Iraq is falling back into authoritarianism and headed towards becoming a police state, despite US claims that it has helped establish democracy in the country, Human Rights Watch said on Sunday.
The criticism from the New York-based HRW, which the government quickly disputed, comes less than a year after thousands of Iraqis took to the streets nationwide to criticise the government for poor services.
"Iraq cracked down harshly during 2011 on freedom of expression and assembly by intimidating, beating and detaining activists, demonstrators and journalists," HRW said in a statement accompanying its annual report.
It noted that Iraq remains one of the most dangerous places in the world for journalists, that women's rights remain poor and civilians have paid a heavy toll in bomb attacks.
The rights group pointed to the discovery of a secret prison last February run by forces controlled by Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's office, the same troops who ran Camp Honour, another facility where detainees were tortured.
"Iraq is quickly slipping back into authoritarianism as its security forces abuse protesters, harass journalists and torture detainees," Sarah Leah Whitson, HRW's Middle East director, said in the statement.
Signup to our newsletter and follow us on Facebook and Twitter!
"Despite US government assurances that it helped create a stable democracy, the reality is that it left behind a budding police state."
US forces completed their withdrawal from Iraq on December 18, nearly nine years after the invasion that ousted dictator Saddam Hussein.
As the pullout was winding up, a political crisis erupted in Iraq, pitting the Shiite-led government against the main Sunni-backed bloc which accuses Maliki of centralising power.
Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's spokesman Ali Mussawi described the HRW report as a one-sided account, insisting there had been no violence against demonstrators or pressure on journalists, and said any instances of torture or violence from the security forces were isolated incidents.
"Iraq has a parliament, it has elections, it has a democratic system, and claiming that Iraq is going to dictatorship is an empty claim and is not based on facts," he told AFP.
Mussawi said authorities were "working very hard to end such violations."
"If there are any violations, they are isolated cases. We condemn them strongly. These individuals (who carry out the abuse) are used to living in a dictatorship, and to clean up the security forces is not easy and changing the culture cannot happen overnight."