Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait has highlighted both the brutality of the regime in Baghdad and the double standards of the US and its allies. Western countries that armed and equipped Baghdad as the Baath terrorized Iraq’s population through murder, torture and mass killings of civilians now profess shock as some of the same horrors are visited upon Kuwait. Indeed, from wholesale massacres and arbitrary executions to forced relocations and the use of poison gas against civilians, there are few Iraqi practices which were not honed in earlier, larger-scale operations within Iraq. Middle East Watch estimates that nearly 75 percent of towns and villages in Iraqi Kurdistan have been destroyed and their populations resettled in areas easily controlled by the Iraqi military. Thousands were killed in combat as Iraq sought revenge for Kurdish support for Iran during the Gulf war. Amnesty International reports that some 8,500 Iraqi Kurds have “disappeared” since then while tens of thousands live marginal lives as refugees in Turkey and Iran. Amnesty also documents that dozens of refugees who returned to take advantage of a 1988 amnesty have since been executed. Similar ravages have been visited upon the smaller Assyrian and Turcoman minorities. Over a hundred thousand Iraqi Shi‘a have been deported to Iran.

Amnesty estimates that Iraqi executions in 1989 numbered in the hundreds, while thousands of political prisoners languished in Iraqi jails where, according to Amnesty, Middle East Watch and other independent groups, torture and other forms of mistreatment are routine and due process non-existent. The Iraqi constitution makes the Baath Revolutionary Command Council the supreme authority in the land with powers to enact laws. It is also the only body empowered to change the constitution. It controls the ubiquitous security agencies, among these the state intelligence service (mukhabarat), the Baath’s security arm and the Amn al-Khass, a special security branch run out of Saddam Hussein’s presidential office. The regime has established a Revolutionary Court in Baghdad and Temporary Special Courts which operate wherever and whenever the regime sees a need. The latter are also run directly out of the presidential office and no judicial qualifications are necessary for appointment to these “courts.” The lack of any legal protection for the regular judiciary means that it too has become a direct arm of the regime.

This level of centralized control indicates the determination of Saddam Hussein and his top cohorts to exercise absolute control over the party and, through it, the military. Fourteen party and military officials were reportedly executed in January and July 1989, and a further 200 Baath officials arrested in December 1988 have “disappeared.” The regime also carries out extra-territorial executions; its agents have ranged as far afield as Thailand in 1987 and Sudan in 1988. Middle East Watch implicates Iraqi agents in poisonings of Kurdish refugees in Turkish camps during the summer of 1989.

In short, Iraqis face a system that allows no checks over the unbridled power of the regime. Many among the thousands of political prisoners are relatives of suspects being sought. Iraq has long used children both as hostages and to terrorize its own population. The findings of an Amnesty report on Kuwait in October 1990 and those of earlier reports on Iraq are chillingly similar, with reports of arbitrary detentions and executions of minors whose mistreated bodies are then turned over to their parents to further terrorize society.

In February 1990, Amnesty appealed to the Iraqi government to halt “the politically motivated brutal treatment of children and young people.” Among the 391 names handed over to the authorities, including both Kurds and Arabs, were 21 youths aged 14-17 who had been executed and 351 who had “disappeared.” In April 1987 the European Parliament passed a resolution “on the detention and torture of children in Iraq,” appealing for the release of children held because of political activities undertaken by their relatives. Yet while their parliament condemned “these crimes which disgrace the government that perpetrates them,” member countries were busy profiting from the Iraqi market for arms and weapons production goods.

Currently aligned with the US against Iraq are regimes like Syria’s, despite its State Department-assigned designation as a “terrorist state.” Morocco’s sorry human rights record in Western Sahara and at home is well known to its benefactors. Egypt’s and Turkey’s human rights records are decidedly unsavory, and Iran has launched an offensive against its own Kurds while receiving weapons from the newly respectable Soviet Union.

Then there are the kingdoms and sheikhdoms of the Gulf itself. From the “quiet dignity” of the emir of Kuwait to the brash Americanisms of Prince Bandar, the Saudi ambassador to Washington, the US public has been inundated with well-polished images that stand in contrast to the repressive social political and judicial structures there.

A closer look at Saudi Arabia, however, reveals something other than the picture crafted by public relations firms. This firmly authoritarian regime, run by the Saud family, represses political opponents, practices strict censorship and denies internationally recognized legal processes. Political detentions regularly occur without charge or trial, and torture is common. Among those who have died at the hands of torturers is a woman arrested in July 1989 for carrying political documents into the country from Jordan. Most Saudi political detainees are from three groups — the Organization for Islamic Revolution in the Arabian Peninsula, the Arab Socialist Action Party-Arabian Peninsula, and the Party of God in Hijaz. The total number of political detainees was about 70 in 1989, according to Amnesty.

In 1989, 16 Saudi Arabian citizens were executed for bombings carried out in Mecca. Another four received punishments of between 1,000 and 1,500 lashes. 1989 also saw some 95 public beheadings of criminals. A further 14 persons were punished for repeated theft by amputation of their right hands. Floggings were also handed out as criminal sentences on at least 11 individuals.

The Gulf crisis has led to further human rights violations, particularly targeting Yemeni workers after the Yemeni government publicly opposed the US military presence. Amnesty reports that since early September Saudi authorities have arrested thousands of legal Yemeni residents in raids on workplaces and schools and in nighttime neighborhood sweeps. Held incommunicado for up to three weeks, with hundreds of their numbers tortured by Saudi security forces for no other reason than their nationality, the detainees eventually joined the 800,000-strong Yemeni exodus out of Saudi Arabia.

Sources: Middle East Watch, Human Rights in Iraq, February 1990; Amnesty International, 1990 Annual Report; Amnesty International, Saudi Arabia: Torture, Detention and Arbitrary Arrests, November 1, 1990; Yuzyil, September 16, 1990; Washington Post, October 4 and November 26, 1990.

How to cite this article:

Ömer Karasapan "Human Rights Briefing," Middle East Report 168 (January/February 1991).

For 50 years, MERIP has published critical analysis of Middle Eastern politics, history, and social justice not available in other publications. Our articles have debunked pernicious myths, exposed the human costs of war and conflict, and highlighted the suppression of basic human rights. After many years behind a paywall, our content is now open-access and free to anyone, anywhere in the world. Your donation ensures that MERIP can continue to remain an invaluable resource for everyone.


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