014

A Human Rights Watch (HRW) report entitled “No one is safe: Abuses of women in Iraq’s criminal justice system” published in February of this year details the arbitrary arrests, unlawful detaining, collective punishment, torture and sexual abuse female prisoners endure at the hands of Iraqi security forces.
Although there are far fewer female prisoners presently in Iraq compared to their male counterparts--1,100 women in prison versus over 40,000 male prisoners--HRW says “women suffer a double burden.” The report mentions on a number of occasions that women are arrested not only for the crimes they are suspected to have committed but also for the crimes of male relatives--a husband, son, father--or other tribal and family members, effectively targeting women for collective punishment. What is more, female prisoners are also at a greater risk of experiencing some form of sexual harassment during their detention.
Although the knowledge of the abuse of male detainees in Iraq’s prisons is widespread amongst Iraqis in general, the report states that the current accounts regarding the unlawful detention and abuse of female detainees was shocking to the public--prompting one human rights activist to tell HRW “normally, in Iraqi society, a man beating a woman in public is impossible…What’s happening to women shows that no one is safe.”
The horrific experiences female prisoners have to endure include electric shocks, cigarette burns on their body, a torture method known as “falaqa” (which is when a “victim is hung upside down and beaten on their feet”), beatings and sexual assaults--sometimes in front of family members. The practices of sexually abusing female prisoners is so widespread that the report details accounts of prisoners raped by prison guards during detention, interrogations and arrests. In fact Um Aqil, “an employee at a women’s prison facility” who was interviewed by HRW said “We expect that they’ve been raped by police on the way to prison.” As if all this were not dreadful enough to endure, when prisoners would not confess to their alleged crimes after being beaten, tortured and sexually abused the interrogators threaten their loved ones with the same fate the female prisoners have been enduring.
Meet Fatima Hussein (pseudonym)…
A journalist detained for her alleged involvement in a parliamentarian brother’s death and for “being married to an Al-Qaeda member”- which allows the state to detain her under the highly ambiguous and contested "anti-terrorism law." Fatima told HRW she was detained by security forces despite not being presented with any evidence of her crimes. She then describes going to Tikrit and being interrogated by a Colonel Ghazi, who accused her of the crimes mentioned above and proceeded to electrocuting her when she denied having committed them. Next she was ordered to sign on a blank piece of paper, but when she dared express her concerns about the Colonel adding other charges against her later she incurred the wrath of her interrogators once more--leading Colonel Ghazi to yell to his fellow officers to “Bring out the falaqa”! Fatima told HRW she was made to stand on the column for two days all while “barely clothed and… not permitted to go to the bathroom.”
When she still would not confess at this point, Fatima describes Colonel Ghazi next forcing her to lay on her stomach while her arms and legs were handcuffed to a bed where she was raped and forced to give Colonel Ghazi oral sex. The next day, a TV-crew from the state owned Iraqiya channel came to record her "confession," but when Fatima saw the four pages of testimony she was expected to memorize in thirty minutes to confess in front of the camera, she refused to do so. Fatima then proceeds to describe how Colonel Ghazi put her daughter Hanaa on the phone where she was briefly allowed to talk to her before Colonel Ghazi snatched the phone and threatened Fatima her daughter will endure similar experiences if she does not confess, Fatima said she "confessed" to all the charges.
"Operation Iraqi Freedom"
Fatima is only one example of a few in the HRW report and thousands more like her in Iraq, more than a decade after Western military intervention--dubbed "Operation Iraq Freedom." Is this what liberation looks like? Have they been liberated? For one thing the report states that “security forces carry out illegal arrests and other due process violations against women at every stage of the justice system.”
Following mass protests over the treatment of women in detention, Prime Minister al-Maliki announced in January of 2013 that there would be reforms made to the justice system. But a year has passed and HRW says desperately needed reforms have still yet to be passed while the criminal justice system is as corrupt as ever and women continue to be abused. The report quite accurately states “the failings of the criminal justice system documented in this report show that the Prime Minister al-Maliki’s government has so far failed to eliminate many of the abusive practices that Saddam Hussein institutionalized and the United States-led Coalition Forces continued.”

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