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Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Amnesty International: Iraq must protect civilians at risk of deadly violence

27 April 2010

Amnesty International on Tuesday called on the Iraqi authorities to urgently step up the protection of civilians amid the recent surge of deadly violence in the country.

A new Amnesty International report, Iraq: Civilians Under Fire, documents how hundreds of civilians are being killed or injured each month.

Many are specifically targeted by armed groups because of their religious, ethnic or sexual identity or because they speak out against human rights abuses.

Ongoing uncertainty over when a new Iraqi government will be formed has led to a recent spike in attacks, with more than 100 civilian deaths in the first week of April alone.

"Iraqis are still living in a climate of fear, seven years after the US-led invasion. The Iraqi authorities could do much more to keep them safe, but over and over they are failing to help the most vulnerable in society," said Malcolm Smart, director of Amnesty International's Middle East and North Africa programme.

Amnesty International urged the authorities to do more to protect those who are particularly at risk and bring those responsible for violent crimes to justice, without recourse to the death penalty.

While Iraqi security forces, foreign troops or family members are responsible for some human rights abuses, most killings of civilians are carried out by armed groups, including al-Qa'ida in Iraq. The organization remains a significant presence in the country despite the recent reported deaths of three senior leaders.

Human rights defenders, journalists and political activists are among those who have been killed or maimed in Iraq because of their work.

Omar Ibrahim Al-Jabouri, the head of public relations at Rasheed TV station, only just escaped with his life in an attack on 13 April 2010. He lost his legs after being caught in an explosion of a bomb attached to his vehicle as he was driving to his office in Baghdad.

Religious and ethnic minorities also continue to be targeted for attack, with at least eight Christians killed in Mosul in February 2010 in apparent sectarian attacks.

Christian students Zia Toma, 22, and Ramsin Shmael, 21, were stopped by unidentified gunmen on 17 February 2010 at a bus stop in Mosul who demanded to see their identity cards. When the gunmen opened fire, Toma was killed and Shmael was injured but survived.

Women and girls are particularly at risk of violence from both armed groups and their relatives. Few men are known to have been convicted of rape in Iraq. Women frequently suffer at the hands of relatives, in so-called honour crimes, if their behaviour is seen to go against traditional moral codes, for instance by refusing to marry men who have been selected for them. Activists have also been targeted for speaking out in favour of women's rights.

Members of the gay community in Iraq, where homosexuality is not tolerated, live under constant threat of violence, with some Muslim clerics urging their followers to attack suspected homosexuals.

Authorities frequently fail to carry out thorough and impartial investigations into attacks on civilians, arrest suspects or bring perpetrators to justice. In some cases, they are even accused of being implicated in violent attacks.

As a result of the ongoing insecurity, hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, including a disproportionately high number of minority communities, have been forced to flee their homes. Internally displaced people and refugees are even more vulnerable to violence, as well as economic hardship.

Amnesty International called on the Iraqi authorities to immediately introduce measures to improve the safety of civilians. They should consult with members of at-risk groups to see how best they can protect them.

In the meantime, the organization said the authorities must begin properly investigating attacks on civilians and to hold perpetrators, whoever they are, responsible for their crimes in accordance with international law. They should immediately disarm all militias and end the identification of religious affiliation on identity cards.

All armed groups in Iraq should immediately end human rights abuses, including attacks against civilians, abductions and torture.

Amnesty International also called for an end to all forcible returns of refugees to Iraq as long as the country remains unstable. Several European governments are forcibly returning people to Iraq – including to the most dangerous parts of the country – in direct violation of guidelines set out by UNHCR, the UN refugee agency.

Amnesty International has spoken to several Iraqis who were forcibly returned by the Netherlands government on 30 March 2010. Among the 35 refugees was a 22-year-old Shi'a Turkoman man from Tal Afar, a city north of Mosul, where hundreds of civilians have been killed in sectarian or other politically motivated violence in recent years, and where the violence continues unabated. As of mid-April, he remained stranded in Baghdad.

"The continuing uncertainty as to when a new government will be formed following last month's election could well contribute to a further increase of violent incidents of which civilians are the main victims. The uncertainty is threatening to make a bad situation even worse. Both the Iraqi authorities and the international community must act now to prevent more unnecessary deaths," said Malcolm Smart.

Iraq: Civilians under fire

Read the report's section 'attacks on gay men'

Members of the gay community in Iraq live under constant threat. They are confronted by widespread intolerance towards their sexual identity and scores of men who were, or were perceived to be, gay have been killed in recent years, some after torture. Violent acts against gay men have occurred against a background of frequent public statements by some Muslim clerics and others condemning homosexuality.

Attacks against gay men, including killings, have frequently been reported since the 2003 invasion.

Qassim, a 40-year-old hairdresser from Baghdad and refugee in Jordan, told Amnesty International in June 2006 about several incidents targeting gay men that occurred in August and September 2004 in Baghdad:

“I was at a gym with my boyfriend. When he returned to my car to get me a bottle of water he was shot dead outside the gym. I was terrified and went into hiding.”

About two weeks later two of his friends were killed in Baghdad. A few days later an explosive device was thrown at his car and he decided to leave Iraq.

The UN reported that at least 12 people were killed because of their sexual orientation between October 2005 and May 2006, during which a fatwa appeared on the website of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani calling for the killing of homosexuals “in the most severe way”.

During the first few months of 2009 at least 25 men and boys were killed in Baghdad because of their sexual orientation or gender expression. This was most common in the predominantly Shi’a district of al-Sadr City. According to reports, the perpetrators were their relatives and members of the Mahdi Army, followers of Moqtada al-Sadr, a Shi'a cleric and political leader.

Many of the victims were tortured and their bodies mutilated and dumped in the streets. Many other men and boys fled Iraq after receiving death threats.

In April 2009 Amnesty International interviewed several Iraqis who had recently fled due to the violence they were facing because they were gay men. Hakim, a 34-year-old man from Najaf, reported that his partner had been kidnapped and abused by members of the Mahdi Army in October 2008, apparently after they found out about their secret relationship. Following his release, both men received death threats from the Mahdi Army, including on one occasion a note that was delivered with three bullets.

A 41-year-old gay man from the Hayy Ur district of Baghdad told Human Rights Watch that a friend of his, a gay man, was attacked and killed in February 2009 by members of the Mahdi Army while he was walking in the neighbourhood with friends. The man himself later survived an abduction by members of the Mahdi Army, who forced him at gunpoint out of his store on 6 March 2009. During his abduction, the militia abused him, including by beating him unconscious and raping him with a broomstick. He was released after his family paid a ransom, but the abductors threatened to kill him if he left the house after his return. For one month he did not leave the house until he fled Baghdad.

The wave of attacks on gay men in early 2009 coincided with statements by Muslim clerics, particularly in al-Sadr City, urging their followers to take action to eradicate homosexuality from Iraqi society. They used language that effectively constituted incitement to violence against men known or alleged to be gay.

Licensed to kill gay men

Gay men face similar discrimination as women under the legislation that provides for lenient sentences for those committing crimes with an “honourable motive”. Iraqi courts continue to interpret provisions of Article 128 of the Penal Code as justification for giving drastically reduced sentences to defendants who have attacked or even killed gay men they are related to if they say that they acted to “wash off the shame”. In its rulings, the Iraqi Court of Cassation has confirmed that the killing of a male relative who is suspected of  same-sex sexual conduct is considered a crime with an “honourable motive", thus qualifying for a reduced sentence under Article 128.16

Although provisions under Articles 128 have been amended in the Kurdistan Region by Law 14 of 2002 and, therefore, may no longer be applied in connection with crimes committed against women there, they continue to be applicable throughout the whole of Iraq in connection with crimes against gay men.

For example, on 24 October 2005 the Court of Cassation of the Kurdistan Region confirmed the conviction for murder and one-year prison sentence imposed on a man from Koysinjak who had confessed to killing his gay brother earlier in 2005. The court found that he had killed his brother with "honourable motives" because he "wanted to end the shame which the victim [of the crime] had brought over his family by practicing depravity and by being engaged in homosexuality and prostitution.” The court also accepted that a one-year prison sentence was in this case appropriate for premeditated murder, a crime which carries the death penalty.

Impunity or, at most, a disproportionately lenient prison sentence for the murder of gay men by their relatives, appears to be the rule rather than the exception in Iraq.

No Protection

A group of gay men reportedly provide emergency shelter at secret locations in Baghdad for individuals who are at risk. However, members of the gay community under threat of attack or murder cannot expect any assistance from the authorities, even when urgent protection is needed.

On the contrary, members of the security forces and possibly other authorities appear in some cases to have encouraged the targeting of people suspected of same-sex relationships, in blatant violation of the law and international human rights standards. For example, a senior police officer in the Karada district of Baghdad was reported to have told the media that “homosexuality is against the law" and that the police were involved in a "campaign to clean up the streets and get the beggars and homosexuals off them."