Iraqi authorities should fulfill a commitment to locate victims of enforced disappearance and ensure that those responsible are held accountable, Human Rights Watch said today.

Since taking office in May 2020, Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi announced that his government was creating a new mechanism to locate victims of enforced disappearances, but authorities appear to have done little follow-through. Iraqi authorities did not respond to a November 5 letter from Human Rights Watch requesting information about eight disappearances that occurred between December 2019 and October 2020.

“Creating a do-nothing mechanism, as Iraqi governments have done for years, is simply not enough to address longtime problems like enforced disappearances,” said Belkis Wille, senior crisis and conflict researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Ending enforced disappearances and holding security forces accountable requires a sustained and serious commitment that includes tracking these cases.”

Case details obtained by Human Rights Watch indicate that the Popular Mobilization Forces – PMF or Hashd al-Sha'abi, security forces nominally under the control of the prime minister since November 2016 – were most likely behind all eight disappearances. These cases are only a small fraction of the total disappearances believed to have been carried out by these groups over the past year.

Al-Kadhimi has made multiple commitments since he took office in May to investigate and punish enforced disappearances. In October, during the United Nations Committee on Enforced Disappearances’ review of Iraq, the government said it had established a new mechanism to coordinate its efforts to locate disappeared persons.

However, in each of the cases that Human Rights Watch reviewed, relatives have had no success getting information from the authorities on the whereabouts of those missing. None of the families had heard specifically about this new mechanism, nor had it contacted them. One added, “We always hear about the government creating new committees, but we never hear that there are any results coming from these committees.”

In one case, a relative of Ammar Zaidan Mukhlif, 48, said he had been missing since December 25, 2019. Prior to 2003, Mukhlif was a captain in the Republican Guard and from 2003 to 2008 worked as a police chief in al-Dour town in Salah al-Din Governorate. In 2008, because of his prior Republican Guard role, the Accountability and Justice Committee, linked to Iraq’s de-Baathification process, ordered him into retirement. The relative said that Mukhlif had been desperate to return to work.

The relative said that a man who identified himself as a member of the PMF security directorate called Mukhlif on December 24, told him he had permission to return to work, and that he should go to the PMF security directorate office in Baghdad the next day for the man to give him more information.

The relative said Mukhlif left home at 9 a.m. on December 25, but by 11 a.m. his phone had been switched off. Later that day, the relative said, the family filed a missing person case with the police in Tikrit and the PMF security directorate in al-Dour, where staff said they knew nothing about him or the identity of the man who called him. They tried to get other information from the phone carrier, which said cellular phone tower information located him near Samara before his phone was turned off, and through another relative with the police who reviewed CCTV checkpoint footage and said his car had passed through the main checkpoint between al-Dour and Samara before disappearing.

In another case, on the night of December 25, a resident of al-Dour said, a senior official in Salah Al-Din’s Ministry of Interior Intelligence office called his father, Sheikh Fares Khattab. Khattab had reached out to the official to try to get his other son, lieutenant colonel Ghalib Fares Khattab, 45, a job there, and the senior official told him to come to Tikrit on December 26 to arrange his transfer there. Both left for Tikrit at 9 a.m. but did not pick up their phones again.

“We went to police stations in al-Duor and Tikrit, asking the police and armed forces to find them,” the son said. “Police and anti-terrorism forces started reviewing security cameras and a colonel from the Tikrit kidnap unit told us that based on CCTV footage, he had issued two arrest warrants and was tracking my father’s phone. But they never told us who they had issued the warrants against, nor what they found out from his phone. Until now no one has been arrested as far as we know.”

He said that a policeman he knew showed him CCTV footage from a checkpoint and said that two vehicles that were most likely linked to the PMF were seen escorting Khattab’s car through Tikrit. The son said that a friend of his who is linked to the Interior Ministry told him that on December 27, while armed forces were searching for Khattab, a PMF representative called the friend and ordered him to stop the search.

In a third case, a friend of Sajjad Satar Shanan, a prominent anti-government protester in Nasriya, said that on September 19, he was in the car with Shanan and four other friends driving to a village outside of Nasiriya city. At 9 p.m., about four kilometers outside of the city, two pickup trucks without license plates stopped their car. Eight armed men got out and ordered Shanan out of the car. The friend said he asked who the men were, and they replied, “It is better for you just to let us take him,” and they took him away.

The friend said he told the men he recognized one of them as a Badr Organization member, a unit within the PMF, and another one shot at him twice, with one bullet piercing his thigh. The friend later went to the police and gave them a full report including the name of the man he had recognized but said that no one had been arrested. “I have also received many calls from blocked numbers since then with people threatening me to stop talking about this incident,” he said.

In another case, about 25 armed men in uniform with logos of Asa'ib Ahl al-Haqq, another PMF unit, raided al-Farhatia village of Balad district in Salah al-Din governorate and arrested 12 men on October 17. “They told us that they would bring them back and they gave no reason why they were arresting them,” said a relative of 9 of those arrested, who said he recognized some of the men from a nearby checkpoint the group controls.  

Villagers found the bodies of eight of the men on the ground the next morning, about 500 meters from the village and 200 meters from the checkpoint. They were handcuffed. Their hands looked like they had been burned, and they had been shot in the head. Al-Kadhimi visited the village on October 18 along with the ministers of defense and interior and pledged to hold those responsible for the killings accountable. The authorities subsequently arrested four people, the relative said he was told, but have not been charged anyone yet as far as he knew. The other four men remain missing.

On November 5, Human Rights Watch sent a letter to the prime minister’s office providing additional details in the cases of all eight people disappeared. A spokesperson said the letter would be given to the prime minister, but Human Rights Watch has not received a response yet.

Human Rights Watch has been documenting enforced disappearances across Iraq for decades, including a 2018 report about 78 men and boys forcibly disappeared between April 2014 and October 2017. In three more cases featured in the report, men who were disappeared and later released said that the PMF or the National Security Service had detained them for periods ranging from 34 to 130 days at unofficial detention sites.

In June 2018, Human Rights Watch sent an inquiry with a list of dozens of names of disappeared people along with the approximate dates and locations where they were last seen to Haidar Ukaili, the human rights adviser to the prime minister’s Advisory Council, but never received a formal response.

“With the 2021 parliamentary elections on the horizon, time may be running out for Al-Kadhimi to use his tenure to seriously tackle Iraq’s most pressing human rights concerns,” Wille said. “Taking decisive action on enforced disappearances will allow him to develop a track record in tackling serious abuses that have plagued the country.”