The woman held at an Iraqi death row facility arrived for a meeting with a human rights group last year on crutches, the result, she said, of nine days of beatings and electric shocks.
Seven months later,
The woman's account was one of many disturbing cases outlined in a 105-page report on abuses of women and girls in the Iraqi criminal justice system two years after the departure of U.S. forces.
"Iraqi security forces and officials act as if brutally abusing women will make the country safer," said Joe Stork, the New York-based group's Middle East and North Africa deputy director, in a statement. "In fact, these women and their relatives have told us that as long as security forces abuse people with impunity, we can only expect security conditions to worsen."
The report is the latest indictment of a justice system long beset by allegations of corruption and torture.
Iraqi authorities say that abuse of female detainees happens only in exceptional cases, the report says. Officials have said they are initiating reforms to combat such problems, which they blame on the security challenges facing the country, a lack of institutional capacity and the legacy of Saddam Hussein's brutal rule. But human rights advocates say abuses are common at all levels of the Iraqi security forces.
Many of the 27 women who spoke with Human Rights Watch between December 2012 and April 2013 described being hung upside down and beaten on their feet, burned with cigarettes, given electric shocks, raped or threatened with sexual assault by security forces, the report says. More than 10 showed the rights group scars that appeared consistent with the abuse they described.
A journalist accused of being married to an
"There was blood all over me," she was quoted as saying. "He would relax, have a cigarette and put it out on my buttock, and then started again."
The vast majority of the more than 4,200 women detained in Interior and Defense Ministry facilities are Sunni Muslims, according to figures provided by the prime minister's office. But women of all sects are subjected to the abuses documented in the report, Human Rights Watch said.
The group found that women are detained not only for crimes they are said to have committed, but also to harass male family or tribe members, a practice that amounts to collective punishment for alleged terrorist activities, Human Rights Watch said.
Some are held for months or even years after judges have ordered their release, the report says. Even if they are freed unharmed, they are frequently stigmatized by their families and communities, because they are perceived to have been dishonored, it says.
The arrests and convictions reviewed by Human Rights Watch were often based on information provided by secret informants and confessions coerced under torture, the group said. Women described being forced to sign statements they were not allowed to read. Most did not have access to a lawyer, the group said.
The death row inmate, identified in the report by an alias, Israa Salah, told Human Rights Watch that she was detained with four relatives during a raid by U.S. and Iraqi forces in Baghdad in January 2010.
She was taken to the Iraqi Interior Ministry's Criminal Investigations Department, where, she said, she was tortured. She showed the scars to a Human Rights Watch researcher. She said officers then told her they were holding her teenage daughter in solitary confinement at the same facility and would rape her if she did not confess.
"They knew everything about her: how she was dressed, who her friends were, and they showed me pictures of her," Salah was quoted as saying.
She said she signed and fingerprinted a blank piece of paper and did not know what she had confessed to until a lawyer told her she was accused of blowing up a house and other attacks. She was executed with 41 men in September 2013, one of several mass executions that year, the report says.
Stork argues that such treatment is "at the heart of the current crisis in Iraq," causing deep distrust and anger between Iraq's diverse communities and the security forces. As fighting raged last month in Anbar province between Sunni insurgents and security forces, residents expressed frustration to Human Rights Watch over the Shiite-led government's failure to carry out promised reforms.
"We don't know who we fear more, Al Qaeda or SWAT," one resident in Fallouja was quoted as saying, referring to a special forces unit that carries out counter-terrorism operations. "Why would we help them fight Al Qaeda when they'll just come for us as soon as they're done with them?"