Iraqi forces are exacting punitive justice on families of citizens suspected of being members of ISIS, often on the basis of poor evidence, and in contravention of accepted laws of war, says activist group Human Rights Watch (HRW).
At least 125 families have been displaced from their homes in the governorate of Salah al-Din, north of Baghdad, and are currently being kept in an open-air concentration camp, while many of their homes have been looted and destroyed, behavior which HRW says amounts to a potential “war crime” and a “crime against humanity.”
“While politicians in Baghdad are discussing reconciliation efforts in Iraq, the state’s own forces are undermining those efforts by destroying homes and forcing families into a detention camp,”said the deputy Middle East director at HRW, Lama Fakih.
“These families, accused of wrongdoing by association, are in many cases themselves victims of ISIS abuses and should be protected by government forces, not targeted for retribution.”
HRW claims the measures are being taken by Hashad al-Asha'ri, Sunni tribal groups serving as part of the paramilitary Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), which is a collection of militias, not an army, but enjoys official backing and authority.
They are acting on the authority of a crude local degree passed last year, which says that Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS/ISIL) members are not allowed to live in the region, while their families should be expelled for at least ten years, and should not return until they are judged to be “safe.”
The only way to clear your name is to kill the jihadist family member, or hand him over to the authorities.
“It is a basic international standard that punishment for crimes should only be imposed on people responsible for the crimes, after a fair trial to determine individual guilt,” HRW said in a statement.
“Imposing collective punishments on families, villages, or entire communities is strictly forbidden and can itself be a crime, especially if it results in forced displacement.”
While local authorities say that ‘ISIS families’ are being identified on the basis of intelligence acquired by security forces, the implementation of the decree on the ground is more haphazard and indiscriminate.
When PMF retook the village of al-Aithah in September last year, they destroyed 220 homes by rigging them with explosives, HRW says, on the basis of satellite photos and interviews with locals, many of which belonged to ordinary residents.
They also confiscated livestock and cars from the villagers, before bundling them into trucks, taking their mobile phones, and placing them in a camp outside the governorate capital, Tikrit, which they are not allowed to leave.
“We want the Iraqi government to show mercy on these women and children.
Don’t act like ISIS, by destroying homes and displacing families,” one of the al-Aithah residents told HRW.
While these stories cannot be verified, 14 people interviewed by HRW also claimed that their links to ISIS were either tangential, or forced by circumstances.
One woman said that her 14-year-old daughter had been forcibly married to an Islamic State fighter in 2014 when her village was captured.
When PMF regained control, the teenager and her entire family were driven out.
“The PMF told me: ‘You gave your daughter to ISIS.’ But they do not understand our situation with ISIS and the pressure they put on us.
We couldn’t say anything to them... I had no choice.
I couldn’t say anything... ISIS became the government ruling over everyone.
They’ve gone to war with every country.
What could I do as a woman to oppose them?” said the mother of the teen, who is now looking after an infant, whose jihadist father was killed in the conflict.
In various articles and videos coming from the governorate, officials said that the displacement measures were intended to send a “stern message to the terrorists,” while others said that such punishments fitted with the notions of tribal justice, where an entire clan can be expelled from an area if one its members causes a disturbance.
Meanwhile, an official foreign ministry reply to the HRW story claimed that the families are being placed in camps for their own safety – to stop them from being victims of mob justice – and also to make sure they are not passing information to Islamic State militants.
HRW believes that these explanations are insufficient, and has expressed concern that such retribution could be extended to other parts of the country, particularly Mosul, the focus of the current government offensive, where hundreds of thousands have lived under Islamic State rule since 2014.