Camp Speicher massacre five years on: thousands of individuals unaccounted for as families still wait for justice

12 June 2019

Thousands of individuals were killed after the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant attacked Speicher military training camp close to Tikrit in Iraq in June 2014. In addition, many of the victims who were abducted by government forces and accused of desertion, remain disappeared to date.

June 12, 2019 marks five years since thousands of individuals were either killed or forcibly disappeared after the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) launched an attack on the Speicher military training camp close to Tikrit in Iraq.

The exact number of individuals killed in what is widely referred to as the “Camp Speicher massacre” is unknown, as thousands remain unaccounted for to date. In addition to the many hundreds of individuals killed, at least 400 who were ordered to leave the camp as ISIL advanced towards Tikrit were arrested and disappeared by government forces for having “deserted their military duties”. Furthermore, a number of other cadets who were initially detained by ISIL and then transferred into the custody of Iraqi government forces as they regained territory, are still missing.

Along with partners in Iraq, MENA Rights Group has documented the cases of more than 400 individuals who remain missing after leaving Camp Speicher on the orders of superior officers on June 12, 2014. Their families have received no information on their fate and whereabouts to date, and as such cannot be sure as to whether their relatives were executed or are being secretly detained by government forces.

The Camp Speicher massacre

In June 2014, as the city of Mosul fell to ISIL, 220 kilometres southeast of the city, between 4,000 and 11,000 unarmed cadets were training at Camp Speicher military base.

On June 12, as ISIL began to advance towards Tikrit, a city close to Camp Speicher, around 3000 cadets were instructed by superior officers to leave the camp and return to their homes. As the cadets left the military base, many proceeded towards Baghdad via the main road in Tikrit, and were subsequently captured by ISIL forces. Others were later captured near the University of Tikrit by ISIL fighters who then proceeded to separate the Sunnis, the Shia, and non-Muslims into different groups. They then took the Shia, and non-Muslims to different locations in Tikrit, where they shot them and disposed of their bodies. The Sunni cadets were captured and held as prisoners.

Estimates say around 1700 cadets were executed by ISIL on June 12. Another 400 were later arrested and disappeared by government forces for having deserted their military duties or after their transfer from ISIL controlled detention centres.

The Iraqi government is reported to have exhumed the remains of almost a thousand individuals from mass graves close to Tikrit, while ISIL has claimed they killed more than 1700 people in the massacre, and the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq has put this number at up to 1,935.

However, five years later, the government has yet to clarify the whereabouts of any of those arrested.  While the Iraqi authorities continue to deny that they have secretly detaining any of those disappeared on June 12, some of them were seen recently in government detention facilities. Not only does this prove that the Iraqi government was involved in disappearing cadets from Camp Speicher, but has also given families hope that their relatives may still be alive.

Iraqi government’s failure to respond to victims’ families

The measures taken by the Iraqi authorities since 2014 to ensure that the families of all cadets are given information on the fate and whereabouts of their relatives have been insufficient. Despite their repeated attempts to seek justice at both the domestic and international levels, they have been faced with silence. Even worse, government forces have denied their responsibility in forcibly disappearing cadets.

In the weeks after the events at Camp Speicher, families requested information from the Ministry of Defence, Ministry of Interior, Iraqi Parliament, the central criminal court in Baghdad, as well as the provincial councils of Baghdad, Babil, Dhi Qar, Basra, Karbala, Najaf, and Al Duwaniya. Families organised sit-ins in front of government buildings, created associations to gather their forces and lobby parliamentarians, however, they did not receive any response.

In addition, in 2015 families of cadets believed to be secretly detained by Iraqi government forces appealed to international human rights mechanisms by submitting complaints to the United Nations Committee on Enforced Disappearances (CED) with the help of the NGO Al Wissam Humanitarian Assembly. However, they once again faced silence and denial from the Iraqi authorities, who replied to the UN experts stating only that “no information was available” on the cases. 

In a recent attempt to address the events at Camp Speicher, on 29 April 2019, Iraqi legislators proposed a new draft law entitled “The rights of the martyrs of the crime of Airbase ‘Speicher’”, which could be put on the agenda of a parliamentary session at any time. However, the law in in its current version is extremely flawed and fails to adequately guarantee justice for all victims.

The most problematic disposition which mirrors the authorities’ denial of their responsibility in violations committed against cadets lies in the very definition of a “martyr” in the law. The text only refers to ISIL as perpetrators of violations, assuming that all Speicher cadets have been executed by the terrorist group. Despite evidence that many individuals remain in secret detention following their arrest by government forces, the law does not account for crimes perpetrated by the Iraqi authorities. Families of those believed to have been arrested or taken by the authorities are therefore excluded from the benefit of being considered as a family of a “martyr” and denied, once again, the right to know the truth about their relatives’ fate.

Families of victims of ISIL executions are also facing obstacles due to the restrictive legislation governing the management of mass graves. The Iraqi government has taken steps to excavate mass graves across the country, including those identified as potentially containing the remains of Camp Speicher victims. However, the Mass Graves Directorate faces chronic shortages in human and material resources: the Medico-Legal Institute estimate that, at the current rate, it would take professionals working on mass grave excavation in Iraq 800 years to identify all the bodies.  

Camp Speicher five years on

Five years on from the Camp Speicher massacre, victims’ families all facing various obstacles to uncovering the truth about their loved ones’ fates and whereabouts. Despite the fact that the Iraqi authorities international human rights and humanitarian law obligations to ensure that all families of victims are given an effective remedy, both families of ISIL and government forces victims are denied these rights. 

In the hope of advancing the rights of all families, MENA Rights Group is raising over 400 cases with the UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion of truth, justice, reparation and guarantees of non-recurrence.

MENA Rights Group is requesting that the Special Rapporteur call on the Iraqi authorities to immediately release any Camp Speicher victims in its custody, and to launch prompt, thorough, effective, independent and impartial investigations in order to reveal the fate and whereabouts of those believed to have been killed. These actions represent vital steps towards ensuring that justice for all victims, without any discrimination, can be obtained.

Special Procedures’ allegation letter

Concerned that the steps taken by the authorities to investigate the cases of enforced disappearance linked to the Camp Speicher events and prosecute those responsible failed to guarantee effective remedy and redress for the victims and their families, several Special Procedures mandate-holders sent a communication to the Iraqi government on May 5, 2020.

The UN experts noted “the lack of information provided to the relatives about the victims’ fate or whereabouts” while highlighting that some of the cadets “may continue to be held in secret detention”. They further expressed concern that the “Speicher law reported does not provide remedy for all the victims and their families and has not led to the effective compensation for physical and mental harm as well as material damage.” They explained that “the exclusive reference to ISIL forces in the law as the sole perpetrators […] represents a legal obstacle to the adequate investigation and prosecution of government forces and government affiliated militias that may have been responsible for enforced disappearances, secret detention and other graves violations. In addition, the inadequacy of the measures taken to secure the mass graves sites and the insufficient resources provided to the relevant institution to perform the excavation work, is an additional obstacle to fulfil the right to truth.”

To remedy these shortcomings, the Iraqi authorities were called upon to clarify the situation of a number of cadets held in secret detention centres. The government was also urged to provide detailed information about the measures taken to guarantee the right to an effective remedy through impartial, independent and effective criminal investigation in order to determine the fate and whereabouts of all Camp Speicher victims. Lastly, Special Procedures urged that perpetrators be identified and held accountable with due respect for fair trial guarantees.

At the time of writing, the allegation letter remains unanswered.

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