Hashd al-Shaabi units face continued accusations of torture in human rights report

A flag used by the units of Hashd al-Shaabi flies on the tarmac at Tal Afar airport in the province of Nineveh, Iraq. Photo: Achilleas Zavallis | AFP

ERBIL, Kurdistan Region – With claims of abuse and torture at the hands of Shiite Hashd al-Shaabi paramilitary units (PMUs) in Iraq, Baghdad faces further criticism regarding its treatment of prisoners and its ability to hold the irregular units accountable.

“Given the previous track records of PMF abuse in the area of screening and detaining local men, Baghdad should treat these findings with the gravest concern,” said Lama Fakih, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch (HRW), using another term for the PMUs. “Authorities should do all in their power to ensure that families fleeing the fighting around Mosul are able to get to safety, not tortured in secret facilities.”

HRW published interviews from three men from al-Hadar, a village 90 kilometers southwest of Mosul, who were detained by the PMU in late April 2017.

In one, “Ahmed” says he and his family fled al-Hader on April 26 and reached a base where several men were carrying flags identifying themselves as (Liwa) Ali al-Akbar Brigade, a unit of Hashd al-Shaab from southern Iraq.

HRW reported Ahmed recounted that his brother, along with four others were blindfolded and detained for 10 days. Since his hands were bound in front of him, he would lift his blindfold and saw that he was being held in a room with 40 or so men from his village.

He added that he was interrogated for four days straight by guards with “southern” accents, being beaten for about 10 minutes each time. He says the guards were asking why he joined Al-Qaeda and ISIS and on two separate occasions, they held a plastic bag over his head until he lost consciousness.

“While there may be grounds to detain some people fleeing the fighting who are suspected of criminal acts under ISIS’s rule, they have to be given their rights under Iraqi law,” Fakih said. “That includes the right not to be ill-treated.”

Just prior to the Mosul offensive, the former governor of Mosul who was leading a Sunni militia had warned against any participation of Shiite militia in the battle.

"They think if Hashd al-Shaabi Shiite militia come to Mosul, they will avenge and torture them,” Atheel Nujaifi told Rudaw TV. “Possibly, some people will fight alongside ISIS when it comes to the choice between ISIS and Hashd al-Shaabi."

The PMU were established in June 2014 when Grand Ayatollah al-Sistani, Iraq’s highest Shiite religious authority, called for able-bodied men to join the fight against ISIS. In December 2016 the Iraqi parliament approved a law recognizing the diverse Hashd al-Shaabi as official forces under the umbrella of the army.

Prime Minister and Commander in Chief Haider al-Abadi announced in October 2016 that his government does not tolerate human rights violations in battlefields.

“We will not allow violations of human rights,” he said two days before the launch of the offensive. “So we have set up investigation committees. We have brought some people to trial, some of them for violations of human rights during the course of battles.”

Forty-seven PMU members were convicted for murder, kidnappings and possessions of weapons in Iraq’s Central Criminal Court in Baghdad in January for offenses stretching back to 2014.

Majid al-Aaraji, head of Iraq’s Central Criminal Court, said that their sentences ranged between the death penalty, life imprisonment and 15 years imprisonment.

“People are fleeing due to Hashd’s advance, there are great fears among the civilians,” he added. Hashd units continue to advance against ISIS in a new offensive in the northwest of Nineveh province.

As of Sunday, the Hashd had taken control of nearly 50 villages and complexes in the area of Shingal, which is home to many Yezidis.