Updated 11 June 2018
At least 643 men and boys from Saqlawiya in the Anbar governorate in Iraq, remain missing after they were abducted by Popular Mobilization Unit (PMU) militias in June 2016. The abductions happened during military operations to retake Fallujah and surrounding areas from the control of the armed group calling itself the Islamic State (IS). Their families have lived in agony ever since, uncertain whether or not their loved ones are safe – or even still alive.
According to testimonies gathered by Amnesty International from former abductees, witnesses and relatives of those forcibly disappeared, thousands of men, women and children fleeing from the area of Saqlawiya on the morning of 3 June 2016 were met by armed individuals carrying machine guns and assault rifles. Witnesses identified the armed men as members of the PMU, based on emblems on their uniforms and flags.
The armed men separated women and younger children from an estimated 1,300 men and older boys considered to be of fighting age. They took these men and boys to buildings, garages and abandoned shops in the nearby area, confiscating their identity documents, phones, rings and other valuables. Later, armed men bound their hands behind their backs, in most cases using plastic cuffs.
At sunset, several buses arrived and, together with a large truck already stationed there, transported a portion of the detainees. The fate of the men and boys who boarded these vehicles remains unknown.
The remaining men were transported in groups during the night to a place survivors described as the “yellow house” (al-beit al-asfar) where they endured torture and other ill-treatment and were deprived of food, water and the use of sanitation facilities. Survivors described being beaten all over their bodies and heads with metal cables, metal pipes, shovels, wooden sticks, and witnessing other detainees dying as a result of torture in front of them as well as seeing others being taken away at night without returning.
My brothers were taken away in the first transports… I try to be strong for their families and tell them not to lose hope and keep praying, but I am afraid, especially after what happened to us in the ‘yellow house’. People died from beatings; others were shot; and some died from thirst.A farmer from Saqlawiya who survived the yellow house
Iraqi authorities set up two committees:
1- The Office of Iraq’s Prime Minister, Haider al-Abadi, set up a committee on 5 June 2016 to investigate disappearances and abuses committed in the context of military operations to retake Fallujah.
2- Separately, the local government of Anbar set up an investigation committee which on 11 June 2016 published findings which stated that 643 internally displaced men and boys from the area of Saqlawiya are missing. The committee presented its findings to Iraq’s Prime Minister for further investigation and action.
So Amnesty said:
In a report published on 18 October 2016, Amnesty International expressed its concern that the government did not take any measures to protect victims and witnesses, particularly as committee members included security bodies possibly implicated in violations. As a result, some witnesses might have been reluctant to come forward with their testimonies out of fear for their safety.
On 16 June 2016 and 21 September, Amnesty International addressed a memorandum to the Prime Minister’s Office requesting information about steps taken to investigate alleged abuses committed in the context of military operations launched on 23 May to retake Fallujah and surrounding areas.
Amnesty International has repeatedly called on the Iraqi authorities to:
- Reveal the fate and whereabouts of those who had been forcibly disappeared by the PMU and Iraqi security forces
- Ensure investigations into these allegations of torture, enforced disappearances, abduction and killings are thorough, impartial and independent
- Publicly disclose the findings of the committee established by the Prime Minister and hold perpetrators to account, regardless of rank and affiliation.
- At the highest level of the state, publicly acknowledge and condemn the scale and gravity of war crimes and other human rights abuses committed during the Fallujah operations
…But to no avail.
Amnesty International, to date, has not received any responses from the Iraq authorities.
It remains unclear whether the findings of the committee set up by the Office of the Prime Minister were ever made public or shared with judicial authorities.
In late May 2017, Amnesty International researchers were in touch with families in camps for internally displaced people (IDPs) in Anbar governorate who stated that they still have heard nothing about the fate of their loved ones, nor have they been approached by any representatives of Iraq’s central government since last year.
An internally displaced man whose 26-year-old brother, Ibrahim Hameed Hussein and two cousins, aged 24 and 31, remain missing told Amnesty International his family had heard nothing about their fates: “Just let him come home to his children. We ask for nothing else.”
A representative of the local government of the Anbar governorate informed Amnesty International that families of the disappeared men have faced administrative obstacles when attempting to report their loved ones as missing in local courts.
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The enforced disappearance of hundreds of men in Saqlawiya in June 2016 are not isolated incidents. Since the emergence of IS and other armed groups, including al-Qa’ida, in Iraq, thousands of Sunni men and boys have been subjected to enforced disappearance by Iraqi security forces and state-backed militias against the backdrop of ongoing armed conflict, insecurity and rising sectarian tensions.
The crime of enforced disappearance not only affects the primary victims – who are cut off from the outside world and made vulnerable to a series of other abuses including torture and possibly murder – but also their relatives, who live in the agony of not knowing the fate of their loved ones for months or even years. Amnesty International has documented how relatives spare no efforts to uncover any information about the disappeared in Iraq. They approach security bodies; file complaints and missing person’s reports with the police and courts; pay exorbitant sums to intermediaries with links to militias or government officials; inquire at prisons, other detention facilities and hospitals and morgues; approach human rights and humanitarian organizations; and show pictures of their disappeared relatives to released detainees in the hope that they can identify them. In Iraq, family members’ desperate searches have been met only with government indifference and inaction.
Amnesty International has documented dozens of enforced disappearances since 2014 in the governorates of Anbar, Baghdad, Diyala and Salah al-Din. On 21 September 2016, the organisation sent details of 105 individual cases of enforced disappearance which took place between September 2012 and August 2016 to Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, calling on him to ensure that prompt, independent and impartial investigations are carried out with a view to establishing the fate and whereabouts of the disappeared and bringing those suspected of criminal responsibility to justice in fair trials.
Previous government investigations into serious violations committed by the PMU also failed to provide remedy and reparation for victims. For instance, results of announced investigations into the unlawful killings and other abuses by the PMU in Barwana village and Muqdadiya city in Diyala governorate that took place on 26 January 2015 and on 11 January 2016 respectively have neither been made public nor held any members of PMU accountable, to the best knowledge of Amnesty International.