ERBIL, Iraq (Reuters) - Human Rights Watch accused Iraqi security forces on Thursday of forcibly relocating at least 170 families of alleged Islamic State members to a closed “rehabilitation camp” as a form of collective punishment.
Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi announced victory over Islamic State in Mosul on Monday, three years after the militants seized the city and made it the stronghold of a “caliphate” they said would take over the world.
Iraq’s government now faces the task of preventing revenge attacks against people associated with Islamic State that could, along with Sunni-Shi‘ite sectarian tensions, undermine efforts to create long-term stability in the country.
“Iraqi authorities shouldn’t punish entire families because of their relatives’ actions,” said Lama Fakih, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch (HRW). “These abusive acts are war crimes and are sabotaging efforts to promote reconciliation in areas retaken from ISIS (Islamic State).”
Speaking with reporters in Washington, an Iraqi military spokesman said he was not aware of the specific cases but denied that Iraqi forces relocated families by force.
“This topic, we didn’t have precise information about what is going on, however there is no situation or scenario where the Iraqi forces will forcefully get people out of their homes as Iraqi citizens,” Brigadier General Yahya Rasool, a spokesman for the joint operations command, said through a translator.
“However, we try to secure safe pathways for them to avoid the battle area,” Rasool added.
The HRW statement said the camp, which Iraqi authorities have described as meant for “rehabilitation”, amounted to a detention center for adults and children who have not been accused of any wrongdoing. Fakih called on the families to be allowed to go where they can live safely.
HRW said forced displacements and arbitrary detentions taking place in Anbar, Babel, Diyala, Salahuddin and Nineveh provinces had affected hundreds of families. It said Iraqi security and military forces had done little to stop the abuses and in some instances participated in them.
The group said it had visited the Bartalla camp and interviewed 14 families, each with up to 18 members.
“New residents said that Iraqi Security Forces had brought the families to the camp and that the police were holding them against their will because of accusations that they had relatives linked to ISIS,” the HRW statement said.
It cited medical workers at the camp who said at least 10 women and children had died traveling to or at the camp, most because of dehydration.
Separately, HRW said it had used satellite imagery to verify that a video published on Facebook on Tuesday, showing armed men in military uniforms beating a detainee before throwing him from a height and then shooting at him, had been filmed in west Mosul. The footage shows the men shooting at the body of another man already lying at the bottom of the perch.
Rasool, from the joint operations command, said that the allegations were being looked at closely and if any violations were found, those responsible would be held accountable.
He added that the videos could have been fabricated by “those who would like to reduce the joy and the confidence we have from this victory.”
Interior Ministry spokesman Brigadier General Saad Maan told Al-Hadath television channel that rights abuses were unacceptable and the video needed to be investigated. But he said he was “surprised by the promotion of videos that affect civil peace in Mosul”.
Speaking with reporters in Washington later, he said that a number of people had been suspended.
“We looked and suspended a number of those forces shown in those pictures and there is currently an investigation being conducted and we will publish the results of this investigation,” he added.
Three other videos posted this week by the same account appear to show members of various Iraqi security forces beating men in ordinary clothes. Reuters could not independently verify the footage.
Additional reporting by Idrees Ali and Phil Stewart in Washington; Writing by Michael Georgy and Stephen Kalin; Editing by Mark Heinrich and Jonathan Oatis