Cramped conditions in Iraqi prisons have caused concern among rights groups for years [File: Bram Janssen/AP Photo]
An international human rights monitor slammed Iraq’s prison authorities for detaining several thousand men, women and children in overcrowded and “degrading” conditions.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) said on Thursday it acquired photographs from Tal Keif prison in northeastern Nineveh province that suggested it, along with the nearby Tasfirat facility, did not meet basic international standards.
One photograph depicted dozens of teenage boys packed into a juvenile detention centre, some in foetal positions. The floor was not visible amid the sea of limbs.
Another showed a room full of women and gaunt toddlers, with clothes and plastic homeware goods hanging from walls.
“Two years ago, we documented deaths in custody simply because of overcrowding,” HRW Iraq researcher Belkis Wille told the AFP news agency.
“To see these kinds of conditions persist means the prison population is still under threat. It’s incredibly frustrating,” she said.
According to HRW, Tal Keif, Tasfirat and Faisaliyah were holding about 4,500 people – nearly double their combined capacity of 2,500.
Most of the people are being held on “terrorism” charges.
Nearly one-third of detainees had already been convicted and should have been transferred from the three northern prisons to the capital, Baghdad. Some were supposed to have moved as long as six months ago.
Legal advocates have no access to their clients partly because the prisons have no space for meetings, according to a senior Iraqi penitentiary expert who visited the prisons and provided HRW with the photographs.
Iraq declared victory over the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant group (ISIS or ISIL) in late 2017, and has continued to carry out arrests of suspected fighters, including in Nineveh province and its capital, Mosul – once ISIL’s main Iraqi bastion.
The Iraqi government does not provide figures on detention centres or prisoners, but some studies have estimated 20,000 are being held for alleged ISIL links.
The country’s prison system has long been fiercely criticised for its abysmal conditions, with security forces accused of torturing prisoners to extract confessions.
Such abuse could lead to the radicalisation of vulnerable prisoners, analysts warn.
“The authorities should ensure that the conditions in Iraq’s prisons do not foster more grievances in the future,” HRW Acting Regional Director for the Middle East Lama Fakih said.
The New York-based group urged Iraq to improve prison conditions to meet international standards and guarantee due process for detainees.