Iraq: Photojournalists and civil society activists among victims in targeted attacks by militants


Update: Iraq: On 12 December 2019 photojournalist Zaid Al-Khafaji has been released from prison in Baghdad.


As protests continue in Iraq, three photojournalists were targeted during a day of violence, with one photojournalist killed, one wounded and yet another kidnapped. The incidents happened during one of the most violent days in Iraq, when militants attacked protesters in Baghdad on 06 December 2019. Two days later, four civil society activists faced assassination attempts in Karbala and Al-Amara cities, where one of them was killed and the other three were wounded. On 09 December, International Human Rights Defenders Day, the Iraqi authorities must ensure civil society activists, journalists and photographers are able to do their jobs without reprisals, thus protecting the right to freedom of expression.

On 06 December 2019, armed militias in pick-up trucks and mini vans stormed Al-Khilani Square, which was followed by an attack on the Al-Sinak bridge garage, during which militants armed with Kalashnikov rifles randomly fired at peaceful protesters resulting in the deaths of 25 demonstrators and 135 injured, according to official reports. The coordinated attacks took place under cover of darkness after the electricity to the area was cut. The attack was sudden and brutal and stunned people who had expected to be able to protest peacefully in the wake of the Prime Minister’s resignation.

During the attack on Al-Khilani Square, photojournalist Ahmed Muhanna Al-Lami (top photo in the centre) was shot from behind, killing him on the spot, according to a paramedic who treated him. Al-Muhanna is a war photographer who covered the war with Da’esh for years, after which he participated in the protests of Tahrir Square, which he has also photographed.

At the same time, during the attack by armed militias near the Al-Sinak bridge garage, photojournalist Ali Kanaan Shouhani (top photo on the left) suffered an injury to the head that required urgent surgery. The operation was successful, and he is in stable condition at the hospital. Shuhani participated in demonstrations in Al-Tahrir Square from the beginning and was a member of the anti-smokers team, who were in charge of trying to stop teargas bombs. He was injured in the stomach on 30 October 2019 but he returned to the demonstrations one day later.

Early in the day on 05 December, at four in the morning, four masked gunmen in a black Kia Sportage picked up photojournalist Zaid Al-Khafaji (top photo on the right) near his house in the Cairo neighborhood of Baghdad after he returned from Al-Tahrir Square, and took him to an unknown destination. Al-Khafaji covered all the events of the demonstrations in Tahrir Square and the nearby areas, including the clashes between the riot police and demonstrators.

Elsewhere in Iraq, on 08 December 2019, a number of civil society activists faced assassination attempts throughout the day.

In the city of Karbala, academic and civil society activist Muhannad Al-Kaabi (photo 1) was the victim of an assassination attempt after a bomb that was stuck to his car exploded when he stopped in the Saif Saad area. He suffered various injuries and was transferred to the hospital for treatment. Al-Kaabi is a member of the Karbala Coordination for the Independent Civil Movement.

On the evening of the same day in Karbala, two masked assailants on a motorcycle killed civil society activist Fahim Al-Tai  (photo 2). They used guns equipped with silencers before escaping in the security-fortified Al-Baroudi area in the city centre. Al-Taee announced in the morning that he had received threats from the same armed group that targeted his colleague Al-Kaabi with an adhesive explosive device. 

The perpetrators then attempted to assassinate civil society activist and the head of Karbala Coordination for the Independent Civil Movement, Ihab Jawad Al-Wazani (photo 3) who was accompanied by Al-Taee moments before. He was shot while trying to escape in the city center and has been taken to hospital in a dangerous condition.

In Al-Amara, the capital of Maysan Governorate, human rights defender and director of “Anna Maysan Human Rights Organisation” Basem Al-Zoubaidi,  (photo 4), was subjected to an assassination attempt in the city centre by armed assailants on a motorcycle. He received injuries to his hand and leg and was taken to the hospital for treatment.

The Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR) condemns the excessive use of lethal force by the Iraqi authorities and armed groups against peaceful activists and journalists, and demands that they cease all violence immediately and protect peaceful demonstrators throughout the country in a transparent and serious manner. The Iraqi authorities must uphold the country’s international obligations to protect the right to life of its citizens, among other human rights, including by addressing the recommendations of Iraq’s Universal Periodic Review (UPR), which took place at the United Nations in November 2019.

GCHR calls upon the Iraqi authorities to immediately and unconditionally:

  1. Fulfill their international obligations to protect human rights, through the UPR and other mechanisms, in particular to respect the civil and human rights of all citizens of Iraq, including by protecting their right to peaceful demonstration throughout the country;
  2. Ensure that armed militants are not able to attack protesters or activists in any form;
  3. Conduct independent, impartial, thorough and prompt investigations into lethal force used by militants against demonstrators, with a view to disseminating the results and bringing those responsible to justice in accordance with international standards;
  4. Release all peaceful protesters, journalists and human rights defenders who have been detained, including those who have been kidnapped by armed groups;
  5. Respect and protect the right of all the citizens of Iraq to access the Internet and information on and offline, which should be considered the most basic human right; and
  6. Ensure that all human rights defenders, journalists and bloggers in Iraq are able to operate without fear of harm.