Treatment of Shi'a Muslims, particularly those in opposition, by Iraqi officials (1999-2002) [IRQ38951.E]

A number of recent documents published by both human rights organizations and governmental sources include descriptions of the treatment of the Shi'a population by the ruling Sunni Ba'athist regime. The International Federation for Human Rights argued in 2002 that the Shi'a population is particularly affected by the "ongoing repression and extreme violence" in Iraq (FIDH Feb. 2002, 29). In 2001, according to Amnesty International, "[s]cores of people" were executed by the regime including "suspected political opponents, particularly Shi'a Muslims suspected of anti-government activities" (2002). A second Amnesty report concerning torture in Iraq noted:

Victims of torture have included ... followers of leading Shi'a Muslim religious personalities. Torture has also been used against women suspected of having links with Shi'a Islamist groups in the country or simply because of family links. In many cases relatives of those active in the Iraqi opposition abroad have been tortured or ill-treated as a way of putting pressure on those opposition leaders to cease their activities (AI Aug. 2001, 1).
Over the years many victims of torture have been Shi'a Muslims from Baghdad or from southern Iraq. They were arrested and tortured because they were suspected of anti-government activities. Many of them were students at al-Hawza al-'Ilmiya in al-Najaf in the south, which is considered to be one of the most prestigious theological teaching institutions in Shi'a Islam. Mass arrests and torture often took place during the periods of unrest which southern Iraq has witnessed intermittently over the last few years (ibid., 3).

Freedom House's The World's Most Repressive Regimes 2002 report noted:

Shiite Muslims, who constitute more than 60 percent of the population, face severe persecution. Shiites may not engage in communal Friday prayer, the loaning of books by mosque libraries, broadcasting, book publishing, or funeral processions and observances. The army has arrested thousands of Shiites and executed an undetermined number of these detainees. Security forces have desecrated Shiite mosques and holy sites. The army has indiscriminately targeted civilian Shiite villages, razed homes, and drained southern Amara and Hammar marshes in order to flush out Shiite guerrillas (2001).

The Austrian Centre for Country of Origin and Asylum Research and Documentation (ACCORD) Iraq country report commented at length on the situation of the Shi'a minority stating:

The recent years have been characterized by an ongoing conflict between many of the Shia centres in Iraq and the government, notably in the south, in Najaf and other holy cities, where the majority of the Shia population live, as well as in central Iraq. The problem for the government is the political significance of Shiaism as opposed to Shiaism as a religion.
The most successful of the religious leaders able to unite people was Ayatollah al-Sadr, who was assassinated in Najaf in February 1999. As one of the most respected Shia figures he sparked off a whole wave of discontent in Iraq. His success lay in the fact that he was able to unite large sectors of the population, even some of the Sunnis went to listen to what he had to say. Following his assassination 30 religious school students had reportedly been executed and large waves of arrest have since taken place. People who were known or suspected to be his supporters, students or relatives were immediately arrested. The arrests of suspects are still going on. A number of these people were tried and sentenced to death in May 2000 for their presumptive role in inciting the people against the government. By the end of 2000 it was unknown whether the death sentences had been carried out. If one looks for a proper political organization around Ayatollah al-Sadr and his supporters, it is in fact difficult to pinpoint. All his supporters would tell that there was no political organization, but merely a religious community. Still, people used this forum also for political purposes in order to express their discontent with the situation.
When interviewed at the beginning of 2000, some of the Shia refugees who had come to Syria in recent months reported that while in detention they had been interrogated about specific Shia underground movements. They mentioned the names of several organizations which they were accused of having set up, taken part in or been involved in. They denied the existence of such groups. Whether it is true that such organizations do not exist is difficult to state since sometimes there are some secret groups which they prefer not to confirm the existence of.
The relations between the majority Shia population and the government will probably continue to deteriorate as long as the situation remains the same. There are many outstanding cases of Shia scholars and students who have disappeared during the 1990s, not to mention the 1980s. Their fate is unknown, they are unaccounted for. They may still be in prison. Some of them are known to be in Abu Ghraib Prison near Baghdad as long-term untried detainees. The Iraqi authorities always fear that another religious figure will rise up and manage to unite people in the same way as Ayatollah Al-Sadr had done. This is one of the principal reasons that leads many people to the decision to flee. They feel persecuted because of association, either as friends, relatives or associates.
As far as the Shia opposition groups are concerned, these days very few of them do have a real presence in the country. Moreover, many of them have by now split into splinter groups which has of course reduced their effectiveness. It is a very dangerous situation for them where it is very difficult to do any active work. The fact that a large proportion of the marshes have been drained by the Iraqi authorities has also worsened the situation as there are fewer places for such individuals to take refuge in when the situation requires it. While many draft evaders and military deserters are also hiding in the marshes the majority of people there are Shia Muslims, who do carry out occasional military operations against Iraqi patrols. The drainage of the marshes has removed a large proportion of this shelter. Parts of the route between the marshes and the Iranian border have been drained as well, so that this route has become more easily controlled by Iraqi government forces. So the situation is very precarious now for all of them (May 2001a, 56-57).

This Response was prepared after researching publicly accessible information currently available to the Research Directorate within time constraints. This Response is not, and does not purport to be, conclusive as to the merit of any particular claim to refugee status or asylum. Please find below the list of additional sources consulted in researching this Information Request.


Amnesty International (AI). Annual Report 2002. 2002. "Iraq."!Open [Accessed 10 June 2002]

_____. August 2001. Iraq: Systematic Torture of Political Prisoners. (AI Index: MDE 14/008/2001)$File/MDE1400801.pdf [Accessed 10 June 2002]

Austrian Centre for Country of Origin and Asylum Research and Documentation (ACCORD). May 2001a. 6th European Country of Origin Information Seminar - Final Report: "Iraq Country Report (Presentations by Mr Akif Atli and Ms. Hania Mufti 13 November 2000)." [Accessed 6 June. 2002]

Atif Atli was a "legal assistant with the UNHCR Branch Office in Ankara and Hania Mufti is described as having worked "on human rights issues in the Middle East for more than twenty years [and was] ... the London director for the Middle East and North Africa division of Human Rights Watch (ACCORD May 2001b, 5).

_____. May 2001b. "About the Country Experts." [Accessed 11 June 2002]

Freedom House. 2001. The World's Most Repressive Regimes. A Special Report to the 58th Session of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, Geneva, 2002. [Accessed 10 June 2002]

International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH). February 2002. Iraq: An Intolerable, Forgotten and Unpunished Repression. [Accessed 6 June 2002]

Netherlands. Ministry of Foreign Affairs (NMFA). April 2000. Official General Report on Northern Iraq. [Accessed 10 June 2002]

Additional Sources Consulted

IRB Databases


Internet sites including:

Center for International Development and Conflict Management (CIDCM)

Minorities at Risk

Country Reports

Human Rights Watch

International Religious Freedom Report

Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL)

United Kingdom, Immigration and Nationality Directorate. Iraq Assessment 2002

World News Connection