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(New York) - Iraqi authorities should open an independent and transparent investigation into the reported shooting of several protesters in demonstrations on February 16 and 17, 2011, Human Rights Watch said today. Iraqi security forces should respect the right of free assembly and use only the minimum necessary force when violence occurs at protests, Human Rights Watch said.

According to multiple news reports, on February 17, security guards reportedly opened fire on a crowd of protesters in Sulaimaniya, killing at least one person and wounding more than 33 others after the crowd threw rocks at the political headquarters of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), headed by Massoud Barzani, president of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). On February 16 Iraqi police in Kut, southeast of Baghdad, opened fire on angry demonstrators outside the governorate of Wasit province, killing three and wounding more than 50, according to various news reports and a protest organizer.

"Iraqi forces and their commanders have a lot of explaining to do to justify the use of live ammunition on demonstrators," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. "Similar behavior by security forces in this tense time in the region has only ignited more powerful and angry popular reactions."

Dozens of small-scale demonstrations have taken place across the country since early February, mainly centered on the chronic lack of electricity and widespread corruption. Numerous internet groups have urged Iraqis to take to the streets on February 25 for a "Revolution of Iraqi Rage," one month after the "Day of Rage" in Egypt that ultimately led to the ousting of Hosni Mubarak from the presidency.

Thousands of Iraqis took to the streets in the summer of 2010 to protest a chronic lack of government services. To counter those protests, the interior ministry issued regulations on June 25 with onerous provisions that effectively impeded Iraqis from organizing lawful protests. The regulations required organizers to get "written approval of both the minister of interior and the provincial governor" before submitting an application to the relevant police department, not less than 72 hours before a planned event.

At a news conference in Baghdad on February 17 Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki said: "I have requested that the interior ministry not refuse to grant a permit for a demonstration to anyone, but at the same time, those who demonstrate must obtain the proper permits and refrain from rioting. ...Those who cause rioting will be tracked down."

Iraq's constitution guarantees "freedom of assembly and peaceful demonstration." As a state party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Iraq must protect and promote freedom of expression and association, and the right to assemble peacefully. Iraq should also abide by the UN Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms, which state that lethal force may only be used when strictly unavoidable to protect life, and must be exercised with restraint and proportionality. The Principles also require governments to "ensure that arbitrary or abusive use of force and firearms by law enforcement officials is punished as a criminal offense under their law."

Human rights law on the right to life, including Article 6 of the ICCPR, requires there to be an effective and open investigation when deaths may have been caused by state officials, leading to the identification and prosecution of the perpetrators of any crimes that took place.

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