Beirut -- Yezidi fighters in Iraq allegedly forcibly disappeared and killed 52 civilians from the Imteywit tribe in June 2017, Human Rights Watch said today.
Relatives of victims told Human Rights Watch that on June 4, 2017, Yezidi forces detained and then apparently executed men, women, and children from eight Imteywit families who were fleeing fighting between the Islamic State (also known as ISIS) and Iraq's Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) west of Mosul. Yezidi forces were also implicated in two other incidents of enforced disappearances of members of the Imteywit and Jahaysh tribes in late 2017.
"As the ground fighting against ISIS winds down in Iraq, state security forces need to turn their focus to preventing retaliation and upholding the rule of law," said Lama Fakih, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. "Past atrocities against the Yezidis don't give its armed forces a free pass to commit abuses against other groups, whatever their past."
Human Rights Watch spoke to two Imteywit members who traveled through the village where, two hours later, the 52 people went missing. Human Rights Watch also spoke to a member of the PMF intelligence services who had visited the village and saw several mass graves that local Yezidi residents told him contained the bodies of the Imteywit victims. A Yezidi community leader provided to Human Rights Watch a list of five Yezidi fighters who he said told him they had killed the families.
In late April, as fighting approached the area just south of the Sinjar region, ISIS forces moved their families from the village of Ain Ghazal in Qayrawan to the desert north of the town of Baaj, two Imteywit men said. They said that on June 4, the Imam Ali Battalions, a PMF unit, retook the area from ISIS, and started moving local families out of the desert in a convoy of 70 cars traveling north toward Tel Afar. The two men and their relatives -- 22 men, 20 women, and 10 children from the Imteywit tribe traveling in seven cars -- broke off from the other members of the convoy.
When one car in the smaller convoy got a flat tire, the other cars stopped and waited for the tire to be fixed. The two men opted to head north ahead of the others, and traveled about 18 kilometers, reaching the village of Qabusiye at about 2 p.m. They said that a car with four Yezidi fighters, one of whom they recognized from home, flagged them down and forced them out of their car. The fighters asked them where they were from and said they would kill the two men as revenge for what ISIS had done to the Yezidis. Just then, the men said, a vehicle carrying Imam Ali Battalion fighters drove up, which ended the altercation, and escorted the two men to safety in the town of Qayrawan.
The men said that two hours later they called a cousin traveling in the convoy to warn them about the Yezidi fighters on the road. The cousin said they were arriving at Qabusiye, but then the call dropped, and his phone was soon switched off. The men said their relatives never made it to Qayrawan and the men have not been able to find out any information about their relatives since. The men gave Human Rights Watch a list of the 52 people in the convoy.
In early 2017, Yezidi fighters formed the Lalish Brigades and the Ezidkhan Brigades, units under the PMF, a force of the Iraqi prime minister, and therefore part of the state's armed forces. Two Yezidi community leaders told Human Rights Watch that the Ezidkhan Brigades were responsible for the abduction and killing of the 52 Imteywit tribe members. One said that fighters from the Ezidkhan Brigades told him the unit had detained the families in the convoy and held them for two days in the abandoned village, then killed them. He shared photos of women's and men's sandals, jewelry, a woman's scarf, and tufts of hair that he said belonged to the families.
A member of the PMF intelligence services told Human Rights Watch that he was sent to Sinjar to investigate the allegations. With help from local Yezidis he located a cluster of four mass graves in Qabusiye, which he visited on December 5. He said he saw the bones and skulls of at least four children, tufts of women's hair, and women's and children's shoes and bracelets in the vicinity of the graves.
In July, a legal adviser to the Ezidkhan Brigades told Human Rights Watch that Yezidi forces were involved in the capture of 52 people, but that members of the Imteywit tribe were "dogs who deserve to die." Another senior Yezidi military commander said in early December that, "If any members of the Imteywit or Jahaysh tribes try to return to Sinjar, we will kill them." Other senior Yezidis have alleged that the Imteywit and Jahaysh tribes participated with ISIS in the executions and abuse of Yezidi men and women in August 2014. Members of the two tribes denied these allegations and said that the Yezidis were scapegoating them for ISIS atrocities.
Responsibility for investigating and prosecuting abuses against the Yezidis and other groups such as the Imteywit and Jahaysh rests with the Iraqi government, Human Rights Watch said. In July a spokesman from Iraq's Foreign Affairs Ministry told Human Rights Watch that government representatives in Sinjar had investigated the Qabusiye incident and that their initial findings were that Yezidi forces had abducted the Imteywit civilians as revenge for abuses against Yezidi women. He said that the government intended to hold those responsible to account. Since then, however, Human Rights Watch has received no responses to queries as to whether anyone has been held accountable for the apparent killings.
Members of the Imteywit and Jahaysh tribes have reported other incidents in which alleged Yezidi forces have forcibly disappeared and possibly killed their members. An Imteywit man told Human Rights Watch that on August 14, an Imteywit tribal commander and seven farmers went missing when they traveled to their former village to work their agricultural land. The forces in control of the area at the time were a mix of Shia and Yezidi PMF units. Two men from the Jahaysh tribe said that on February 26, when members of the tribe fled their villages as fighting approached, armed men wearing PMF badges disappeared 10 men who were escorting their livestock by foot from the area. Human Rights Watch was unable to corroborate this information or the units implicated.
Enforced disappearances occur when a person is arrested or detained by government officials or their agents and the authority refuses to acknowledge the deprivation of liberty, or to reveal the person's fate or whereabouts.
Iraqi criminal justice authorities should investigate alleged criminal offenses by all parties to the conflict in a prompt, transparent, and effective manner, up to the highest levels of responsibility. Those found criminally responsible should be appropriately prosecuted. Summary executions and torture during an armed conflict are war crimes.
No armed forces in Iraq should be detaining suspected criminals for prolonged periods, but should instead hand suspects immediately over to judicial authorities to investigate.
International law requires that punishment for crimes only be imposed on the people responsible, after a fair trial to determine individual guilt. Imposing collective punishments on families, villages, or communities violates the laws of war and is a war crime.
"Allowing the many armed forces involved in Iraq's civil war to retaliate against any group they think was complicit with ISIS would shatter the rule of law," Fakih said. "Baghdad needs to assert its authority over the criminal justice process and end armed group vigilantes."