Concerns are growing over a government crackdown on freedom of expression
Iraq risks falling back towards authoritarian rule amid allegations that security forces have tortured detainees at a secret prison, cracked down on freedom of expression and attacked peaceful protesters as well as journalists, Human Rights Watch warned on Sunday.
In its annual World Report, the New York-based human rights monitor voiced its concern about the situation in the country. "Iraq is quickly slipping back into authoritarianism as its security forces abuse protesters, harass journalists, and torture detainees," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. "Despite U.S. government assurances that it helped create a stable democracy, the reality is that it left behind a budding police state."
In February 2011, Human Rights Watch revealed the existence of a secret detention facility which is controlled by elite security forces loyal to Shi'ite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. The same forces are also in control of Camp Honor in Baghdad, where Human Rights Watch believes detainees have been tortured with impunity.
Iraq has been rocked by a series of deadly attacks since the last U.S. soldiers withdrew from the country in December, ending its nearly nine-year-long presence in the country. Observers had feared a surge in political turmoil and sectarian violence following the departure of the last U.S. troops.
On December 22, a wave of at least a dozen bomb attacks ripped through Baghdad, killing at least 60 people and injuring nearly 200 others. And on January 5, more than 70 people were killed when a wave of bomb blasts hit Baghdad and the southern city of Nasiriyah where Shiite Muslims had gathered.
Most recently, on January 14, at least 53 people were killed and more than 135 others were injured when a person wearing an explosives belt blew himself up at a checkpoint in a crowd of pilgrims who were visiting the Al-Khatwa mosque near Basra, which is located about 590 kilometers (366 miles) south of Baghdad.
In the weeks before the last U.S. troops left Iraq, Iraqi security forces rounded up hundreds of Iraqis who were accused of being members of the former Arab Socialist Ba'ath Party, which opposed Western imperialism and called for the unification of the Arab world into a single state. Human Rights Watch said most of those arrested remain in detention without charge.
But in addition to a crackdown on political opponents, peaceful protesters have also been targeted by Iraqi security forces. In February 2011, at least 12 people were killed and more than 100 others were injured when Iraqis took to the streets to protest against widespread corruption and demand greater civil and political rights. Journalists were also beaten, and their cameras and memory cards were destroyed or confiscated.
In another incident, in June 2011, government-backed thugs armed with wooden planks, knives, and iron pipes, beat and stabbed peaceful protesters and sexually molested female demonstrators as security forces stood by and watched, sometimes laughing at the victims, according to Human Rights Watch.
"After more than six years of democratic rule, Iraqis who publicly express their views still do so at great peril," Whitson said. She said the killing of a popular radio journalist in September 2011 also highlights that journalism remains a 'deadly profession' in Iraq.
"Security forces in Iraq, particularly in detention facilities, violate rights with impunity, and the government too often looks the other way," she said. "The government needs to ensure that there will be genuine criminal investigations and prosecutions of anyone responsible for torture or other abuses."
Last month, the Iraqi Investigation Committee issued an arrest warrant against First Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi and accused him of ordering attacks, including bombings, against government and security officials. It came the same day as Iraqi authorities arrested three of Hashimi's bodyguards and aired their alleged confessions on state-run television.
The bodyguards said they were paid by the vice president to carry out assassinations, but Hashimi has insisted that the confessions were fabricated and that he would defend himself in court. It remains unclear if the men were forced to make the televised confessions. Several of Hashimi's staff members were also arrested.
Also in December, the opposition compared Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to a dictator as he has failed to appoint defense and interior ministers, allowing him to establish control of the country's armed forces.
The Iraqi government did not immediately comment on Sunday's report.