"They say they will do the same to your daughter."
The worst thing about being in an Iraqi prison is not actually the beating, or the electrocution. It's not having cigarettes extinguished all over the body, or hanging upside down while men beat your feet with lead pipes.
The worst part is the rape.
A 43-year-old journalist whom Human Rights Watch (HRW) calls Fatima Hussein told the organization that she was beaten, tied to a metal pole, electrocuted. They tied her feet to a wooden board and beat her soles with electrically charged cables, then released her and told her to run.
But it was the threat of sexual violence by her captors that provoked Fatima's darkest fears. When she refused to sign and fingerprint a blank "confession," she was dragged "to another room, where I saw a mattress, a bed, a fridge, and a lock with uniforms. Then I got scared," she told the New York-based human rights group. "I realized that they intended to do something sexual to me."
There's no shortage of horror in "No One is Safe," the report HRW released Thursday. And the horror knows no gender: Though the report focused on the treatment of women in prison, the organization believes men are similarly subject to torture and sexual abuse.
The report details evidence of abuse in federal Iraqi prisons and by Iraq's security forces, which pull from the ranks of the local police, federal police, the Iraqi military and special counterterrorism authorities. HRW researcher Erin Evers, who wrote the report, said in an interview that she suspects the abuse stretches beyond federal prisons into local jails and detention facilities run by the military and by security forces that answer directly to Iraq's prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki.
One of the prisoners HRW talked to had been handed over to Iraqis by American troops a few hours after U.S. soldiers and Iraqi security forces stormed her cousin's home in January 2010. But Evers said there is otherwise no direct link between the abuse documented in the report and the former presence of U.S. troops — whose own abuse of prisoners at the Abu Ghraib prison a decade ago badly tarnished the American war effort and the global reputation of the United States.
Once detained, prisoners can languish. Iraq's criminal code allows for 15 days of detention, renewable indefinitely, during a criminal investigation. Even people cleared by an investigative judge, or acquitted by a trial judge, can get stuck in prison waiting for a formal judicial release. "[I]f your file is at the bottom of the pile, you pay money and it gets placed on top," one judge told Human Rights Watch. "[I]f you don't have money and you don't pay, your file keeps moving toward the bottom. Just because you have a judicial release order doesn't mean you'll get out."
But unlike their male counterparts, the 1,100 or so Iraqi women (there are no exact figures) sitting in prison can't necessarily go back to their normal lives after release.
"Every other Iraqi male you speak to has been in prison at some point or another. It's not a stigma," said Evers. "Women, once they've been in prison, are ruined, essentially. They are often rejected, if not outright threatened, by their families. There's a presumption that they've been sexually assaulted in prison, which is seen as something dishonorable — which is something, actually, you can be killed for."
Of the 14 women whose stories make up the bulk of HRW's report, 13 haven't been released. (Fatima, whose story appears in the video below, was released as a direct result of HRW inquiring about her case.) One was executed; one is missing; one sits on death row. Most were arrested without charges and later presented with "confession" papers, sometimes blank, to sign.
All but two of the 27 women the group interviewed had been held on allegations of "covering up" crimes or associations of male family members. That pattern, Evers said, amounts to collective punishment.
"You'll have women detained in place of men or in order to humiliate men or intimidate them, sometimes the entire — literally 12 members of a family," Evers said.
Generally women end up in state custody because of a tip from anonymous secret informants, who Evers said are civil servants looking to pick up extra cash "on the gray-market government payroll."
They end up stuck in prison thanks, in part, to corruption. One woman told HRW that a police officer asked her to buy her and her daughter's release. "I have nothing against you or your family. Just bring me 11 daftar ($110,000) and I'll set you free. If you can't pay, I'll charge you with terrorism…and you'll get death sentences," he told her, according to the report.
Once they're in custody, it seems all but certain that women will experience sexual assault at some point in their detention. One employee at a women's prison told HRW, "[W]e expect that they've been raped by police on the way to the prison."
A 25-year-old woman said she told a judge about the rape and torture she'd experienced in detention.
The judge responded: "What? Do you want them to pamper you?"