(New York) - Kurdistan authorities should end their widening crackdown on peaceful protests in northern Iraq, Human Rights Watch said today. The authorities should hold accountable those responsible for attacking protesters and journalists in Arbil and Sulaimaniya since April 17, 2011, including opening fire on demonstrators and beating them severely, Human Rights Watch said.
Human Rights Watch also called on Iraqi authorities in Baghdad to investigate the detention and torture of a protester, Alaa Nabil, and to charge or release more than two dozen activists held in a prison in Baghdad's Old Muthanna Airport. Central government and Kurdistan Regional Government authorities should revoke their recent bans on unlicensed demonstrations in Sulaimaniya province and on street protests in Baghdad, Human Rights Watch said.
"Iraqi authorities in Kurdistan and Baghdad need to rein in their security forces and protect the right to protest peacefully," said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. "The Iraqi political authorities need to end their knee-jerk responses and stop banning protests, detaining demonstrators, and beating journalists."
Repression in Kurdistan
In the afternoon of April 18 in Arbil, the Kurdistan capital, dozens of armed men in civilian clothes attacked students from the Kurdistan region's largest university, Salahadin, as they tried to hold a demonstration. Witnesses told Human Rights Watch that the assailants also attacked journalists and at least one member of parliament.
A third-year Salahadin student told Human Rights Watch that a large group of organized assailants wearing civilian clothes attacked the protesters with brute force.
"We chanted ‘freedom, freedom,' and then security forces came and abolished the demonstration," the student said. "They were hitting people by knives and sticks ... and arrested 23 protesters."
The assailants beat Muhamad Kyani, a member of the Iraqi national parliament for the opposition party Goran (Change) List, and his bodyguard while they were walking away from the demonstration. "There was no violence from us, nothing happened from our side to incite them," Kyani told Human Rights Watch. "I was on my way to the car when the Asayish [the official security agency for the Kurdistan region] threw me to the ground and started to kick and beat me." Kyani had two black eyes and other minor injuries from the beating. "They just wanted to intimidate and insult me and those with me," he said. "During the beating they swore at us and called me a traitor."
Reporters without Borders documented attacks on at least 10 journalists covering the April 18 protest. The group said assailants also detained numerous journalists, including Awara Hamid of the newspaper Rozhnam, Bahman Omer of Civil Magazine, Hajar Anwar, bureau chief of the Kurdistan News Network, and Mariwan Mala Hassan, a KNN reporter, as well as two of the station's cameramen.
Shwan Sidiq of Civil Magazine was hospitalized after the assailants broke his hand. "My hand is broken, my head still hurts," he told Human Rights Watch. "What I saw was what in 1988 Saddam Hussein did against me and my family."
Security forces of the Kurdistan Regional Government and the two ruling parties there, the Kurdistan Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, have used repressive measures against journalists since the start of the protests in Iraq on February 17. The local press freedom group Metro Center has documented more than 150 cases of attacks and harassment of Kurdish journalists since February 17. In March, Human Rights Watch interviewed more than 20 journalists covering the protests in Kurdistan.
"Time and again we found that security forces and their proxies violate journalists' freedom of expression through death threats, arbitrary arrests, beatings, harassment, and by confiscating and vandalizing their equipment," Stork said.
In Sulaimaniya, daily clashes since April 17 have injured more than 100 protesters, journalists, and security forces. Witnesses told Human Rights Watch that on April 17 security forces fired live ammunition into the air to clear protesters blocking a road, while others shot into the crowd indiscriminately, wounding at least seven demonstrators.
"Police and security forces used everything to attack us," one protester told Human Rights Watch. "They opened fire, threw stones, used sticks and their Kalashnikovs to keep us from demonstrating."
Protest organizers told Human Rights Watch that on April 18, security forces violently seized control of Sara Square, the center of daily protests in Sulaimaniya since February 17, and demolished the protesters' podium. Security forces have fanned out across the city and have refused to allow protesters back to the site - renamed Azadi (Freedom) Square by demonstrators - resulting in clashes on April 18 and 19.
On March 6, masked assailants attacked demonstrators and set their tents on fire but failed to evict protesters from the site.
On April 19, protest organizers said, security forces detained dozens of students and others in and around Sulaimaniya, releasing most later in the day. One law undergraduate told Human Rights Watch that security forces attacked her and other protesters at the Dukan checkpoint on their way to Sulaimaniya.
"We were forced to get off the buses," she said. "They threatened if we went [to the protest], we would be killed. A friend of mine asked them not to shoot us because we have pens and not guns, but when he raised his pen security forces opened fire and he was badly injured."
Since then, this student said, she has received anonymous threatening phone calls telling her not to return to Sulaymaniya. Security forces raided Koya University, where she studies, and arrested two students. Their whereabouts remain unknown.
The family of a prominent Kurdish writer and activist, Rebin Hardi, told Human Rights Watch that security forces severely beat him during and after his arrest on April 19 for participating in a protest in front of the Sulaimaniya courthouse. Photos taken after his release later that day viewed by Human Rights Watch showed severe swelling up and down the right side of his body including his eye, arm, and thigh.
Since February 17, clashes with security forces have killed at least seven civilians and injured more than 250 demonstrators in Kurdistan, but thousands have continued to protest alleged corruption and the political dominance of the KDP and PUK.
On April 19, the government's Security Committee for Sulaimaniya Province banned all unlicensed demonstrations. Legislation passed by the Kurdistan Regional Government in December gives authorities wide discretion in deciding whether to approve a license for a protest. The law's wording is exceptionally vague and susceptible to abuse, Human Rights Watch said. Under article 3(c) of the law, authorities can reject a request if "the protest will damage the system or public decency."
Protests in Baghdad
Iraqi security forces in Baghdad are detaining and abusing activists in connection with protests against the chronic lack of basic services and perceived widespread corruption. On April 8, security forces in a vehicle with markings from the 43rd Brigade of the Army's 11th Division, arrested Nabil at the end of a peaceful protest at Tahrir Square. He was immediately transferred to other security forces in civilian clothing, and held for a week.
Released on April 15, Nabil, an organizer of the February 25 Group - one of several groups planning demonstrations in the capital - told Human Rights Watch that he had been beaten repeatedly while his hands were held behind his back with plastic zip-ties, and often while blindfolded. He said his captors also used a stun gun on his arms, chest, and back.
"I heard them giving orders to shock us and hit us only below the neck, so there wouldn't be any marks. They shocked me and hit me on the arms and back and chest," he said. "I got a cut on my head that was bleeding, and one of the guards yelled at another who caused it. ‘Why did you make him bleed? He is a son of a bitch and will make a scandal for us. Do not leave any marks. Hit him in places where there will be no marks.'"
Nabil said his captors went through his cell phone and told him, "We know all these numbers, and we are watching and listening to all your calls.'"
Nabil had previously been arrested on March 22, and Human Rights Watch witnessed signs of physical abuse immediately after his release from that detention. Human Rights Watch sent inquiries about Nabil's arrest and others to the offices of the prime minister and security officials but has received no response from authorities.
On April 13, security forces entered the adjoining offices of the Federation of Workers Councils and Unions in Iraq (FWCUI) and the Organization of Women's Freedom in Iraq (OWFI), where the February 25 Group has held meetings in Baghdad. The security forces arrested one of the group's members, Firas Ali, who has peacefully participated in several of the Tahrir Square demonstrations.
A protester detained in early April for taking part in demonstrations at Tahrir Square told Human Rights Watch upon his release that he saw Ali inside a prison in Baghdad's Old Muthanna Airport. The witness said Ali was being held with more than two dozen protesters, 20 of whom were detained on the day of the April 15 demonstration.
Human Rights Watch is also concerned about Haydar Shihab Ahmad, also from the February 25 Group, who has been missing since April 1, just after taking part in that day's demonstration in Baghdad's Tahrir Square. Members of his family told Human Rights Watch that they have made several inquiries at prisons in Baghdad in unsuccessful attempts to locate him, and have received no official reply about whether he has been detained.
"Iraqi authorities need to release any peaceful protester held incommunicado and without charge, and account for those it is charging with a criminal offense," Stork said.
Iraqi authorities have taken several steps to eliminate protests in the capital from public view. On April 13, officials issued new regulations barring street protests and allowing them only at three soccer stadiums.
"We have specified Al-Shaab, Kashafa and Zawraa stadiums as permitted sites for demonstrations in Baghdad instead of Ferdus or Tahrir squares," Baghdad's security spokesman, Major General Qassim Atta, said at a news conference televised by the state broadcaster, Iraqiyya TV. "Many shop owners and street vendors have called us and complained to us because demonstrations have affected their work and the movement of traffic."
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 Tahrir Square. During nationwide February 25 protests, security forces killed at least 12 protesters across the country and injured more than 100. On that day, Human Rights Watch observed Baghdad security forces beating unarmed journalists and protesters, smashing cameras, and confiscating memory cards.
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 onerous regulations 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.
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."