Iraq: Human rights defenders confront bullets

31.10.19

The Iraqi Observatory for Human Rights (IOHR), an Iraqi NGO, reports that about 100 protesters were killed between 25 and 30 October, while more than 5,500 others were injured. This brings the death toll to over 250 in October.

"The Iraqi government has deliberately used systematic violence against demonstrators and has pursued violent mechanisms that it believes will end the peaceful demonstrations and sit-ins that began on the 28th of the same month," the Observatory said.

On 25 October 2019, demonstrations were renewed across Iraq. They first began on 01 October in the capital Baghdad and all the cities of the central and southern regions, where hundreds of thousands of peaceful demonstrators gathered to demand reforms.

The demonstration, led by human rights defenders, are raising slogans calling for the current government to step down, the formation of a new electoral commission, a general election to be conducted under international supervision, the elimination of corruption in all its forms, and social justice.

Reliable and successive reports received by the IOHR, Iraqi Network for Social Media (INSM), the Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR), Front Line Defenders, and PEN Center indicate that Iraqi riot police used excessive force in an open confrontation with protesters. Thousands were killed and injured.

The Iraqi High Commissioner for Human Rights stated that "security forces arrested 399, of whom 343 were released," saying that "Iraqi security forces used violence against demonstrators."

On 29 October 2019, six United Nations experts called on the Iraqi government to ensure those responsible for violence were prosecuted, and said that “it was of paramount importance that Iraqi authorities take additional steps to prevent violence and enable a safe environment for peaceful protests.” The experts noted that on 22 October 2019, an Iraqi government Investigative Committee into violence in early October acknowledged “that security forces had used excessive force and had lost control of the demonstrations and recommended disciplinary and judicial investigations against identified perpetrators, but found that there were no official orders to open fire at protesters.”

However, state the UN experts, "The Government must demonstrate the effectiveness, independence and impartiality of these investigations. This means that it must identify all perpetrators with a view to prosecuting them. This also applies to officials failing to prevent such violations from occurring in the first place."

Yet violence against protests continued after the government Investigative Committee’s report. On the night of 28 October 2019, riot police force stationed on the Al-Jumhuriya Bridge overlooking Al-Tahrir Square in central Baghdad directly targeted human rights activist Safaa Al-Saray, with a tear gas canister hitting him in the head. He was taken to hospital and, despite the medical attention he received, lost his life two hours later.

The same morning, he had posted on his Facebook page a video showing a blatant assault by some members of the security forces on the students of a Baghdad school who were holding a peaceful demonstration.

The 26-year-old activist, a poet and artist, participated in most of the protests in Baghdad since 2011 and was beaten and arrested several times. He graduated from the Department of Computer Science at Baghdad University of Technology and did not get a job until one week before his death.

Peaceful protests continue in all central and southern governorates. In Baghdad, hundreds of thousands of protesters gather in Tahrir Square in a festive carnival where the drivers of tuk-taks bravely provide ambulance and relief services to them to become a national symbol for Iraqis.

In the 12-storey Turkish restaurant building in Al-Tahrir Square, hundreds of peaceful protesters were barricaded to prevent security forces from using the building to end the sit-in and target protesters with various types of weapons. On 30 October 2019, just before midnight, the demonstrators succeeded in sweeping the first checkpoint of the security forces on Al-Jumhuriya Bridge, reducing the risk of smoke and sound bombs.

The Iraqi Observatory for Human Rights (IOHR), Iraqi Network for Social Media (INSM), the Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR), Front Line Defenders, and PEN Center call on the Iraqi authorities to:

  1. Fulfill their international obligations to protect freedoms of assembly and expression, by allowing demonstrators to peacefully assemble without fear of repression or arrest, and to ensure that the media operate freely and that access to the Internet is not prohibited;
  2. Immediately investigate the killings of human rights defenders, journalits and peaceful demonstrators, with a view to disseminating the results and bringing those responsible to justice in accordance with international standards;
  3. Immediately and unconditionally release all peaceful protesters and provide medical treatment to those in need;
  4. Publicise the results of the investigations the government said it had initiated regarding the killing of demonstrators, including fully publishing the news through the media; and
  5. Ensure that all human rights defenders in Iraq who carry out their legitimate work in the defense of human rights are able to operate without restrictions, including judicial harassment.