(Beirut) – Uniformed security forces clamped down on demonstrations marking February 2012 anniversaries of the start of weekly protests in Iraq, Human Rights Watch said today. Security forces blocked access to protest sites in Baghdad; beat and arrested peaceful demonstrators in Sulaimaniya, Kurdistan; and briefly detained, beat, or confiscated equipment from media workers and prevented others from covering the protests.
Human Rights Watch interviewed more than 15 demonstrators, bystanders, and journalists who were at the demonstrations on the February 17 and 25 anniversaries in Kurdistan and Baghdad, respectively. Activists said that in the build-up to the demonstrations, security forces threatened them with arrest and unidentified people threatened them with violence if they attended.
“Security forces are using repressive means to keep peaceful protestors at bay,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “While the level of violence may be lower than it was a year ago, the effect is the same – preventing Iraqis from engaging in peaceful dissent.”
Beatings and Detentions in Sulaimaniya
In the year since protests began in Iraqi Kurdistan, security forces there have killed at least 10 protesters and bystanders and injured more than 250.
On February 17, 150 to 200 protesters walked past hundreds of security forces to assemble peacefully in Sulaimaniya’s Sara Square at about 11:30 a.m.
“We went to honor the martyred protesters who died there last February,” said one protester who spoke to Human Rights Watch.
Within 10 minutes, hundreds more security forces surrounded and filled the square, and dozens of men in civilian clothing approached the protesters and began to punch, kick, and strike them with wooden batons, protesters and journalists told Human Rights Watch. The men forced many of the protesters to one side of the square, next to a former police station that was used as a temporary security headquarters for the protests. There, security forces detained protesters inside the building.
Hilal Ibrahim, a lawyer, told Human Rights Watch that he was attacked by men in civilian clothing while hailing a taxi after visiting a market adjacent to Sara Square. He said he was punched in the back and was asked, “Why did you come to demonstrate?” He said that while security forces looked on, several men in civilian clothes with wooden batons pushed him into a nearby garage until one of the men ordered the others to stop. The man told Ibrahim, “Go home, or we will kill you.”
Security forces detained journalists and photographers covering the protests. They confiscated the camera of Rahman Gharib, coordinator for the local press freedom group Metro Center to Defend Journalists, and beat him on the head and leg after he took some photographs, Gharib and witnesses told Human Rights Watch. The Metro Center has documented numerous abuses against Kurdish journalists, including more than 200 cases of attacks and harassment during the protests in Sulaimaniya between February and May, 2011.
“One of the colleagues tried to intervene [when they were beating me] and he told security forces that I was working for Metro Center. To that, one of them screamed ‘Fuck you and fuck Metro Center’ and arrested my colleague as well,” said Gharib, who wore an orange vest to identify himself as an observer. “I have bruises on my left leg and right hand. I have a few swollen spots on my head. They still have my cellphone.”
Witnesses also said security forces struck in the face a middle-aged man who attempted to convince them to release Gharib, causing a bleeding cut above the man’s left eye. As security forces took Gharib through the crowd, they grabbed and kicked Sebastian Meyer, an American photographer from the Metrography photography agency, who was documenting the arrest. Meyer told Human Rights Watch that security forces then took his camera and phone and arrested him, along with an Iraqi photographer, Pazhar Mohammed. Local journalists said that security forces also detained other media workers, including crews from KNN television, NRT television, and journalists from other local media organizations.
Witnesses told Human Rights Watch that inside their makeshift headquarters on the square, security forces interrogated 25 to 30 protesters and journalists, some in groups and some alone. Shortly before 1 p.m., security forces transported them by bus to the main peshmerga prison in Sulaimaniya, known as Fermanday, on the western outskirts of the city.
At Fermanday prison, security forces separated Meyer from the other detainees, along with an American teacher who had been at the square and had been mistaken for a foreign journalist. Meyer told Human Rights Watch that, at about 2 p.m., they were driven first to the Politburo for the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, a governing political party, and then to the Sulaimaniya residency office, where authorities confiscated Meyer’s Kurdistan residency card and told him that he was being deported. Security officials released Meyer and the teacher at 4 p.m. They returned Meyer’s camera and phone but not his residency card.
One protester who was also detained told Human Rights Watch: “I was punched in the head and back when they arrested me in the square, like all the other protesters, but I was not physically mistreated in the prison. Officers just kept asking us questions for 90 minutes at a time. They asked who had told me to demonstrate … They ordered all the protesters to sign legal pledges never to attend any protests again, explaining that we would not be released until we signed. Some signed, but some of us refused. After a long time, they said we could just sign pledges never to attend protests that are not permitted by the government, and so we did this. We were not released until 9 at night.”
Intimidation in Baghdad
Members of several protest groups told Human Rights Watch that they attempted to demonstrate in Tahrir Square on February 25, the anniversary of Baghdad’s 2011 “Day of Anger,” when thousands gathered in the square to protest widespread corruption and demand greater civil and political rights. During nationwide demonstrations on that day a year earlier, security forces killed at least 12 protesters across the country and injured more than 100. Human Rights Watch also saw Baghdad security forces beat unarmed journalists and protesters, smashing cameras and confiscating memory cards.
On February 25, 2012, security forces in Baghdad again attempted to stop protesters from reaching Tahrir Square, though with different methods. Several demonstrators told Human Rights Watch that security forces blocked many roads approaching Tahrir Square, at times saying the roads were blocked because a car bomb that had gone off in the vicinity, although protesters said local merchants reported hearing no explosions and Iraqi authorities released no specific information to the media.
Security forces told also told protesters walking toward Tahrir Square that they had intelligence indicating that “many terrorists” were in the square and 11 bombs had been placed in the area, and that security forces “could not guarantee the safety of protesters.” Human Rights Watch witnessed security forces using similar explanations to prevent journalists and protesters from going to Tahrir Square many times between March and December 2011.
Some of the protesters who reached Tahrir Square said they did not enter the square because the show of force by security forces frightened them. According to observers, the forces numbered between 600 and 1,000 armed personnel in and around Tahrir Square, with more amassed on side streets.
As protesters approached the multiple checkpoints surrounding Tahrir Square set up that morning, security forces informed them that they had a long list of protesters whom they had orders to arrest and that they would check this list against the identification cards of anyone wishing to pass through. A young activist who did not want his name used for fear of government reprisal told Human Rights Watch that one smiling soldier told him and other protesters, “We may have your name. Why don’t you step forward and see if you get arrested?”
Another activist said that an officer told protesters that even people with names “similar” to those on the list would be arrested.
“From the way he said it, I thought he might arrest me no matter what my name was, so we left,” he said.
One demonstrator, who said he was intimidated and did not try to pass the police checkpoints, said: “I just stood monitoring, outside Tahrir Square. No one at all was allowed to take photos or use their phones. There were so many members of the army; they were standing every half meter in the square with their sticks.”
Journalists told Human Rights Watch that security forces prevented them from covering the demonstration by not allowing them to enter the square with photographic equipment, voice recorders, mobile phones, and even pens. One Iraqi news agency reported that security forces briefly detained journalists for “violating the rules of demonstration, entering banned areas and trying to provoke the public.” Human Rights Watch has observed security forces interfering with journalists at work at more than 20 demonstrations at Tahrir Square during the past year.
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. In May, the Council of Ministers approved a draft “Law on the Freedom of Expression of Opinion, Assembly, and Peaceful Demonstration,” which authorizes officials to restrict freedom of assembly to protect “the public interest” and in the interest of “general order or public morals,” vague criteria that the law does not define further. The draft law is awaiting approval by parliament.