A rights group is warning that militias within the Iraqi military are holding men fleeing Mosul in unidentified detention centers where they are cut off from contact with the outside world.
In a report published Thursday, Human Rights Watch warns of a heightened risk of abuse of detainees who, after an initial screening by militias with the Shi'ite Popular Mobilization Forces (known as Hashd al-Sha'abi), are being held incommunicado and with no details being provided to their families about their location or why they are being held.
"In case after case, relatives are telling us that their male family members are being stopped by PMF fighters and disappearing," said Lama Fakih, the rights group's deputy Middle East director. "While we cannot know exactly what has happened to the men detained, the lack of transparency, particularly for their families as to their whereabouts, is cause for real concern."
PMF media spokesmen did not respond to a VOA request for comment on the HRW report.
Families who fled eastern Mosul and passed through a processing site two kilometers south of the city told HRW researchers a similar story — that they went through a screening process overnight and that men and boys over 15 years of age were separated from the women and other children. The military checked each of those males’ IDs against lists of people wanted by various Iraqi authorities for suspected affiliation with the Islamic State terror group. Two families said that at least eight men screened with them were detained after the ID check.
But families also said they saw PMF fighters there, distinguishable by their badges.
And on January 10, a soldier from Iraq's 9th division working at another screening site told HRW researchers that he had been stationed there for several weeks and that every night, PMF fighters from the area would arrive and seize men who were not included on the government's wanted lists.
Rights researchers also interviewed families from the village of Nzara, 40 kilometers west of Mosul, who said that more than 100 fighters with the PMF's Badr militia had taken 260 families to a town 25 kilometers away for 15 days in November 2016, then sent them on to refugee camps. But five men who had left the village to sell their sheep never returned and later were seen presented on a local Iraqi television channel associated with the Badr group as captured jihadists.
The men's families have tried to locate the detained men through negotiations led by tribal leaders, but to no avail.
Another man who had left to sell his sheep described being attacked and detained by PMF fighters and eventually reunited with his family, but three men who had been with him in the car have yet to reappear.
‘Vanishing into the night’
PMF militias do not have an official mandate to carry out screenings. In addition, Human Rights Watch says that as far as it has been able to determine, PMF groups have not been trained to carry out screening, raising concerns about possible ill-treatment.
"Iraqi authorities should only allow bodies with a screening mandate to screen people and ensure that anyone detained is held in a recognized detention center accessible to independent monitors and granted their due process rights enshrined in international and Iraqi law," said Human Rights Watch.
Iraqi law requires that authorities bring detainees before an investigative judge within 48 hours of their detention.
"Some men appear to be vanishing into the night even after official screenings by Iraqi security forces confirmed they were not on their wanted lists," Fakih said. "It is crucial for the authorities to take all measures to ensure that their whereabouts are known and the scale of detention is documented."
About 40 Iran-influenced militias make up the Popular Mobilization Forces. Shi'ite politicians led by former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, whose sectarian policies are blamed by some for the rise of the Islamic State group, have pushed for PMF fighters to be deployed inside Mosul in the battle to oust the jihadists from the city.
The Shi'ite militias are concentrated mainly to the west of the city, and Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi pledged before the campaign to retake Mosul was launched that they would not be used in the fighting inside Sunni Arab city.
In late November, al-Abadi's supporters in Iraq's parliament voted to put the PMF on the government payroll and incorporate the militias in the national armed forces, ostensibly subordinated to the Iraqi military hierarchy.
Rights groups have accused the PMF in the past of atrocities, torture and forced displacements of Sunnis.
Report: Young boys tortured
Human Rights Watch's report on the detention of Sunni males fleeing Mosul comes just days after the rights group accused the Asayish, the Kurdistan Regional Government's security forces, of detaining boys as young as 11 years old and torturing them in an effort to get them to confess to being Islamic State members.
More than 180 Iraqi boys, most of them Sunni Arabs who had lived in Islamic State-held areas, are being held by the Asayish in two KRG juvenile detention centers, according to HRW.
"These children were victimized twice — first by the Islamic State, which they said was constantly trying to enlist them as fighters, and then by members of Asayish," said HRW's Letta Tayler, who interviewed some of the detained boys. "While we can't speak to the guilt or innocence of these boys, we have no doubt they have been severely traumatized."
KRG officials have denied their security forces have subjected any detained children to abuse.
"KRG authorities have established policies against acts of torture, which strongly prohibits physical and psychological torture of inmates," said Dindar Zebari, head of a KRG committee tasked with evaluating international reports.
"The use of torture and physical punishment against prisoners including boys ages 11-17 is strictly prohibited. In Kurdistan region the rights of detainees are protected by the existing amended legislations and practices within the region," he added in a statement.