Rights often trampled in Iraqi Kurdistan: Amnesty

ARBIL, Iraq (Reuters) - Iraqi Kurdistan, which has sought to distance itself from the violence and instability plaguing most of Iraq, must act decisively to reverse a woeful human rights record, Amnesty International said in a new report.

The human rights group, in a report issued Tuesday, singled out the Asayish, the mostly autonomous region’s secretive security forces, as especially worrisome, blaming the plain-clothes agents for abuse and illegal operations.

“Urgent action by the government is required to ensure that ... the Asayish is made fully accountable under the law and in practice, to investigate allegations of torture, enforced disappearances and other serious human rights violations.”

In the 52-page report, Amnesty painted a picture of impunity and human rights violations in Iraq’s Kurdish north, which has been sheltered from most of the sectarian bloodshed unleashed by the U.S.-led invasion in 2003.

Nadhem Delband, a spokesman for the Human Rights Ministry in the Kurdish capital Arbil, said the ministry took such allegations seriously but Amnesty and other groups had been led astray in part by faulty information.

Delband said rights officials went after violations when they could. He said abuse of prisoners had been punished and there were programs to boost women’s rights, for example.

“We do not deny that prisoners are tortured in the region’s prisons. Yes, that happens, and we work continuously against such violations, lodging complaints with the cabinet,” he said.

Kurdistan, which gained virtual autonomy under the protection of U.S. and allied forces after the first Gulf War ended in 1991, seemed poised to flourish after the fall of Saddam Hussein, who exterminated thousands of Kurds.

Since then, the region has prospered and its political clout has grown -- Kurds hold powerful positions in the national Shi’ite Arab-led government -- but a rift has widened with Baghdad over oil, disputed territories and political power.

Kurdistan’s dual-party rule is widely seen as hostile to dissent and, like the rest of Iraq, plagued by corruption.

Amnesty International, which sent a delegation to Kurdistan last year, says thousands of people have been held for years in Kurdish jails without charge or trial.

It also reported multiple cases of arrest without warrant, ill treatment of detainees, and inaction by authorities when violence is directed against those seen as a threat to the state -- dissidents, journalists, women and women’s rights activists.

Amnesty said even parliamentarians in Kurdistan complained that they were unable to hold the Asayish to account. “The agency appears to operate in a climate of impunity,” it said.

Delband declined to comment specifically on the Asayish.

Amnesty also complained of repression of independent media in Kurdistan, where journalists have received death threats and many censor themselves out of fear of being hauled into court.

Iraq is a dangerous country for journalists -- at least 135 have been killed in the line of duty since 2003 -- but Kurdistan is seen as especially closed to criticism of the state.

The report also complained of inadequate protection of women’s rights, listing honor crimes, marriage of young girls, and female genital mutilation among problems for Kurdish women.

Writing by Missy Ryan; Editing by Giles Elgood