Eight years have passed since the United States-led invasion ended Saddam Hussein's totalitarian reign and promised Iraq a democratically elected alternative respectful of its citizens' rights.

Today, Iraqis are still waiting. The country is at a crossroads: either Iraq will embrace due process and take human rights protection seriously or it will risk reverting back to a police state. Recent developments are ominous.

Protests sweeping the Middle East have motivated thousands of Iraqis from all walks of life to demonstrate in cities across the country. They are making more modest demands than their regime-change-seeking neighbors; for now, they are content in calling for an end to a chronic lack of basic services and widespread corruption. But the democratically elected Iraqi government has reacted to these protests in much the same way as its despotic counterparts around the region.

While authorities in Erbil and Baghdad profess the right of citizens to take to the streets, in practice both governments have brutally suppressed protesters and journalists covering the events.  Since February 16 security forces have killed at least 17 protesters across Iraq and injured more than 250. Thugs acting with tacit official approval stabbed peaceful protesters in Baghdad, while their Sulaymaniyah counterparts beat demonstrators and set their tents on fire. Security forces and their proxies in Kurdistan and Baghdad have raided media outlets and the offices of a prominent press freedom group, confiscating or destroying equipment and documents. They have attacked, arrested and threatened dozens of journalists, smashed cameras and confiscated memory cards.

Media workers are unsafe even away from the protests. After the nationwide February 25 protests, security forces arrested four journalists at a Baghdad restaurant, blindfolded and beat them and threatened them with torture during their subsequent interrogation. This latest crackdown does not come as a surprise to many Iraqis, especially minority groups and detainees, whose rights are routinely violated with impunity.

Iraq has made some progress by pulling itself away from the widespread civil strife that engulfed the country in 2006 and 2007. But there has been a price for this success: the central and regional governments have consolidated their power and rejected challenges to their authority, often with violence.

As journalists try to cover daily news of any kind they find themselves contending with emboldened Iraqi and Kurdish security forces and their image-conscious central and regional political leaders. The journalists face harassment, intimidation, arrest and often physical assault by state or political party security forces, and senior politicians are quick to sue journalists and their publications over unflattering articles. Impunity for some of the worst crimes have become all too common and cover-ups the norm.

Secret prisons are back

In February, Human Rights Watch uncovered a secret detention site in Baghdad, run by elite security forces answering to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's military office. At two other Baghdad facilities over the past year, forces belonging to two brigades outside the Defense Ministry's chain of command have tortured, with complete impunity, detainees accused of terrorism. The prime minister also directly controls the Counter-Terrorism Service, which is subject to neither ministerial nor legislative oversight.

Iraqi authorities should hold these security forces accountable, along with the commanders who gave the orders or who looked away from the abuses their subalterns were committing. Iraqi leaders owe it to their citizens, who have endured enormous trauma through decades of political strife, wars, tyranny, sanctions and corruption that have destroyed much of their faith in effective governance. The United States and the United Kingdom claim to have created a society based on the rule of law and respect for human rights, while training security forces to respect those basic rights. But the response of those forces to recent demonstrations shows a different reality. Fundamental change is needed.

Iraq's long transition to a democratic society largely depends on whether its central and regional governments will take actions matching their rhetoric and end the environment of impunity, protect human rights and hold accountable those who violate them.

SAMER MUSCATI is a Middle East and North Africa researcher for Human Rights Watch