07/11/2014 02:24 pm ET Updated Sep 10, 2014

Iraq: Campaign of Mass Murders of Sunni Prisoners

(Baghdad) – Iraqi security forces and militias affiliated with the government appear to have unlawfully executed at least 255 prisoners in six Iraqi cities and villages since June 9, 2014. In all but one case, the executions took place while the fighters were fleeing Islamic State of Iraq and Sham (ISIS) and other armed groups. The vast majority of security forces and militias are Shia, while the murdered prisoners were Sunni. At least eight of those killed were boys under age 18.

The mass extrajudicial killings may be evidence of war crimes or crimes against humanity, and appear to be revenge killings for atrocities by ISIS, a Sunni extremist group that in the past month has captured large areas from the Shia-led central government. ISIS, which on June 30 changed its name to Islamic State, summarily executed scores of captured soldiers, Shia militiamen, and Shia religious minorities in areas it controls.

“Gunning down prisoners is an outrageous violation of international law,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “While the world rightly denounces the atrocious acts of ISIS, it should not turn a blind eye to sectarian killing sprees by government and pro-government forces.”

An international commission of inquiry or a similar mechanism should investigate serious violations of the laws of war and international human rights law by all sides in the Iraq conflict, including by government forces, pro-government militias, and ISIS and associated forces, Human Rights Watch said. The inquiry should be mandated to establish the facts, and identify those responsible for serious violations with a view to ensuring that they are held accountable. The inquiry should collect and conserve information related to abuses for future use by judicial institutions.

Human Rights Watch documented five massacres of prisoners between June 9 and 21 – in Mosul and Tal Afar in northern Nineveh province, in Baaquba and Jumarkhe in eastern Diyala province, and in Rawa in western Anbar province. In each attack, statements by witnesses, security forces and government officials indicate that Iraqi soldiers or police, pro-government Shia militias, or combinations of the three extrajudicially executed the prisoners, in nearly all cases by shooting them. In one case the killers also set dozens of prisoners on fire, and in two cases they threw grenades into cells.

More than a dozen residents and activists in the attack areas told Human Rights Watch they believed that as ISIS began freeing Sunni prisoners elsewhere as it advanced south, Iraqi security forces and militia killed the prisoners to prevent them from joining the rebellion, as well as to avenge ISIS killings of captive government troops. The murder of detainees during armed conflict is a war crime and, if carried out on a large scale or in a systematic manner, as a state policy, it would be a crime against humanity.

Iraq's government has in the past denied allegations that it summarily executed prisoners. The Defense and Interior Ministries did not reply to requests for comment from Human Rights Watch on the five cases it documented.

Human Rights Watch interviewed more than 35 people in person or by telephone about the five attacks. They included witnesses and relatives of those killed, security and other government officials, and local activists. Many had fled their homes and spoke on condition of anonymity, fearing reprisals by government forces. Human Rights Watch also reviewed video footage, still photos and media reports of the killings.

Reuters news agency, quoting police sources, reported that in a sixth attack, on June 23 in central Babil province, police executed 69 prisoners in their cells in the city of Hilla before transferring their bodies to Baghdad later that day.

The government has been fighting Sunni armed groups in Anbar since January 1. ISIS and other Sunni armed groups captured Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city and capital of Nineveh province, on June 10, then moved through other areas across Iraq.

The majority of prisoners killed in the five attacks had been rounded up under article 4 of Iraq’s anti-terrorism law, but had not been charged with any crime. Some had been imprisoned for months, while others were detained shortly after ISIS began its takeover of Mosul on June 9.

In the first attack, on the night of June 9, prison guards removed 15 Sunni prisoners from their cells at the Counterterrorism and Organized Crime prison, in the heart of Mosul, a former prisoner told CNN. The prisoner later told Human Rights Watch that the men were Sunnis from the minority Turkmen community. Amnesty International quoted a second prisoner as saying the guards removed 13 prisoners and that he then heard gunfire. A short time later, both prisoners said, a prison guard threw a hand grenade into one cell. The prisoner who spoke with Amnesty said six prisoners were killed in the grenade attack.

Two days later, Mosul residents discovered 15 decomposing bodies of men who had been shot, and in some cases handcuffed or blindfolded, near an abandoned potato warehouse in Mosul, two residents and the prisoner who spoke with Human Rights Watch said. That prisoner said he went to the site and recognized two fellow prisoners who had been among the 15 men led away by the prison guards.

In one of the following attacks, on June 16 in Tal Afar, 50 kilometers west of Mosul, three or four gunmen whom witnesses said were Shia militiamen opened fire with assault rifles and other weapons in four cells of that city’s Counterterrorism and Organized Crime prison. Witnesses, local government officials, and local civil society activists told Human Rights Watch that the attack killed at least 51 prisoners. The attack took place before dawn, as ISIS was poised to capture Tal Afar, and the dead included three teenage boys, they said.

The counterterrorism prison in Tal Afar is a branch of the counterterrorism prison in Mosul, a local government official said. Both were under the control of the Interior Ministry, whose acting head is Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki.

That same night, according to police and government sources, 43 detainees were killed inside the al-Wahda police station, near Baaquba, the capital of Diyala province, 50 kilometers northeast of Baghdad. Police sources told Human Rights Watch that the prisoners died in crossfire during an ISIS attack on the prison, but other local civil government officials said that prison guards and Shia militiamen killed the prisoners.

A medical worker at Baaquba general hospital, where first responders took the dead prisoners, told Human Rights Watch that he saw the 43 bodies. All were shot in the head execution-style and their limbs were broken, he said. Another detainee, Ahmed Zeidan, the only known survivor, died the next day an hour after police took him from the hospital where he was being treated.

The medical worker said the police came for Zeidan shortly after he told the Diyala governor, Amer al-Mujamaii, from his hospital bed that prison guards and Shia militiamen carried out the attack. When the police returned Zeidan, the medical worker said, he was dead. The medical worker said he saw bullet wounds in Zeidan’s stomach and legs, which had not been there before he had been taken away from the hospital.

On the morning of June 17, pro-government Shia militiamen killed at least 43 male prisoners inside an army base in the village of Jumarkhe, also in Diyala. At least three were boys, said a man who saw the bodies and a soldier from the base. All were Sunnis whom Iraqi forces had rounded up a week to 10 days earlier from Jumarkhe and surrounding villages, and all had been burned to death or shot, they said.

In Rawa, on June 21, soldiers from the al-Jazeera and Badiyya operations command, which oversees the Iraqi government’s military operations in Anbar province, killed 25 prisoners and injured three others whom they were holding in their military base, according to a Rawa resident who found the bodies in the prison a short while later and spoke to the three survivors. The survivors told him police killed the prisoners, he said, and two were boys ages 12 and 16.

Two days later, on June 23, 69 prisoners were killed in Hilla, according to figures police sources gave to Reuters. Hilla’s governor told Reuters that the prisoners were killed as police were transporting them from a prison in Hilla to another prison in Baghdad when armed opposition militants attacked the convoy. But police sources told Reuters that police extrajudicially executed the men in their Hilla prison cells.

Human Rights Watch spoke to 16 residents, two local human rights activists and 10 local government officials. Those with knowledge of each episode said that militia from the Badr brigade, headed by Transport Minister Hadi al-Ameri, were involved in the attacks on the prisoners in Tal Afar and Jumarkhe, and that Asa’ib Ahl al-Haqq, a powerful pro-government Shia militia active in Baghdad, areas around the capitol, and Diyala, also carried out the killings in Jumarkhe and facilitated the police in the prisoner killings in Baaquba.

An international inquiry into violations of the laws of war and international human rights law by all sides in the Iraq conflict investigation should include examining whether security forces, working with pro-government militias, have pre-emptively killed prisoners. The United States and other countries engaged in Iraq should halt military assistance to the Maliki government until it takes concrete steps to halt crimes like killing prisoners, Human Rights Watch said.

Maliki also needs to remove and prosecute all commanders involved in these slaughters, Human Rights Watch said. Killing prisoners, even those who were combatants, is a war crime.

“In each case that Human Rights Watch investigated, the accounts we heard point directly to Iraqi security forces and pro-government militia slaughtering captive men in large numbers as ISIS and allied fighters were poised to seize the area,” Stork said. “This isn’t one rogue commander on the loose – this seems to be a widespread campaign of killing Sunni prisoners in cold blood.”

We heard something strange just outside the door. Then the gunmen opened the small windows in the doors and the doors themselves, and right away they began shooting. I hid behind another prisoner but I was still shot in my upper arm and thigh. I can't describe to you those next three to four hours. I just lay there with those dead bodies around me. One of those dead bodies was my brother.

~ A 14-year-old survivor who was imprisoned with his 15-year-old brother describing the gunmen entering their cell, containing between 16 and 19 inmates.

More testimony from the attacks >>