Iraqi authorities are detaining thousands of women illegally and subjecting many to torture and ill-treatment, including the threat of sexual abuse, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said in a report published on Thursday.
The findings by the New York–based rights group raise new concerns about Iraq's ability to handle those detained in massive security sweeps targeting armed groups. International rights groups are worried about the weakness of the Iraqi judicial system, accusing it of being plagued with corruption.
HRW said that women have been held for months or even years without charge before seeing a judge. Many were rounded up for alleged terrorist activities by male family members. Interviewed detainees described being kicked, slapped, raped or threatened with sexual assault by security forces.
“Iraqi security forces and officials act as if brutally abusing women will make the country safer,” Joe Stork, deputy Middle East and North Africa director of HRW, said in a release. “In fact, these women and their relatives have told us that as long as security forces abuse people with impunity, we can only expect security conditions to worsen.”
Armed groups have frequently cited the mistreatment of women as a justification for their attacks.
HRW called on the Iraqi government to acknowledge the prevalence of abuse, promptly investigate allegations of torture and ill-treatment and urgently make judicial and security sector reforms.
It said senior Iraqi officials dismissed reports of abuse of women in detention as exceptional cases.
The 105-page report is based on interviews with imprisoned Sunni and Shia women and girls, although Sunnis make up the vast majority of the more than 4,200 women detained in Interior and Defense Ministry facilities, HRW said.
The rights group described Iraq's judiciary as weak and plagued by corruption, with convictions frequently based on coerced confessions and trial proceedings that fall far short of international standards.
If women are released unharmed, they are frequently stigmatized by their families or communities, who perceive them to have been dishonored, HRW said.
"Both men and women suffer from the severe flaws of the criminal justice system. But women suffer a double burden due to their second-class status in Iraqi society," the report said.
Government and judicial officials did not return phone calls seeking comment on the report, though a spokesman for Iraq's Human Rights Ministry said the testimonies in the HRW report were "overexaggerated.” He acknowledged that "we have some limited illegal behaviors, which were practiced by security forces against women prisoners,” which it said had been identified by the ministry's own teams.
One detainee on death row entered her interview with HRW on crutches, saying nine days of beatings, shocks and being hung upside down had left her permanently disabled.
The woman said she had been arrested by U.S. and Iraqi forces in January 2010 when she was in her cousin's home. She said she was taken to the Interior Ministry's Criminal Investigations Department, where she was tortured until she confessed to terrorism charges against her will.
She said Iraqi security forces repeatedly called her "bitch," "slut" and "daughter of a dog." She described how they handcuffed her, forced her to kneel and beat her on the face, breaking her jaw. When she refused to sign confessions, they attached wires to her handcuffs and fingers.
"When they first put the electricity on me, I gasped; my body went rigid, and the bag came off my head," she was quoted by the report as saying. "I saw a green machine, the size of a car battery, with wires attached to it."
She then signed and fingerprinted a blank piece of paper after officers told her that they had detained her teenage daughter and would rape her. She said her lawyer later told her she was accused of blowing up a house and other attacks.
The woman was executed seven months after meeting with HRW, in September 2013, despite lower court rulings that dismissed some of the charges against her because a medical report documented that she was tortured into confessing to a crime.
The release of women detainees was a main demand of Sunnis who began demonstrating late in 2012 against the Shia-led government, which they accuse of marginalizing their community.
Security forces cleared one of two Sunni protest camps in Anbar province in December 2013. In the ensuing backlash, armed groups seized the city of Fallujah and parts of Ramadi.
Since then, more than 1,000 people have been killed across Iraq, according to Iraq Body Count, and the army is preparing for a possible ground assault to retake Fallujah.