Iraq: Fourth periodic report on violations during the ongoing popular demonstrations
The outbreak of COVID-19 in Iraq resulted in a large number of protesters staying in their homes, although a few dozen decided to remain present in the sit-in squares in order to ensure the popular movement’s continuity and maintain pressure on the authorities to express their aspirations for a prosperous and bright future for all people, without exception. This is the Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR)’s fourth monthly report of 2020 documenting ongoing violations in Iraq during the popular demonstrations.
Despite the fact that most people remain in their homes, many protesters continue to use the Internet as an effective tool to publicise their slogans and promote their main goals, foremost of which are for the authorities to carry out comprehensive reform, eliminate rampant corruption, and form a fully independent government that will conduct early and fair elections after the adoption of a just and equitable election law for all.
The demonstrators also actively participated in campaigns to clean, disinfect, and distribute food to deprived areas after the outbreak of COVID-19 and the imposition of curfews.
The popular movement has achieved many goals, despite the great sacrifices and the killing of more than 600 demonstrators, according to statistics collected by the Iraqi High Commission for Human Rights (IHCHR), although some civil society organisations say the real number of demonstrators who died has exceeded 700.
It can be said that the protests succeeded in drawing a new political map, and strengthened the feeling of national identity, including, for example, the campaign to encourage the acquisition of local products, which was a great success.
In Tahrir Square (Picture 1), the beating heart of Baghdad, the icon of the popular movement, as well as in the sit-in square in the city of Al-Kut (Picture 2), a few protesters agreed to keep up a presence in both squares, while adhering to the utmost levels of health protection to keep everyone safe.
In Al-Diwaniyah city (Picture 3), youth of the sit-in square formed three voluntary groups to distribute food to poor families as well as to raise awareness of the risks that COVID-19 poses to the nation.
In the city of Basra (Picture 4), Al-Watan Youth Team sterilised the central sit-in square and the tents in it, as well extending their cleaning work to some neighboring areas in addition to other popular areas, in cooperation with the Directorate of Civil Defense.
The protesters in other governorates, such as Maysan Governorate, have decided to return to their homes and remain at home until the current crisis ends, according to the directives of the Ministry of Health in order to prevent the spread of the virus.
Ongoing attacks on sit-in protesters
The riot police, backed by other security forces, are trying to take advantage of the COVID-19 crisis and the voluntary reduction of numbers of sit-ins by the protesters, in order to pounce on the various sit-in arenas and end the popular movement despite a series of effective measures taken by the protesters in order to prevent the spread of the virus and maintain the safety of all. In the meantime, the armed militias colluding with some elements of power within the security services have worked since the beginning of the peaceful demonstrations to end the protests with threats and deliberate killings in order to silence the voices demanding the establishment of a state of law and true citizenship.
On 03 April 2020, despite the reduction in the sit-in numbers in Al-Haboubi Square in Nasiriyah and the formation by demonstrators of 40 volunteer teams as part of relief efforts and preventive campaigns to limit the spread of COVID-19, riot forces attacked Al-Haboubi square using live bullets and teargas grenades. The attack followed a protest that took place outside the square, and resulted in the death of a peaceful protester, Abdullah Saleh (Abboud) (pictured above), and 18 injured among peaceful demonstrators.
Dozens of people riding motorcycles and small cars had demonstrated earlier in the evening of the same day, protesting the curfew imposed in Dhi Qar Governorate to stop the spread of the coronavirus due to its impact on workers who receive daily wages. They marched through the streets of Nasiriyah, before they went to the victory bridge in the centre of the city to open it to the traffic, where they were confronted by the security forces, including the riot police. During the clashes that ensued, a member of the security forces lost his life. Those protesters were then tracked down and arrested in Al-Haboubi Square, to where they had fled. The regular Al-Haboubi Square protestors declared that the group of protesters who broke the curfew did not represent them.
In Baghdad, on 26 March 2020, riot police tried to advance from Saadoun Street towards Tahrir Square, but the protesters responded by blocking them, which resulted in a number of them being slightly injured.
Targeting of journalists and the media
On 02 April 2020, the Media and Communications Commission issued a statement saying, "Based on the authority of the Commission in accordance with the enforceable order (65), and the terms of the license granted to it, and for the violation by Reuters Agency of the media broadcasting regulations, it was decided to suspend the license of their office in Iraq for a period of three months, and fine it with an amount of 25 million Iraqi dinars [approx.. USD$21,000], and the agency is obliged to submit an official apology.” The order to suspend Reuters’ activity came after it published a news report entitled, “Sources: The actual number of Coronavirus cases in Iraq exceeds the announced by thousands.” There is no doubt that the competent authorities in the Iraqi Ministry of Health could have provided information to counter the news report, instead of resorting to these arbitrary methods and seeking to silence the media.
On 11 March 2020, journalist Adnan Rashidi was attacked by a group of three to five masked persons who stormed his house located in Penjwen city, 96 km from the city of Sulaymaniyah, near the Iranian border, and punched and hit him with sticks after handcuffing his hands and feet. They broke his hand and forced him to turn over his electronic devices on which he stored data on his fellow activists in Iran. Rashidi only gave over the information after realizing that the attackers were also holding his wife and daughter. On 17 March 2020, the Sulaymaniyah Governorate Police Directorate published a brief statement stating that it had arrested two people suspected of involvement in the assault, without giving further details. Rashidi is an Iranian Kurdish journalist working in Iraq, who is the editor of the Kurdistan Human Rights Association news website that monitors human rights violations in the Kurdish regions of Iraq, Syria, and Iran.
Arrests and attacks on civil society activists and peaceful protesters
On 29 March 2020 at night, civil society activist Abdulmasih Romeo Jean Sarkis was arbitrarily arrested without a warrant by the riot police near Al-Khilani Square, and there is no information yet about his whereabouts. Sarkis, 34, is a resident of the Al-Seha district of the Al-Dora area in the capital, Baghdad. His parents are old and he has a brother with special needs.
On 16 March 12020, a civil society activist Raed Al-Daami (Abu Ibrahim), a member of the Coordinating Committee for the City of Karbala, was arrested by the security forces. He was released the next day, on 17 March 2020.
At 2:00 a.m. on 12 March 2020, two masked persons on a motorcycle fired seven bullets at the car of human rights defender Reda Ali Al-Okaili, the coordinator of the Maysan Governorate Student Union, which was parked in front of his house. Luckily, he had entered his house seven minutes before the attack. The assassination attempt came only hours after Al-Aqili posted on 11 March 2020 a hashtag on his Facebook page that reads: #I’m_the next_betrayed. He put the hashtag the day after an unidentified armed group assassinated human rights defender Abdulqudus Qasim, a theatre/television producer and actor, and his Karar Adel, a human rights lawyer who worked at the Maysan Federal Appeal Court. Al-Okaili had published a video documenting the assassination which had spread widely.
On 17 March 2020, 30-year-old civil society activist Ahmed Ghaleb Khadim (also known as Ahmed Al-Ghalib), a computer programmer and expert in fighting electronic blackmail (picture on the left), was released. He was in detention since 25 December 2019, when he was kidnapped in Baghdad by unknown parties traveling in a four-wheel drive vehicle without a license plate. Al-Ghalib supported the peaceful demonstrations using his extensive online experience. He stated on his Facebook page that he had received numerous threats and had to change his residence several times, prior to his abduction. He has appeared on many television programs, speaking about how to combat electronic blackmail, and he has received many technical certificates from various institutions.
On 06 April 2020, civil society activist Ali Sabah Al-Mousawi was released by government security forces, who arrested him on 02 March 2020 as he was leaving Al-Tahrir Square. He was detained in Al-Muthanna airport detention facility, where hundreds of peaceful demonstrators are being held in connection with their participation in the popular protests. Al-Mousawi has participated in Al-Tahrir Square protests since their inception.
On 05 April 2002, in the early hours of the morning, an armed and masked group stormed the house of prominent civil society activist Anwar Jassem Mhawwas (Um Abbas), and killed her. Her two sons were wounded in the attack on the family’s house on Ikhlas Street in the old exhibition area in the centre of Nasiriyah. Her fellow activists at noon on the same day organised her funeral in the middle of Al-Haboubi Square and through the city streets. Um Abbas participated in the current protests from the beginning and had an effective and distinguished presence in Al-Haboubi Square, the sit-in centre in Nasiriyah. She was preparing bread by hand (picture on the right) and presenting it to the demonstrators, as well as singing enthusiastic songs (picture on the left).
The complicity of the security forces is clear in the ability of this armed group to move freely despite the imposition of a curfew in the city to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and the extensive presence of the security forces in various streets of the city. Clearly Um Abbas was targeted for her courage and endless defense of the rights of the poor and her call to continue the protests non-stop, and this was evident by her leadership on 02 April 2020 of a demonstration calling for the curfew in Nasiriyah to be broken so the popular movement could continue.
Targeting of voluntary paramedic teams
Repeated and deliberate attacks on doctors and paramedics have continued, even while they are providing first aid and treatment services to wounded demonstrators. On 09 March 2020, civil society activist Huthyfa Baher Al-Dizdar, a volunteer paramedic and a member of the Iraqi Red Crescent since 2016, was wounded when riot police forces fired a cartridge containing small iron balls from a hunting rifle at him while he was performing his duties near Al-Khilani Square, wearing the Iraqi Red Crescent uniform. Al-Dizdar, 26, saved the lives of many of the injured among the peaceful demonstrators since he began his voluntary work at the beginning of the demonstrations in early October with four of his colleagues. Al-Dizdar heads an organisation called "Shelter for Humanitarian Aid and Empowerment".
Appeals for a special session on Iraq at the Human Rights Council
Prominent human rights defender Hanaa Edwar, president of the Iraqi Al-Amal Association, participated in the 43rd session of the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva, where she talked during an event on freedom of expression, demonstration and peaceful assembly. She discussed the grave violations committed against peaceful protesters and journalists since 01 October 2019, including the use of lethal force against protests by government security forces and armed groups, resulting in the deaths of more than 600 and more than 25,000 wounded, the majority of whom are youth. Edwar also called on the Human Rights Council to hold a special session on Iraq during its next session to condemn attacks and crimes against demonstrators, and to call on the government of Iraq to act immediately to stop these practices, and ensure accountability and justice, as well as compensation for the victims and their families.
GCHR calls on the Iraqi government to take full responsibility to protect all demonstrators, journalists, human rights defenders and members of the voluntary paramedic teams, including during the COVID-19 outbreak. The authorities must identify the perpetrators of killings as soon as possible and bring them to court. Authorities must fulfill their constitutional obligations not to violate public freedoms, including the freedom to peaceful assembly, freedom of expression, and freedom of the press, which can be respected while protecting public health.