No culture of rape in Iraq?
Sunni uproar over their alleged mistreatment has highlighted the tragedy of women raped in Iraq, writes Salah Nasrawi
For nearly a month now, Iraqi Sunni Arabs have been pouring into the streets across the country to protest against what they perceive as their unjust share in the country’s wealth and power and marginalisation by the Shia-led government in Baghdad.
Although Sunni demands have centred on ending what they say is their discrimination and exclusion, the tipping point for the protests, which have triggered the country’s worst political crisis in years, were allegations of the rape of Sunni women detained in Iraqi jails.
The row started on 29 November during a parliamentary debate on violence against woman when some Sunni lawmakers presented a report claiming that there had been systematic violation, torture and rape of female inmates in Iraqi jails and demanded that the Iraqi government and judiciary put an end to the abuse.
A heated parliamentary conversation later turned into fistfights, as Shia members accused their Sunni colleagues of fabricating the report and attempting to defame the Shia-led security forces.
The row later moved outside the parliament, as Sunni politicians, media and clergy demanded the release of Sunni women prisoners and the bringing of the alleged offenders to account.
Iraq’s Interior Ministry, which is responsible for the country’s police, and the Ministry of Justice, in charge of prisons, denied the accusations. The Ministry of Justice also prevented a team of lawmakers from visiting prisons to probe the allegations.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki, who scoffed at the charges, promised scrutiny of prison officials and punishment for any found guilty.
After the Sunni protests, Al-Maliki named a committee that included two key Sunni clerics to investigate the allegations. A committee member later said they couldn’t find evidence of rape inside the prisons, but he didn’t rule out that some cases could have occurred during the investigation process.
The government says there are some 1,000 women prisoners in Iraq who were lawfully arrested with legal arrest warrants issued by the judiciary. It says that many of the jailed Sunni women were charged with terrorism, such as attempts to carry out bomb attacks.
Some Shia politicians have even blamed the victims for their “increased libido” inside the prisons, suggesting that they may have seduced their interrogators and guards.
On the other hand, Iraq’s Sunni Arab politicians have attempted in the past to increase public criticism of the Shia political class as a result of what they have described as attempts to whitewash the government’s indifference towards abuses carried out by Shia security forces, charges which Shia politicians dismiss as fabrications.
There is a growing fear that both sides are trying to manipulate the public clamour over the rape cases in the political contest ahead of the local elections in April.
During Iraq’s worst period of civil strife in 2007, a Sunni woman identified by the pseudonym of Sabrin Al-Janabi, told Al-Jazeera television that four Iraqi officers had raped her over a four-hour period after accusing her of aiding insurgents.
The claim, which had the potential to drive Iraq to a full-scale sectarian war, later turned out to be untrue.
While the ongoing sectarian row has raised fears of communal tension, it has also turned the spotlight on the rape of women as a vile crime that can hinder nation-building or the establishment of a value system that reflects human rights principles and gender equality.
Under the regime of former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein, rape cases were not unusual but offenders also received harsh punishments, including the death sentence.
Nevertheless, among the shocking stories of brutalities committed during Saddam’s rule were rapes committed by his associates, including his maverick eldest son Odai.
During the US occupation of 2003-2011, Iraq struggled with stories of human rights violations in the form of physical, psychological, and sexual abuse, including torture, and reports of rape and sodomy carried out by US soldiers.
Some of these acts, committed by US military personnel or governmental contractors in Abu Ghraib prison, came to public attention. On 12 March 2006, a 14-year-old Iraqi girl was gang-raped and killed by US army soldiers in Al-Mahmoudiya, a town south of Baghdad.
The soldiers also murdered her entire family and burned their house. Five soldiers were charged with the crimes.
There were also several cases of the reported rapes of US female soldiers by their colleagues in Iraq. While most of these cases were hushed up, US army reserve staff Sergeant Sandra Lee, raped twice while serving in Iraq, shared her story in interviews with several US media.
Beyond this handful of publicised cases, there is also ample anecdotal evidence that Iraqi and American troops raped women and men during the period when Iraq was under US occupation.
Reports have said that the Iraqi authorities that took over power after the Americans left the country continued the same policies as the US occupiers. Some of these reports have suggested that the Iraqi authorities have used the same excuses and tactics as the United States in order to evade their responsibilities.
Publicised rape cases and growing fears among many Iraqis of such a mentality and culture of impunity back up such a conclusion.
Last year, there were several cases of rape that made the headlines because of their brutality. In Basra, a four-year-old girl, Banin Haider, was raped and murdered. A few weeks later, a five-year-old girl, Abeer Ali, was also raped and murdered in Thiqar north of Basra.
A soldier was later arrested in connection with Banin’s murder. He was later tried and found guilty and sentenced to death for abusing and killing the child.
A few days before the latest controversy started, the governor of Nineveh, Atheel Al-Nujaifi, revealed that an underaged girl had been raped by an army officer in the outskirts of Mosul, the provincial capital.
He said that the army had refused to hand the officer over to the local police for investigation and warned of discontent in the province.
These rape crimes by sometimes off-duty soldiers, such as in Banin’s case, and reports of rampant corruption in the security forces, have led many Iraqis to worry about what might be happening inside the country’s prisons.
Regardless of the sectarian brawl in Iraq, the news of women being raped in prison is alarming. Many Iraqis believe that these are not isolated incidents, and that they could be related to a culture of indiscipline among the highly unprofessional security forces.
During the Sunni protests and in broadcasts on Sunni-run television stations, activists have given horrible accounts of the rape of female inmates held in secret prisons. Among the secret prisons named was the Al-Muthanna Airport Prison.
In their 2011 reports on Iraq, the international NGOs Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch stated that the Al-Muthanna Prison, a disused airport, was reportedly controlled by the office of Al-Maliki, a charge denied by his office.
Remarkably, there has been no independent inquiry into the allegations of rape in Iraqi prisons, indicating insensitivity and inaction on the part of the government. Neither the United Nations nor respected human rights groups have indicated they are taking any action to probe these accusations.
In a country where violence is the norm and sentiments can be superheated, there are concerns that the abuse of women and even rape could be overlooked as only the temporary side-effects or unsettling consequences of the political climate.
Rape may not be endemic or a cultural phenomena in Iraq, but the rhetoric triggered by the Sunni accusations should be a wake-up call for the Iraqi authorities, civil society and the religious establishment to launch a national debate about violence against women, causing the state to take the necessary measures to stop such heinous abuses.