Iraqis in Abu Ghraib prison, awaiting release. (photo: واثق الخزاعي )
Official Iraqi statistics tell a worrying tale. They indicate that thousands of civilians are being arrested and detained every month by a wide variety of security organisations, for no good reason.
One can come by these numbers by following the statistics published between January 2015 and October 2016 in the digital archive of the country’s Federal Judiciary Authority – the body that oversees Iraq’s courts. The press releases issued by the Judicial Authority are meant to be a record of how much work the courts have done but when the numbers are added up, the statistics also tell a different, more controversial story.
The press releases indicate that the majority of detainees were released because the case against them was investigated and found insubstantial. For most the cases were thrown out before a trial. For a minority they were found not guilty during their trial. While the numbers of those released are published, the press releases don’t always detail what the detainees were charged with, whether those charges were criminal or related to terrorism. Nor do they tell how long the released Iraqis spent awaiting that decision, whether they were detained for years or just days.
To try and prevent violence, many random detentions take place in Iraq. But they may do more harm than good.
Meanwhile the various security forces involved – including the army, the police and Iraqi intelligence – don’t publish the number of arrests they have made.
In 2016, 67,749 detainees were released from prisons between January and October, having been released after they were found innocent or wrongfully detained. Among these were 8,810 accused of terrorist acts. That averages out at 6,775 wrongfully imprisoned locals per month or 223 per day.
In 2015, there were 88,297 detainees released, making slightly more wrongful arrests per month and per day:7358 and 243 respectively.
June and May this year saw the most detainees released, with close to 11,000 Iraqis released each month. It is highly likely that the large number of arrests and releases coincided with the Iraqi military’s campaign against the extremist group known as the Islamic State in Anbar that began at the end of May and ended around mid-June.
It is obviously difficult to compare Iraq’s “catch and release” statistics with other nations’ rates of incarceration, as clearly the Iraqi situation is very different from that of the UK or US.
However, given the lack of Iraqi numbers of arrests, a brief snapshot may still be instructive: For example, UK prison reformers point out that in 2015, a total of 10,897 locals who were remanded in custody – that is, held in prison while awaiting trial - were subsequently acquitted. UK statistics from earlier years show that on average, around 12,000 innocent locals were held in remand before being eventually released.
In the US, around one in five, or about “20 percent of detainees [who were in pre-trial detention] eventually had their case dismissed or were acquitted,” according to the Americas Quarterly, a magazine focused on northern and southern America. The study was based on US Justice Department figures from between 1990 and 2004 and that percentage would add up to roughly 96,000 prisoner releases annually.
If both the UK and US figures are adjusted for population – both countries have many more people than Iraq, with the UK about double and the US about tenfold more - the annual number of those wrongfully arrested and detained in Iraq starts looking even worse. It would appear to indicate that there is a genuine problem in the way that Iraq’s security forces investigate offenses.
To try and prevent violence, there are many random detentions taking place in Iraq. And in fact, so many random detentions may actually be doing more harm than good, in that they disrupt the civilian peace and increase conflict between different political forces. Sunni Muslim politicians accuse the security forces of sectarian bias while the Shiite Muslim politicians criticize those in Sunni-majority provinces of supporting extremists.
And these are not the only unwarranted or illegal detentions taking place, some Sunni Muslim critics say. They complain that the Shiite Muslim volunteer militias, who recently became a legitimate security force in Iraq, have their own unofficial prisons too, where they hold their enemies illegally. The heads of the militias deny this.
One MP from the Anbar province, Ahmad al-Salmani, has focused on issues pertaining to detainees and he says that an estimated 3,000 locals in Anbar were detained by fighters from the Shiite Muslim volunteer militias. This includes about 2,000 from the Razazah area south of Ramadi in October 2015. Nothing has been heard from these locals since their apparent detention.
In August this year, Iraq’s Parliament also passed what is known as the General Amnesty Law. It was supposed to facilitate the release of thousands of Iraqis who have been imprisoned on what many believe to be a political basis, and was aimed at calming sectarian tensions in the country. The controversial law would encourage amnesty for as many as 36,000 detainees. However, once one begins looking at the numbers on the Judicial Authority website, that starts to feel like too little, too late: To encourage a respect for the rule of law, and to avoid accusations of sectarian or political bias, it may be better to begin with a reform of the policy of random and apparently unwarranted detentions.
To see links to all of the Federal Judiciary Authority press releases, please click here.