(Beirut) - Security forces under the control of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) stood by and watched as dozens of masked men attacked protesters in Sulaimaniya on March 6, 2011, Human Rights Watch said today. Assailants were allowed to beat and take away demonstrators and set their tents alight, while another group ransacked the office of an independent Kurdish radio station. Security forces have an obligation to protect the right to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly, Human Rights Watch said.
Early in the morning on March 6, dozens of masked men carrying firearms and clubs arrived in unmarked military vehicles and attacked a group of more than 100 peaceful protesters camping at Azadi square in Sulaimaniya, eyewitnesses and protest organizers told Human Rights Watch. They said that Asayish forces (the official security agency for the Kurdistan region) in the square stood by and watched as masked men, some wearing black uniforms, clubbed protesters and set their tents on fire.
"Security forces of the Kurdistan Regional Government can't hide behind thugs to do their dirty work," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. "It is shameful that after decades of repression, Kurds today still don't have the rights and freedoms promised by the KRG, including the right to peaceful protest."
Witnesses told Human Rights Watch that they saw the gang haul away several demonstrators. Protest organizers say that at least 15 demonstrators are missing and that the assailants destroyed loudspeakers and other equipment at the square.
"I was chatting with a few friends inside one of the tents and suddenly at 2:20 a.m. I heard a gunshot from a pistol and a couple minutes later gangs [wielding clubs] ... stormed the tents hitting everything on their way," said a lawyer who was at the demonstration and witnessed the attack. "Several of them were carrying containers filled with petrol. They were pouring them on the tents and immediately other attackers set the tents on fire. They were beating people who were asleep."
Three protesters told Human Rights Watch that when they separately approached Asayish for help during the attack, the officers responded that they did not have authorization to intervene. Following the attack, the Independent Lawyers' Group met with the director general of Sulaimaniya's Asayish who told them that his forces were not behind the attack, a lawyer from the group told Human Rights Watch. The director general further told the group that the Asayish "cannot provide protection for the demonstrators if they block main streets and [the Asayish] will not take responsibility for their safety."
Also in the early hours of March 6, about 10 gunmen stormed the office of the independent community Radio Dang, the station's executive director, Azad Osman, told Human Rights Watch. He said that the gunmen handcuffed the night guard of the building, broke most of the broadcasting equipment, and confiscated other items. He said that the radio station, which is located in Kalar, southeast of Sulaimaniya, has covered the recent anti-government demonstrations that spread throughout the province.
Since February 17, clashes with security forces have killed five and injured more than 150 demonstrators in Sulaimaniya. Thousands of demonstrators have continued their protest against alleged corruption and the political dominance of the two ruling parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK).
In recent weeks, assailants have ransacked or torched offices of the opposition Goran party in the KRG-administered cities of Erbil, Dohuk, and Soran, according to journalists and news reports. On February 17, Hawlati, an independent bi-weekly newspaper, evacuated its offices after receiving threats from uniformed security forces stationed at a nearby KDP office.
On February 20, armed men stormed the headquarters of Nalia Television in Sulaimaniya, shooting up broadcasting equipment, wounding a guard, and burning the building down, according to staff of the station. Nalia Television had begun its first broadcast two days earlier with footage of the protests. In the last 10 days of February, state security forces and unknown assailants attacked, arrested, and threatened at least 40 journalists in the Kurdistan region, including slashing the face of a Hawlati reporter, according to information from Reporters without Borders.
Protests Outside Kurdistan
Scores of demonstrations have also taken place in the rest of Iraq since early February, mainly focused on the chronic lack of basic services and perceived widespread corruption. Since February 16, state security forces have killed more than 17 protesters and injured more than 250 at demonstrations throughout the country. In the capital, the Baghdad Operations Command severely limited demonstrations on March 4 and February 25 after imposing a ban on vehicles. During the March 4 protest, security forces cut off much of the access to the protest site and Human Rights Watch observed security forces turning away dozens of peaceful demonstrators and journalists at checkpoints leading to the site.
During the nationwide February 25 protests, security forces killed at least 12 protesters across the country and injured more than 100. Human Rights Watch observed Baghdad security forces beating unarmed journalists and protesters, smashing cameras and confiscating memory cards. During the protests, security forces across Iraq arrested more than 20 media workers, according to information from Reporters Without Borders.
One female Iraqi journalist with swollen marks on her face told Human Rights Watch that police beat her with batons when security forces cleared the protest site. "Everyone was running to get away, and I stood in an alley and thought they would leave me alone. They got closer, I heard them calling everybody in the protest ‘Baathists' while they beat them with batons. I stood still against a wall and held up my press badge. One soldier beat my face and my head with his baton, but then some men stood over me to protect me. They were also beaten."
Security forces continued their crack down on journalists immediately after the protest. In one incident in Baghdad, they arrested four journalists at a Baghdad restaurant, and beat, blindfolded, and threatened them with torture during their subsequent interrogation, the journalists and other witnesses told Human Rights Watch.
"When they started to hit us, we told them we were journalists. They said, ‘Fuck you and fuck journalism,'" Hadi al-Mahdi, a radio journalist, told Human Rights Watch on February 26. He had several bruises and red marks on his face, neck, and shoulders, as well as his legs and abdomen. "Since I was blindfolded, I could not see anything. They held an object in front of me and told me to touch it. It was a large phallic object, and they told me they were about to rape me with it."
In late February, Iraqi police allowed dozens of assailants to beat and stab peaceful protesters in Baghdad. In the early hours of February 21, dozens of men, some wielding knives and clubs, attacked about 50 protesters who had set up two tents in Baghdad's Tahrir Square. The assailants stabbed and beat at least 20 of the protesters who were intending to camp in the square until February 25, when groups had called for national protests similar to the "Day of Anger" in Egypt. The February 21 attack came directly after the police had withdrawn from the square, and witnesses suggested the assailants were in discussion with the police before they attacked.
On June 25, 2010, in response to thousands of Iraqis who took to the streets to protest a chronic lack of government services, the interior ministry issued regulations 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. These regulations are still in effect.
Iraq's constitution guarantees "freedom of assembly and peaceful demonstration."As a state party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Iraq is obligated to protect the rights to life and security of the person, and the rights to freedom of expression, association, and peaceful assembly. Iraq should also abide by the United Nations 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."