(Tunis) - Iraqi authorities have detained, interrogated, and beaten several protest organizers in Baghdad in recent days, Human Rights Watch said today. Iraqi authorities should stop the attacks and charge or release those being held, Human Rights Watch said.
In Iraqi Kurdistan, a protest organizer, Isma'il Abdullah, was abducted, stabbed, and beaten on May 27, 2011. The Kurdistan government should make sure its promised investigation of the episode is thorough, fair, and transparent, and leads to the prosecution of those responsible, Human Rights Watch said.
"Authorities in Baghdad and in Iraqi-Kurdistan are keeping their citizens from demonstrating peacefully," said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. "Iraq needs to make sure that security forces and pro-government gangs stop targeting protest organizers, activists, and journalists."
Several activists in the capital told Human Rights Watch that they believed that the increased security at Baghdad's Tahrir Square and the recent arrests were an attempt to head off reinvigoration of public protests, amid efforts by various small protest groups to work together. They said that neighborhood officials had warned them that security forces had made increased inquiries into the activists' whereabouts and activities over the past two weeks.
On May 28, soldiers in four Humvees and two other unmarked vehicles approached the offices of the human rights group Where Are My Rights in Baghdad's Bab al Mu'adham neighborhood, as members met with fellow protest organizers from the February 25 Group. Members of both groups told Human Rights Watch that soldiers raided the building with guns drawn, took away 13 activists in handcuffs and blindfolds, and confiscated mobile phones, computers and documents.
One detained activist who was released on May 29 told Human Rights Watch that during the raid a commanding officer introduced himself as "from Brigade 43"of the army's 11th Division and said another officer was "from Baghdad Operation Command."
"They did not show any arrest warrants and did not tell us why we were being arrested," this activist said:
A female activist complained and asked to see warrants, and they told her to "shut up and get in the car." They blindfolded and handcuffed us, and while they were doing this, they asked, "Why are you having these meetings? Do you really think you can bring down the government?" And they asked who was supporting us.
The activist said that the army took the people it arrested to a detention facility at Division 11 headquarters, where they were interrogated both as a group and individually. "Once we were there, they hit us with their hands in the face, neck, chest, and arms while we were still blindfolded," the activist said. "They kicked us everywhere they could reach. They did not use batons on me, and they talked to each other about not leaving marks or bruises on us."
The released activist and several members of both organizations said security forces are still holding nine of the activists and have released four without any charges. "I asked what crimes we had committed, and asked again about arrest warrants," said the released activist. "They never answered either question."
On May 27, men in civilian clothing detained four student protesters - Jihad Jalil, Ali al-Jaf, Mouyed Faisal, and Ahmed Al-Baghdadi - near a peaceful protest at Baghdad's Tahrir Square, witnesses said. "When [the protesters] started to struggle, uniformed security forces joined in to help the abductors," one witness told Human Rights Watch. "I saw Jihad [one of the protesters] dragged across the ground. A soldier pointed an AK-47 against Jihad's head and cocked it, threatening to shoot him if he moved. People started panicking and running."
In the confusion that followed, some witnesses said they saw security forces push the four protesters into an ambulance that sped away, though others were not sure what happened to them. Members of two of the students' families told Human Rights Watch that authorities would not tell them where they had been taken, despite multiple inquiries. The brother of one said, "We talked to officials from the Interior Ministry, the 11th Division, the Baghdad Brigade, and other prisons. They all say they do not have him and don't know anything about him."
Human Rights Watch received no response from a government spokesman to requests for information about the four protesters' whereabouts. On May 31, state-run Iraqiya TV broadcast a Baghdad Operation Command statement saying security forces had arrested the students for carrying forged IDs and not for participating in protests.
One of the detained students, a frequent protest organizer, had been chased by unknown assailants 10 days earlier and had been afraid to sleep at home since, a family member told Human Rights Watch, "He called us a few times, but would not tell us where he was staying, because he was convinced that security forces were after him and would come arrest him if they were tapping the phone line."
According to witnesses and media reports, there was a significantly larger presence of government security forces on May 27 than at other weekly Friday demonstrations that have taken place since February 25 over the chronic lack of basic services and perceived widespread corruption.
In the Kurdistan attack, in Sulaimaniya, a group of eight armed masked men, some in military clothes, grabbed Abdullah, 28, an organizer and frequent speaker at Sulaimaniya protests, as he was buying a phone card at about 12:05 a.m. on May 27, and whisked him away in an unmarked Nissan patrol car. Abdullah told Human Rights Watch that after they drove for a half-hour, the men pulled him out of the vehicle into a field, where they covered his head, stabbed his arm, and pounded him with their fists and butts of their pistols and rifles.
During the beating, he said, when one of the assailants suggested they kill him, others said they "needed an order from above." One assailant left to make a phone call and when he returned, he told the others "not to kill me but to do something very bad to my face." They removed the cover from his head and one of the gang "beat my face with the Kalashnikov many times until my nose was broken."
At about 2 a.m., he said, they dumped him on the outskirt of the city. Before they left, he said, "they threatened me to never participate in any protests and I should be thrilled that they didn't kill me this time."
Abdullah said that after he filed a police complaint the following day, government and security officials called him and promised to investigate.
On May 29, Hakim Qadir Hamajan, director of Sulaimaniya's security forces, told Human Rights Watch, "We condemn all such acts of violence. The investigation is ongoing, and no information can be released yet, but we are working to find whoever is responsible and bring them before the courts to be prosecuted."
Abdullah had gone into hiding in mid-April after receiving threatening phone calls and text messages because of his protest involvement. He said he had re-emerged six weeks later because he believed he was no longer at risk after hearing that officials and opposition parties would be discussing Kurdistan's political crisis.
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.
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.
Security forces of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and its ruling parties have used repressive measures against journalists and demonstrators since the start of the daily protests in Sulaimaniya on February 17 seeking an end to widespread corruption and greater civil and political rights. On March 6, masked men attacked demonstrators and set their tents on fire in Sulaimaniya. On April 18, security forces seized control of Sara Square, the center of Sulaimaniya's protests, and have prevented further demonstrations.
On April 27, the KRG issued a 19-page report of its investigation into the violence during the previous 60 days of demonstrations. It concluded that violence was committed by both security forces and protesters, and that "the police and security forces were poorly trained in handling it appropriately."
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 right to life and security of the person, and the right to freedom of expression, association, and peaceful assembly.