Iraq: Hundreds go missing or get killed at checkpoints

BAGHDAD, 6 June 2007 (IRIN) - Samir Waleed, 39, said he is scared to go out into the streets of Baghdad after his brother was stopped at a road block, taken away and killed two weeks ago. The deteriorated security situation in the capital has given rise to an increasing number of checkpoints in the city, which, ironically, have become dangerous in themselves.

Manned by the Iraqi police, Iraqi soldiers or sometimes by militias, checkpoints are adding to the immense strain already felt by Baghdad residents. Locals say that people are often arrested at checkpoints on suspicion of working with armed groups - and after being arrested, anything can happen.

"My brother was in a car with his wife and children when police officers stopped him at a checkpoint in Mansour district. They arrested him and we never heard from him again. One week later, after looking everywhere for him, we found his body with three shots to his head in the city morgue," Waleed said.

"My sister-in-law told me that when they stopped them, they were accusing my brother of being an insurgent because of his long beard. He tried to explain to them that he was a pharmacist and just had a long beard for aesthetic purposes but even so they arrested him," he added.

Police deny any wrongdoing

Waleed asked the police why his brother was killed but officials in the police station in the district his brother was arrested told him they do not have any information concerning his brother's arrest. They said his brother was probably killed by insurgents when the police released him after interrogation.

"I know that they [police] killed him but I cannot prove it. It is the reality in Iraq. They stop you wherever they want and from there on you don't know what will happen to you. I have three cousins and an uncle who had the same fate; two were killed at insurgents' checkpoints while leaving Iraq and two others went missing at a Baghdad checkpoint while going to their jobs, and were later found dead," Waleed said.

Given the high rate of killings in Iraq today, security forces have been given the right to arrest whomever they want. But while citizens also want to see killers arrested, they have equal fear of the authorities.

"Checkpoints are important in Iraq to prevent terrorism but unfortunately security forces aren't behaving correctly with the local population. Even the military has to offer the minimum of respect to Iraqis while passing though checkpoints but these sad incidents [of people being killed at checkpoints] are increasing and sectarian violence is also in the background," Professor Bakr Muhammad, a security analyst at Mustansiriyah University, said.

Sectarian allegiances

"Sunnis are afraid to pass though Shia checkpoints as well as the Shias through the Sunni ones. It is a rare day on which people aren't arrested or killed and surely most of them are innocent victims of sectarian violence. Such abuse is unacceptable and the government should so something to change this," Muhammad added.

Responding to these accusations, the Iraqi army and police say the checkpoints are there to provide security to the local population rather than more violence.

"Security forces in Iraq are providing protection to the local population against terrorists. Police officers and soldiers just arrest people who they are sure are dangerous to the community. And if some people are taken for interrogation, as soon as we have proof that they are innocent, they are released without torture or humiliation," Col. Ali Hassnawi, a senior officer at the Ministry of Interior, said.

But according to Muhammad, the reality is very different as many police officers take sectarian sides and humiliate those who civilians who are from another sect.

"If they don't arrest, at least they would humiliate families by using bad language, violent action or even talking badly about wives while men are forced to accept this humiliation to save the lives of their loved ones," Muhammad said.

Missing people

According to Mukhaled al-A'ani, a spokesman for local Iraqi NGO Human Rights Association (HRA), the number of people who have disappeared after being arrested at checkpoints in the capital has increased significantly since February.

"Many families have asked for our help in finding their relatives after they were arrested at checkpoints in the capital. Many others aren't sure but have received information that their loved ones were passing through a checkpoint and disappeared later," al-A'ani said.

"Since February, we have registered nearly 100 cases of men disappearing after being arrested by soldiers or police officers at checkpoints in the capital. Another 25 have been arrested at checkpoints in Anbar province by insurgents [and subsequently gone missing]," he said. "Families are scared to go to security forces and ask about their relatives as they might be targeted themselves, so they ask local NGOs to help."

The Iraqi Ministry of Human Rights said it has looked into many cases of Iraqis missing after being stopped at checkpoints but said police officers have shown sufficient proof that they have not had anything to do with their disappearances.

The apparent lack of justice in Baghdad has led to many of its residents distrusting authorities, whether army, police or government officials.

"My husband and son were arrested at a checkpoint in Dora district. They were accused of being insurgents and never came home again. I tried to look for them but I was scared that my other sons might suffer the same fate so I prefer to stay at home crying with the hope that soon they might come through my door again," said Samia'a al-Din, 43, whose husband and son were arrested in March.

"Sectarian violence is affecting all people and places in Iraq and there is no safety anymore. Before, I was afraid to go out because of explosions, but now checkpoints have become much more dangerous than any other hazard in Iraq," she added.