Iraq: rights observers protest martial law

Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s new security plan for Baghdad grants military commanders sweeping powers to arrest people and restrict their basic freedoms of speech and association, Human Rights Watch says in a March 2 statement. On Feb. 13, al-Maliki issued martial law powers giving military commanders authority to conduct warrantless arrests, monitor private communications, and restrict civil society groups in Baghdad. Gen. Qanbar Hashim, commander of Baghdad operations, announced the decree as part of the Iraqi government’s latest plan to curb the escalating civil war in the country. The decree also grants Gen. Qanbar full control over the Defense and Interior Ministry forces, apparently a move to crack down on sectarian attacks committed by these forces.

The decree grants Gen. Qanbar far-reaching powers to conduct searches and seizures without warrants; to arrest, detain and interrogate people; to monitor, search and confiscate “all mail parcels, letters, cables, and wire and wireless communication devices”; and to restrict all public gatherings, including “centers, clubs, organizations, unions, companies, institutions, and offices.”

“The security situation in Baghdad is dire, but giving the military free rein to violate the basic rights of Iraqis is not the answer,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “International law strictly limits the restrictions a government can place on fundamental rights during a public emergency. Iraq’s new martial law provisions open the door to easy abuse.”

The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which Iraq ratified in 1976, permits some restrictions on certain rights during an officially proclaimed public emergency that threatens the life of the nation. According to the Human Rights Committee, the international body of experts that monitors compliance with the treaty, any derogation of rights during a public emergency must be of an exceptional and temporary nature, and must be “limited to the extent strictly required by the exigencies of the situation.” Certain fundamental rights—such as the rights to life and to be secure from torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment—must always be respected, even during a public emergency.

To implement the decree, al-Maliki cited article 58(9)(c) of the Iraqi Constitution, which authorizes him to pass emergency laws: “The Prime Minister shall be authorized with the necessary powers that enable him to manage the affairs of the country within the period of the state of emergency and war. A law shall regulate these powers that do not contradict the constitution.” He also cited the 2004 Law for Safeguarding National Security.

The decree also provides for broad use of the death penalty. Three articles in the decree refer to the 2005 Anti-Terror Law, which permits “the harshest punishment” for those found guilty of a wide array of offenses, including rape, theft, murder, abduction and destruction of property, as well as encouragement of crimes cited in the decree.

Other provisions of the decree include an extension of the curfew in Baghdad from 8 PM to 6 AM daily and the suspension of licenses for weapons ownership, limiting arms ownership to Iraqi security forces and their private security guards.

The decree requires these squatters to vacate the homes that they have taken, over or to prove the owner’s consent to their occupation, which cannot exceed six months. This provision is in apparent recognition of the vast numbers of Iraqis, both Sunnis and Shi’ite, who have been forced to abandon their homes due to the violence in the country, and whose houses have often been since been seized by others. (HRW, March 2 via Electronic Iraq).

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