In Iraq, More than 200 Civilians Arrested Daily

Mustafa Habib

Baghdad — Official Iraqi statistics tell a worrying tale. They indicate that thousands of civilians are arrested and detained every month by a wide variety of security organisations for no good reason.
One can come by these numbers by following the statistics published between January 2015 and October 2016 in the digital archive of Iraq’s Federal Judiciary Authority, the body that oversees Iraq’s courts. The news releases issued by the Judicial Authority are meant to be a record of courts’ work but, when the numbers are added up, the statistics tell a more controversial story.
The releases indicate that the majority of detainees were released because the cases against them were found insubstantial. For most, the cases were thrown out before trial. Some were found not guilty in their trials.
While the numbers of those released are published, the releases do not always detail what the detainees were charged with and whether those charges were criminal or related to terrorism. Nor do they tell how long the released Iraqis awaited for that decision — whether they were detained for days or years.
Meanwhile, the various security forces involved — including the army, the police and Iraqi intelligence — do not publish the number of arrests they have made.
In 2016, through October, 67,749 detainees were released from prisons after they were found not guilty or had been wrongfully detained. Among these were 8,810 accused of terrorist acts. That averages out to 6,775 wrongfully imprisoned locals per month — 223 per day.
In 2015, there were 88,297 detainees released, indicating slightly more wrongful arrests per month and per day: 7,358 and 243, respectively.
June and May of 2016 saw the most detainees released, with close to 11,000 Iraqis discharged each month. It is highly likely that the large number of arrests and releases coincided with the Iraqi military’s campaign against the Islamic State (ISIS) in Anbar province that began at the end of May and ended around mid-June.
It is obviously difficult to compare Iraq’s catch-and-release statistics with other countries’ rates of incarceration, as clearly the Iraqi situation is very different from that of the United Kingdom or the United States.
However, given the lack of Iraqi numbers of arrests, a snapshot may be instructive: For example, British prison reformers point out that in 2015, 10,897 citizens remanded in custody — held in prison while awaiting trial — were subsequently acquitted. Statistics from previous years show that, on average, about 12,000 locals were held in remand in Britain before being eventually released.
In the United States about “20% of detainees [who were in pretrial detention] eventually had their case dismissed or were acquitted”, according to the Americas Quarterly, a magazine focused on the Western Hemisphere. The study was based on US Justice Department figures from 1990-2004 and that percentage would add up to about 96,000 prisoner releases annually.
If both the British and US figures are adjusted for population — both countries have many more people than Iraq, with Britain about double and the United States about ten times more — the annual number of those wrongfully arrested and detained in Iraq looks worse. It would appear to indicate that there is a genuine problem in the way that Iraq’s security forces investigate offences.
To try to prevent violence, there are many random detentions taking place in Iraq. In fact, so many random detentions may be doing more harm than good, in that they disrupt the civilian peace and increase conflict between different political forces. Sunni Muslim politicians accuse the security forces of sectarian bias while Shia Muslim politicians criticise those in Sunni-majority provinces of supporting extremists.
These are not the only unwarranted or illegal detentions taking place, some Sunni Muslim critics say. They complain that the Shia Muslim volunteer militias, who recently became a legitimate security force in Iraq, have unofficial prisons too, where they hold their enemies illegally. The heads of the militias deny this.
Ahmed al-Salmani, a member of parliament from Anbar province, has focused on issues pertaining to detainees. An estimated 3,000 residents in Anbar were detained by fighters from Shia Muslim volunteer militias. This includes about 2,000 from the Razazah area south of Ramadi in October 2015. Nothing has been heard from these locals since their disappearance.
In August, Iraq’s parliament passed what is known as the general amnesty law. It was supposed to facilitate the release of thousands of Iraqis imprisoned on what many believe to be a political basis and was aimed at calming sectarian tensions in the country.
The law would encourage amnesty for as many as 36,000 detainees. However, looking at the numbers on the Judicial Authority website, that starts to feel like too little, too late.
To encourage a respect for the rule of law and to avoid accusations of sectarian or political bias, it may be better to begin with a reform of the policy of random and apparently unwarranted detentions.
Mustafa Habib
writes for, which originally published this article.
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