Security forces in Iraqi Kurdistan have been “torturing children” to force them to confess to having links with the jihadist Islamic State group, Human Rights Watch said on Tuesday.
The rights group said it interviewed 23 boys aged between 14 and 17 who were charged with, or convicted of, belonging to I.S., and that 16 of them said they had been “tortured” during questioning.
Some boys said members of the Kurdish security forces, known as Asayesh, beat them with plastic pipes, electric cables or rods while others said they were subjected to electric shocks or a painful stress position dubbed the “scorpion,” the watchdog said.
“Several boys said the torture continued over consecutive days, and only ended when they confessed” to involvement with I.S., it said.
“Most said they had no access to a lawyer and they were not allowed to read the confessions Asayesh wrote and forced them to sign,” it added.
It said the punishment inflicted by security forces of the Kurdistan Regional Government in northern Iraq took place in 2017 and 2018 despite promises by authorities to investigate the torture claims.
“Nearly two years after the Kurdistan Regional Government promised to investigate the torture of child detainees, it is still occurring with alarming frequency,” said Jo Becker, children’s rights advocacy director at HRW.
The watchdog said its staff interviewed the boys during a November visit to a detention center in Arbil, where 63 children are being held.
A senior Kurdish official dismissed the allegations.
Dindar Zebari, international affairs adviser to the Kurdish government, told AFP that “HRW never visited” the detention center.
“No one can be arrested unless the judiciary authorizes it. And any person who has been arrested is treated in accordance with the law,” he said, adding that the Kurdish government rejects the use of torture.
According to HRW, most of the boys said their interrogators told them what they should confess and many said they gave false testimony only to stop the torture.
“My confession says that I joined ISIS for 16 days, but actually I didn’t join at all,” a 16-year-old told HRW using another acronym for the jihadist group.
A 14-year-old said: “First they said I should say I was with ISIS, so I agreed. Then they told me I had to say I worked for ISIS for three months. I told them I was not part of ISIS, but they said, ‘No, you have to say it.'”
The boy said that after two hours of interrogation and torture he agreed to their demands.
“The Kurdistan authorities should immediately end all torture of child detainees and investigate those responsible,” HRW said.
Why This Matters
Reconciliation has been a difficult issue in areas of Iraq liberated from I.S. control.
In August, Pari Ibrahim, Executive Director of the Free Yazidi foundation, told The Globe Post that without justice, Yazidis will take revenge on I.S. collaborators in Iraqi Kurdistan.
“If there’s no justice, Yezidis will get revenge… I’ll tell you right now: Yezidis will commit murders. Because, if they have to live with the people who raped their daughters, who killed their fathers, who got away with these crimes, yes, justice is absolutely essential.”
When I.S. took control of parts of the region in August, 2014, thousands of Yazidi girls and women were taken hostage as sex slaves, while thousands of men were brutally executed en masse, prompting the U.N. to designate the campaign as a genocide.
Yet, others have advocated forgiveness and rehabilitation for the children and teenagers who were taken in and trained by I.S.
In December, officials with SEED, a nonprofit organization that provides mental health and social services for people in Iraqi Kurdistan, told The Globe Post that counseling can have positive, transformational impacts of children who were brainwashed or traumatized by I.S.
More on the Subject
“There’s a huge gap unfortunately in Iraq in general across the country in expertise in mental health services and in social work,” Ailsa McVey, the Director of Programs at Seed, told The Globe Post. “The gap is even bigger unfortunately when it comes to children.”
Among those receiving counseling from SEED are boys who were radicalized and trained to be child soldiers while in ISIS captivity. While they are widely viewed as victims, both by international workers and within their communities, there are concerns they could ultimately become dangerous without proper attention and care.
“Some people say it’s like a ticking time bomb, you don’t know when it will blow,” Areef said. “In the long term, of course, if these children are not treated they could be a security threat to the country, to the region, to the globe.”
Bryan Bowman contributed reporting to this article.