Talks: Organized by MPF and UMAM D&R
PRISONS AND DETENTION IN IRAQ
A Conversation with Dr. Vera Mironova
The MENA Prison Forum (MPF) hosted a conversation with Dr. Vera Mironova, a visiting fellow at Harvard University, via Zoom on March 17th, 2021. Dr. Mironova’s talk was the first of the MPF talk series that the Forum will regularly organize over the coming months. The below is a short synopsis of Dr. Mironova’s lecture, and concludes with some of the key points that were raised in the discussion afterwards for further discussion within the MPF.
Dr. Mironova’s talk entitled “Prisons and Detention in Iraq” addressed topics and approaches that are often overlooked in academic and non-academic writings. She opened her talk by explicitly stating that her approach is to explore perspectives of the carceral system by relying on people’s stories, not solely by analyzing prison as a tool used by the ruling authorities. In her words, “criticizing the state and its repression is important, but we also need to think about how people make use of the prison system during their daily lives.” Dr. Mironova was embedded with the Iraqi Special Operation Forces for nine months during the Battle of Mosul. Her work is based on ethnographic fieldwork and interviews carried out during this time, focusing both on officials in the Iraqi forces and suspected ISIS members in Iraqi prisons. Her fieldwork in Iraq also allowed her to approach judges and lawyers who have been developing proposals to implement such changes. This gave her the opportunity to explore and expose untold narratives about the culture of incarceration in Iraq.
Dr. Mironova research goes deep into the personal stories of the prisoners by learning about their life stories and how they ended up in jail. Dr. Mironova’s work engaged with needed amendments to the current Iraqi constitution, particularly around the current pattern of “false” prosecutions of suspected ISIS members and their families. For example, she noted that following the defeat of ISIS, many Iraqis took the opportunity of the environment in the country and a counter-terrorism law to send others to prison. She mentioned cases of individuals accused of belonging to ISIS as a means to settle other personal legal disputes, such as a woman who accused her husband whom she was unable to divorce, and someone who accused an individual with whom they were engaged in a land dispute.
Dr. Mironova additionally focused on the prominent issue of the treatment of women and children who were affiliated with ISIS. Western media often portrays female ISIS members as victims or innocent, while Dr. Mironova’s work takes the position that female members of ISIS, especially ones who traveled to join the group from Europe or other foreign countries, should be prosecuted as individuals with free will who joined the group and supported its ideologies and attacks against innocent civilians out of their personal convictions. Regarding children who became involved in the group, Dr. Mironova spoke about the importance of returning foreign youths to their home countries, while she called for increased psychological and social support for Iraqi children who became involved in ISIS via their families. She also provided anecdotes that highlight the need for children to be separated from blame and responsibility placed on their parents. One story she recounted was that of a child who was imprisoned because he was seen washing the car of his ISIS-affiliated father. This story also points to the above-mentioned critical and sensitive nature of who can allege or report someone based on claims of being involved with ISIS.
Against the backdrop of Dr. Mironova’s presentation, some key points were raised during the Q&A. One topic of conversation revolved around the role of the Iraqi state and other political/militant powers in perpetuating this exploitation of the legal system in the aftermath of ISIS. Participants in the talk referred to how the Iraqi media mobilized and encouraged the people to testify against one another claiming ISIS involvement. Another issue that was raised was the ways Iraqi militias use the prison system for financial gain, specifically by detaining individuals in order to extort bribes for their release. The wider economic dynamics and effects of the prison industry in Iraqi were flagged as being ripe for further research.
Another discussion in the Q&A was on the frameworks and sources used to support carceral research in the Middle East. The importance of using existing literature in Arabic that traces the histories of the prison systems in the region and on a country-specific level was stressed. For example, analysis on Iraq should account for the vital role played by the long decades of repression by Saddam Hussein’s regime, as well as that of the American invasion in 2003 and the subsequent high-profile prison scandal of Abu Ghraib. It was also highlighted that internal country dynamics can and should be connected to other regional and international actors and behaviors, such as Iran, Syria, the U.S., and Russia.
The issue of access in fieldwork on Middle Eastern carceral systems is a prominent one. While such access is clearly invaluable to those who focus on carceral systems in the region, the nature of such access can at times impact the research findings and conclusions. While discussions around access can be a sensitive topic, it must be addressed in prison analysis on the Middle East going forward, due to its implications on the research and its conclusions.
In conclusion, Dr. Mironova’s talk provided great insight into her fieldwork and research, and presented evidence and themes for deep discussions. The conversation after the talk identified important areas for further research around the nuanced and interrelated ways prison analysis in the Middle East and Iraq specifically needs to account for the region and country’s experiences during and after the war against ISIS. Dr. Mironova’s research is an important step in beginning to understand the impact ISIS has on prison dynamics in the region, and her talk allowed the MPF to begin to explore themes that will continue to rise in coming talks and meetings of the Forum.
Dr. Vera Mironova is a visiting fellow at Harvard University. She is an author of the book "From Freedom Fighters to Jihadists. Human Resources of Non State Armed Groups" published by Oxford University Press. Vera conducted fieldwork in numerous active conflict zones and post-conflict regions all over the world, and from 2016 to 2017, she was embedded with Iraqi Special Operations Forces during the Mosul Operation. She is currently writing a book about prosecution of ISIS members in Iraq and Syria and conducted field work in courts and prison there. Her scholarship has been featured in numerous publications including The New York Times, Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, BBC, and The Boston Globe. She has also served as a commentator for a number of major media outlets, including The New York Times, the Associated Press, Washington Post, and Vice News.