French woman Djamila Boutoutaou attends her trial in Baghdad in April. She was sentenced to life in jail for membership in ISIS. Photo: Ammar Karim/AFP
ERBIL, Kurdistan Region – Lawyers face the risk of threats or arrest by Iraqi security officers for providing legal representation to ISIS suspects and alleged families of militants, according to a report from Human Rights Watch (HRW).
"The Iraqi government is attacking lawyers for doing their job and is effectively preventing people who need legal services from getting them," said Lama Fakih, deputy Middle East director at HRW, in a report released Wednesday.
Some lawyers providing legal services to ISIS suspects and families say they fear for their lives due to arrests and threats received by security forces.
"In addition to being illegal, these attacks have a corrosive effect on the rule of law by sending a message that only some Iraqis have the right to legal representation," said Fakih.
HRW interviewed 17 lawyers living in and around Mosul in July and August of 2018. Every lawyer interviewed said they had experienced threats first hand and/or had witnessed abuses such as verbal harassment by the National Security Service or the Ministry of Interior Intelligence and Counter Terrorism officers.
One lawyer was detained for two hours by an Interior Ministry officer while two others were detained for two months before they were finally released, without charges.
The head of one organization which provides legal services to women and children held on terror charges said that three different lawyers quit their jobs, saying the work was too dangerous after receiving threats.
Lawyers in Mosul were advised by the deputy head of the National Security Service not to represent terror suspects.
When one lawyer responded that some of them might be innocent, the deputy head replied, "It doesn't matter."
Some of the lawyers ignored the warnings and continued providing legal services, only to later be approached by court security officers asking if the lawyers were themselves "ISIS members."
Between July 2017 and August 2018, Iraqi authorities issued arrest warrants for 15 lawyers, all of whom were representing ISIS suspects, according to HRW.
Five lawyers being held in Mosul are facing terror charges.
The lawyers believe it was an act of intimidation.
One senior judge told HRW that after the arrest warrants were issued, lawyers began refraining from providing representation to ISIS suspects or families.
This leaves them at the mercy of state-appointed lawyers, who fail to provide adequate legal representation, according to the rights watchdog that witnessed state-appointed lawyers not speaking up for their clients during legal proceedings.
"The authorities should immediately explain why they are detaining and charging these lawyers," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at HRW. "They need to make it clear that Iraqi lawyers should not be afraid to defend ISIS suspects."
International law guarantees anyone accused of committing crimes to have access to legal representation of their choice.
"Now that Iraq says it has turned a corner, with an end to the war against ISIS, the authorities should make every effort to ensure that they respect and protect all its citizens' basic rights," deputy director of HRW, Fakih said. "The Iraqi government should not be carrying out collective punishment."