Bound, blind­folded and shot

Dumped corpses show signs of ex­e­cu­tion, and, in some cases, tor­ture. Are Iraqi forces re­spon­si­ble?

Los Angeles Times - - THE WORLD - By Nabih Bu­los Bu­los is a spe­cial cor­re­spon­dent. Twit­ter: @nabi­h­bu­los

MOSUL, Iraq — The corpses had been tossed on both sides of a vir­tu­ally de­serted side road leav­ing the vil­lage of Ha­mam Alil, 15 miles south of Mosul. Shriv­eled and dis­col­ored by the sum­mer sun, they barely regis­tered a glance from driv­ers rum­bling past.

But all seven corpses had three things in com­mon: Their hands had been tied be­hind their backs; they had been blind­folded; and, though they were de­com­posed, one could still make out the ric­tus of pain im­printed on their faces.

The grue­some re­mains were among at least 26 blind­folded and hand­cuffed bod­ies found in gov­ern­ment-held ar­eas in and around Mosul, Hu­man Rights Watch said in a re­port last week, in what it con­cluded were ex­tra­ju­di­cial killings prob­a­bly car­ried out by gov­ern­ment forces since the start of the op­er­a­tion to re­take the city from Is­lamic State in Oc­to­ber.

As Iraqi forces, backed by a U.S.-led coali­tion, have ad­vanced into Mosul’s neigh­bor­hoods, tens of thou­sands of des­per­ate res­i­dents have fled the blood­shed. Once they reach gov­ern­ment-con­trolled ar­eas, those flagged for ties to Is­lamic State are held, of­ten with­out charge, where they un­dergo fur­ther in­ves­ti­ga­tion be­fore be­ing pre­sum­ably sent to trial or trans­ferred to Bagh­dad.

In an ear­lier re­port, Hu­man Rights Watch said the Iraqi In­te­rior Min­istry was hold­ing, with­out charge, at least 1,269 Is­lamic State pris­on­ers in filthy, over­crowded pris­ons. Some were boys as young as 13.

But some, like the corpses found on the road, never got that far.

Saed, a baby-faced tribal fighter man­ning a nearby check­point, re­mem­bered the night al­most a month be­fore when he and his fel­low tribesman, Rayyan, had heard shots.

“We didn’t know what it was, and we ra­dioed in to ask but got no re­sponse,” he said in an in­ter­view. He gave only his first name for rea­sons of se­cu­rity.

“In the morn­ing we found the bod­ies,” he said.

It had been the sec­ond such in­ci­dent in the area. A month ear­lier, four corpses, also bound and blind­folded, were found in a field a short dis­tance from the road, said Talal Aqoub, the tribal leader in the nearby vil­lage of Buwayr.

“We don’t know who did it,” said Aqoub, adding that sev­eral vil­lages along the same stretch of road had also be­come dump­ing grounds for bod­ies. “All the men who were killed had un­kempt beards, the sort of ones you would see on the Dawaesh,” he said, us­ing a nick­name for Is­lamic State fight­ers.

Belkis Wille, Hu­man Rights Watch’s Iraq re­searcher, said in a phone in­ter­view that sev­eral gov­ern­ment agen­cies known to be screen­ing and de­tain­ing peo­ple with Is­lamic State links are op­er­at­ing in the area.

“We have raised in­ci­dents like this with Bagh­dad, and they have said that, with such a huge amount of forces in­volved, surely there will be in­di­vid­ual fight­ers who make mis­takes, but that this was not pol­icy,” Wille said.

But it’s not just state-af­fil­i­ated groups that would take mat­ters into their own hands.

Rel­a­tives of Is­lamic State mem­bers are of­ten sub­ject to tribal law. Peo­ple who were harmed by the group ex­act thaer (a vendetta) against the mil­i­tants’ fam­ily or tribe.

In the vil­lage of Kharar, a few miles from where the corpses were found, sev­eral houses lie empty af­ter hav­ing been scorched and then bar­ri­caded.

“No one is com­ing back to these houses, be­cause they’re for peo­ple who were Daesh,” said Mo­ham­mad Hayess Sul­tan, the vil­lage’s mukhtar, or leader. “If they re­turned, there would be prob­lems.”

Ei­ther way, with an ac­tive conf lict zone only a few miles away, it’s un­likely the gov­ern­ment would spare any re­sources for an in­ves­ti­ga­tion.

“Will [au­thor­i­ties] in­ves­ti­gate spe­cific in­ci­dents?” said Wille. “We’ve seen noth­ing to sug­gest they have a com­mit­ment to do that.”

The rights group had also re­ceived re­ports that a unit with the Pop­u­lar Mo­bi­liza­tion Forces, para­mil­i­tary units known as the Hashd al Shaabi, had ex­e­cuted 25 men and dumped their bod­ies in the Ti­gris River.

“The bod­ies of bound and blind­folded men are be­ing found one af­ter the other in and around Mosul and in the Ti­gris River, rais­ing se­ri­ous con­cerns about ex­tra­ju­di­cial killings by gov­ern­ment forces,” said Lama Fakih, deputy Mid­dle East di­rec­tor for Hu­man Rights Watch.

“The lack of any ap­par­ent gov­ern­ment ac­tion to in­ves­ti­gate these deaths un­der­mines the gov­ern­ment’s state­ments on pro­tect­ing de­tainee rights,” she added.

The Hu­man Rights Watch re­port comes af­ter pho­tographs emerged in the news me­dia last month doc­u­ment­ing mass tor­ture be­lieved to have been per­pe­trated by Iraqi forces. De­tainees suf­fered the use of elec­tric shock, chok­ing with plas­tic bags and beat­ings, some­times lethal.

Even in death, the abuse con­tin­ues: Corpses of those sus­pected of Is­lamic State links are rou­tinely treated with dis­re­spect.

In the days af­ter the bod­ies near Ha­mam Alil were dis­cov­ered, “we couldn’t sleep out­side from the smell,” said Saed, the tribal fighter. “But when we asked if we could bury the bod­ies, we were told not to in­ter­fere and that they should be left there.”

The pub­lic dis­play of the bod­ies was “meant to serve as a warn­ing to others,” said Wille.

Dur­ing the Mosul of­fen­sive, corpses of slain Is­lamic State ji­hadis are of­ten left to rot in the street, be­com­ing the ob­ject of macabre self­ies or des­e­crated by packs of dogs.

The abuses, said Nus­saibah You­nis, an Iraq ex­pert at the Lon­don-based think tank Chatham House, risk mak­ing the rein­te­gra­tion of those liv­ing un­der Is­lamic State rule even more dif­fi­cult once the mil­i­tant group is de­feated.

“Ul­ti­mately we’re go­ing to face an on­go­ing ISIS in­sur­gency even af­ter the lib­er­a­tion of Iraq’s towns and cities and it will try to re­cruit dis­af­fected Sun­nis,” said You­nis in a phone in­ter­view last week, us­ing an acro­nym for Is­lamic State. She also noted that the gov­ern­ment had to win the “hearts and minds” of the peo­ple in the area.

“Life has been so dif­fi­cult for them un­der ISIS that this won’t be a chal­lenge,” she said — so long as the army and Iraqi mili­tias don’t com­mit atroc­i­ties that alien­ate them.

She added that the vast ma­jor­ity of Iraq’s se­cu­rity forces have be­haved pro­fes­sion­ally, but the ac­tions of a few would give “ev­ery­body a bad name and un­der­mine the sac­ri­fices” they have made.

Nabih Bu­los For The Times

BOD­IES lie on ei­ther side of the road leav­ing the Iraqi vil­lage of Ha­mam Alil, south of Mosul. Res­i­dents were told not to bury the men.

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