A Human Rights Watch report says the Iraqi and Kurdistan Regional Government authorities have charged hundreds of children with terrorism for alleged Daesh affiliation and urges them to rehabilitate and reintegrate the children into society.
On Wednesday, Human Rights Watch (HRW) claimed in a special report that 1,500 children, some as young as 14, have been held in detention by Iraqi and Kurdish authorities for an alleged affiliation to Daesh.
The 53-page report, Everyone Must Confess: Abuses against Children Suspected of ISIS [Daesh] Affiliation in Iraq, is based on interviews with 29 current and former child detainees, relatives, prison guards, and judicial sources, who allege that children were arbitrarily arrested and tortured to force confessions.
"The screening, investigation, and prosecution of children as ISIS [Daesh] suspects by Iraqi and KRG authorities is deeply flawed, often leading to arbitrary detention and unfair trials," the report states.
Iraq declared victory against Daesh in December 2017, after three years of heavy combat that killed tens of thousands and displaced many others.
Since the victory, there has been a brutal campaign of vengeance in Iraq. Hundreds of thousands of people became subject to detention, torture and execution for their alleged role within the group.
Interrogation, torture and trial
According to the report, the children were mostly detained based on ‘wanted lists’ of names collected from other suspects through interrogation and torture and reports by families from Daesh-controlled areas.
During interrogations, security officers are alleged to have tortured children until they confessed their association with the group - regardless of whether they were involved.
Karim, one of the boys who was transferred to a prison in Baghdad airport, told HRW that security officers tied his hands with plastic and then beat him all over his body with a plastic pipe.
He said he had been detained for seven and a half months and “every day was torture. We were beaten every day, all of us."
Once they arrived at the court, several boys told the judge that they made their confessions under torture, but their claims were ignored.
“Most of these children are never sent to hospitals, so there is no medical evidence,” Jo Becker, Children’s Rights Advocacy Director for Human Rights Watch, told TRT World.
Apart from their confession, no witnesses appeared at their trials, and there was no evidence provided to convict the defendants.
“In most trials of child ISIS [Daesh] suspects, there are no witnesses, only the confessions the children have made,” Becker added.
In response to the allegations, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) said on Wednesday that its security forces had not tortured anyone into confessing.
The KRG’s Coordinator for International Advocacy, Dindar Zebari, told the Kurdish news agency Rudaw: “There are no medical records of torture against them, and no NGOs have highlighted cases of torture.”
He accused the rights group of “politicising” the issue.
Iraqi and KRG authorities have arrested thousands of children for alleged ISIS involvement. Many are tortured to coerce confessions and convicted of terrorism in unfair, hasty trials. New research from @hrw:https://t.co/l4WWYLJSRY pic.twitter.com/lWafXvwidI— Jo Becker (@jobeckerhrw) March 6, 2019
Why did some children join Daesh?
Children who were interviewed by the HRW gave several reasons for joining the group, from peer or family pressure to financial incentive and social status.
The report says these factors are frequently used to motivate group members during armed conflicts. None of the children said that the Daesh ideology played a significant role in their decision to join the group.
“ISIS [Daesh] families had a better life than us, they got better food. We were only eating onions, but our neighbors who were ISIS [Daesh] got chicken and meat every day,” said one of the boys, Mahmood, who fought for Daesh in Karemlash.
What are their legal rights?
HRW says international standards recognise children involved in armed conflicts as victims of violations of international law, not preparators, and reject their detention.
“Children involved in armed conflicts are entitled to rehabilitation and reintegration, not torture and prison,” Becker said.
Under Iraq’s 1983 Juvenile Welfare Act, the minimum age of criminal responsibility is nine.
Article 52 prohibits holding a child below the age of 14 in detention, and even then they can only be held if accused of a felony carrying the death penalty.
The General Amnesty Law, passed in August 2016, theoretically offers amnesty to individuals who joined Daesh or other militant groups against their will and did not commit any serious offence.
In 2006, the KRG passed its own counter-terrorism law, which calls for the death penalty for anyone who committed an act of terror or joined and coordinated a terrorist organisation.
The minimum age of criminal responsibility is 11 in the region.
"We are recommending that Iraq and KRG revise their anti-terrorism laws to end the arrest and detention of children simply for association with ISIS [Daesh]," Becker said.
"We also recommend the release of children who have not committed violent crimes and work with agencies like UNICEF to develop rehabilitation programs to help children reintegrate into society, " she added.
The fear of revenge
Nearly all of the boys interviewed by HRW are afraid to return home in fear of becoming targets of revenge attacks.
Because detention automatically brands them as Daesh members it can lead to a long-term stigma, family separation, displacement, and also constrain them from societal reintegration.
“Many families want their children back but are concerned about possible reprisals against them and their children for being associated with ISIS [Daesh]. Many children are afraid to return for this reason,” Becker said.