Iraq: Armed militia in Basra systematically trying to assassinate human rights defenders


The Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR) is devastated to learn of the murder of prominent human rights defender Dr. Riham Yaqoub (photo on the left above), who was assassinated on the evening of 19 August 2020, by unidentified gunmen who fired rounds of bullets at her. She was driving her car near the intersection of the commercial street in the centre of Basra, accompanied by her sister and friend, who were slightly injured from the shattered glass of the car windows. Another group of activists narrowly escaped assassination in a similar attack two days prior in Basra.

Dr. Yaqoub participated strongly in the protests that took place in Basra in 2018, as is evident in this video, in which she loudly shouts profound words that define the nature of the protesters and their independence: “I am, my loyalty to the homeland” and then she talks about the demands of citizens in Basra. Recent footage of her car after the assassination were added to the video. On 27 December 2017, she wrote on her Instagram account, "God created us as a separate being, so it is shameful to be a follower."

The targeted killing came on the heels of a massive online hate campaign against Dr. Yaqoub, aimed at distorting her legitimate and peaceful human rights work. She informed her colleagues that she had received a lot of threats from anonymous sources since 2018.

Dr. Yaqoub is a graduate of the College of Education and Sports Sciences at the University of Basra in 2013 and a PhD student in the same college since 2019, holding a master's degree in sports training in 2016. She is also a lecturer at Basra University, a fitness expert, a researcher in dietetics, and has a degree in sports medicine from the Academy Science and scientific research in London in 2016. She started working as a fitness trainer since 2016. Likewise, she worked in the media in 2015 with Basra Time Square Radio and then Al-Rasheed FM.

Dr. Yaqoub has many initiatives that have contributed to the reshaping of women’s sport. She established her own gymnasium in the name of Dr. Fit for Health and Fitness and moved the events from inside the sports hall that she had established abroad. She started encouraging women to go out for free walking around Basra city in 2015 and named the initiative, "The Pride of My City." Her ambition was to renew training programs, make sport a part of community life, and start training men.

In this radio interview, which she posted on her Facebook page as part of the "Iraqi Female Creators" program, she talks about her life, achievements and ambitions. One participant in her initiatives described her as "the official sponsor of happiness." When the Coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic spread in the country, her gym was automatically closed to prevent the spread of the virus and continued with online sports training.

Another group of human rights defenders survived an assassination attempt two days prior. On 17 August 2020, at 5:45 pm, at the Kut Ajaj intersection in front of the Marcorkis Church of the Assyrian community, unidentified gunmen in a saloon car opened fire on a car carrying human rights defender Lodya Remon Albarti (main photo at the top on the right), and civil society activists Fahd Al-Zubaidi (the picture above on the right) and Abbas Subhi (the image above on the left) resulting in the injury of Albarti in the leg and Subhi in the chest. They were transferred to Basra Teaching Hospital to receive the necessary treatment and were discharged in good health.  

Albarti, an Iraqi Christian, started her human rights work in 2017 as a volunteer in the Iraqi Al-Firdaws Association, in which she later became an employee in charge of monitoring and evaluation and as a human development trainer. In 2018, she joined the Iraqi Social Forum, which is based in Baghdad, to become the coordinator of its activities in Basra Governorate.

Albarti is also the director of the Euphrates Protection Team that works in the field of environmental pollution control and water conservation. In 2019, as a coordinator and team manager, she joined the "Bridge to Italian" organisation, which specialises in non-violence and advocacy of conflict resolution through dialogue. In September 2018, as an independent feminist activist, she and Dr. Yaqoub led a feminist protest demonstration as part of the protests that ravaged Basra Governorate that year. Fahad Al-Zubaidi and Abbas Subhi are independent civil society activists who have strongly participated in the current popular movement and have participated in the main sit-in square activities in Basra from the beginning.

Local reports suggested that the ongoing assassinations campaign is being executed by one militant group that is known to some top officials in the Governorate of Basra.

GCHR announces its grief over the killing of the courageous human rights defender and academic Dr. Riham Yaqoub, who has been distinguished by creativity, sincerity, persistence and serious work, and shares her family’s and loved ones’ deep sorrow. GCHR also expresses its deep concern and condemnation about the continuing systematic assassinations of human rights defenders in Basra Governorate, including the failed assassination attempt against human rights defender Lodya Remon Albarti and civil society activists Fahad Al-Zubaidi and Abbas Subhi.

Once again, GCHR calls on the Iraqi government to assume full responsibility for protecting all protesters, journalists, human rights defenders and members of civil society. GCHR strongly calls for all international mechanisms, including the United Nations system, to push the Iraqi authorities to fulfill their constitutional obligations to protect peaceful protesters and activists and to stop the killings and assassinations carried out by members of the security forces and members of armed groups.