Iraq: Authorities must act to reveal fate of 643 men and boys abducted by government-linked militias

The Iraqi authorities must take concrete action towards revealing the fate and whereabouts of at least 643 men and boys who were forcibly disappeared in June 2016 by the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) in the context of military operations to retake Fallujah from the so-called Islamic State, Amnesty International said, marking seven years since the men and boys were abducted.

The PMU are comprised of large, well-established militia groups and are legally considered part of the Iraqi Armed Forces.

“It has been seven years since then-Prime Minister Haidar Abadi formed a committee to investigate those disappearances and other abuses committed by the PMU during the Fallujah operations. But so far, the committee has not made any of its findings public and no one has been held accountable,” said Aya Majzoub, Amnesty International’s Deputy Director for the Middle East and North Africa.

“The victims of enforced disappearances are not only those who are missing, but also their families and loved ones who continue to live in agony not knowing the fate of their loved ones. Multiple governments have failed to provide these families with the answers that they deserve and with reparations.

In order to end the reign of impunity in Iraq, the government must make the findings of the investigative committee public, ensure that any information on the fate or whereabouts of the missing men and boys is disclosed to their families, and that evidence is shared with judicial authorities so that perpetrators can be brought to justice in fair trials without recourse to the death penalty.”

“To this day, we don’t know anything about them”

In early June 2016, thousands of men, women and children fleeing the area of Saqlawiya in Anbar Province were met by armed individuals carrying machine guns and assault rifles. They were identified by witnesses as members of the PMU, based on emblems on their uniforms and flags.

As detailed in a 2016 Amnesty International investigation, the armed men put some of the captured men and boys onto buses and a large truck. The fate of those who were driven away in these vehicles remains unknown. Despite multiple attempts by the families of the disappeared over the years to press the authorities for investigations, they have not been given answers.

One woman, who was among those captured by the PMU on 3 June 2016, told Amnesty International that at least six other members of her family were abducted. Her husband and one of her brothers remain missing. She said: “There is no bigger of a disaster than losing someone dear to you. We lost our loved ones, husbands, uncles, fathers. Everyone left. I don’t remember anything other than sadness.”

She was released on the same day of her abduction and four of her brothers were released three days later. She said that her brothers were tortured day and night and that they witnessed the PMU burying people alive and heard the sounds of people being tortured.

Another woman whose loved ones were abducted by armed men in PMU vehicles on 2 June 2016 told Amnesty International that 15 members of her family, including her husband, brother and son, remain missing. Despite her efforts, the authorities have not taken action nor provided the family any redress.

“We were living a happy life… If they could hear me, I would tell them enough of being gone. We are tired. We need you, because life is not worth it without you. Your children need you and they ask about you. If only you could return… I am prepared to forget everything and forget all the pain and start life over again and we live happily, if only.”

According to the UN Committee on Enforced Disappearances, Iraq has an estimated range of 250,000 to 1 million missing persons since 1968, making it one of the countries with the highest number of missing persons worldwide.

Authorities fail to take concrete action to investigate disappearances

On 5 June 2016, the office of then-Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi set up a committee to investigate disappearances and other violations committed in the context of military operations to retake Fallujah, including by the PMU. He also tasked the local government of Anbar with setting up a separate investigative committee, which on 11 June 2016 published findings that it sent to the Prime Minister, revealing that 643 men and boys from the area of Saqlawiya were missing. Families of the disappeared claim that the actual number is higher.

Since that date, it is unclear what steps the committee set up by the former Prime Minister has taken to effectively investigate the disappearances, and it has failed to publicly report on any findings. Rights groups and families told Amnesty International that the authorities have not communicated any outcome to the families of the disappeared. To this date, the Iraqi authorities have been silent as to the action they have taken to address and investigate these violations and provide justice and redress to victims.

Since 2016, Amnesty International has repeatedly requested information regarding this investigation, including in letters addressed to the Prime Minister’s Office and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs on 19 May 2023. To this day, Amnesty International has not received a substantive response detailing the fate and whereabouts of the disappeared.

On 4 April 2023, the UN Committee on Enforced Disappearances issued a report following its visit to Iraq in November 2022. It urged Iraq to “immediately include enforced disappearances as a separate offence”. It also called upon Iraq to “establish a comprehensive search and investigation strategy for all cases of disappearances, and to strengthen and enlarge the national forensic capacity to ensure that all victims have access to exhumation processes and forensic services”.

An obligation to criminalize enforced disappearances

Enforced disappearance is currently not a crime under Iraqi law and therefore cannot be prosecuted as a distinct offence. As a state party to the International Convention for the Protection of all Persons against Enforced Disappearance, Iraq has an obligation to criminalize enforced disappearances, investigate, bring perpetrators to justice, and ensure reparation for victims.

Al Haq Foundation for Human Rights, an independent civil society organization based in Baghdad, told Amnesty International: “The failure to legislate a law to protect persons from enforced disappearance is an indication of the failure to put an end to cases of enforced disappearance. Our organization continues its efforts to support the voices of the victims and their families to together reveal the truth about the fate of thousands.”

Amnesty International calls on the authorities to provide redress and reparation, including compensation and rehabilitation, for the families of those disappeared in June 2016 and to pass effective legislation criminalizing enforced disappearances in accordance with international law.