(Baghdad) – A preliminary parliamentary committee report based in part on witness interviews and given to Human Rights Watch claims top Iraqi officials ordered a raid on a demonstrators’ camp on April 23, 2013, in Haweeja.
During the operation, scores of protesters and some soldiers died. The report provides evidence that Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, the defense minister, and senior defense and interior ministry officials may have ordered the raid, although it does not address what orders they issued concerning the use of force. It does claim that the defense minister and senior defense and interior ministry officials did not respond to warnings of excessive use of force by the security forces. The committee gave Human Rights Watch the preliminary findings of its investigation.
Members of a separate ministerial committee named by Maliki to investigate the episode told Human Rights Watch that they seriously doubt they will be able to complete their work. The ministerial committee is inadequately resourced, stymied by lack of cooperation from security forces, and unlikely to lead to prosecutions or publish its conclusions, committee members told Human Rights Watch.
“The people of Iraq aren’t going to be fooled by a Potemkin inquiry into the killings at Haweeja,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “As the country teeters on the brink of further violence, the government is wasting a critical opportunity to restore confidence in its ability to achieve justice for the civilians and security forces who died on April 23.”
The ministerial committee has so far failed to interview any witnesses to or participants in the raid on the demonstration, raising serious doubts as to the government’s intent to hold instigators of the attack responsible, Human Rights Watch said.
The Iraqi government should immediately provide the ministerial committee with the financial and political support necessary to investigate the apparently unlawful use of lethal force by the security forces, including senior-level officials, Human Rights Watch said. Armed men killed at least one security official after security forces raided the demonstration.
According to both committees and media reports, on April 23, army soldiers, federal police, and SWAT forces fired on a crowd of about 1,000 demonstrators in Haweeja. The Defense Ministry said that 23 people were killed, including an army officer, two soldiers, and 20 “militants who were using the demonstration as a safe haven,” in confrontations between security forces and demonstrators.
The parliamentary committee’s investigation indicates that security forces killed 44 civilians, ranging in age from 13 to 55, and one soldier, in the raid on the demonstration and ensuing clashes. All died from injuries resulting from live fire, according to the report, which cited local coroners’ reports. Iraqi authorities have not held anyone accountable for giving the orders to shoot on the demonstrators or for carrying out the shootings.
The parliamentary investigative committee interviewed 14 witnesses to the attack. It did not interview soldiers who were present because, the committee said, its members were prevented from speaking to the soldiers by higher-ranking officials. The report indicates that senior officials gave orders for army, federal police, and SWAT forces, all of which fall under Maliki’s military office, to invade the demonstration site, remove demonstrators, and level tents. In meetings with Human Rights Watch, senior officials agreed with these claims.
Witnesses told members of the parliamentary committee that at dawn on April 23, security forces sprayed demonstrators with hot water and threw sound and smoke bombs into the square. Black cars that federal police typically use for crowd dispersal and tanks invaded the square, “razing everything, including tents and cars,” the report quoted witnesses as saying. The report said that some of the corpses also bore abrasions, fractures, and bruises consistent with beatings, and witnesses reported that security forces wearing black uniforms beat them with batons and fired on protesters with live rounds using automatic weapons. On the basis of these witness accounts and of interviews with members of parliament and local and federal government officials, the report concluded that 44 civilians were killed, including five children.
The parliamentary committee gave Human Rights Watch photographs it says were taken of the victims in the attack’s immediate aftermath. The photographs show the corpses of several men lying in the area of Pride and Honor Square, amid flames and burning cars. Their hands are bound and they appear – because of the way the bodies are positioned – to have been executed with gunshots. According to an LA Times report on May 2, the pictures have been reviewed by lawmakers and foreign diplomats.The government has not issued a response to the report.
Deputy Prime Minister Saleh al-Mutlak, who heads the ministerial investigative committee appointed by Maliki, told Human Rights Watch that he did not believe the committee’s investigation would be comprehensive or lead to prosecutions because senior officials involved in ordering the attack would not allow for any punishment that might deter security forces from using violent means to stop future protests.
“Someone from the ground should be punished,” Mutlak said, “but it won’t happen.” Referring to the defense minister, he added that, “Saadoun’s belief is that without having a major clash the protests won’t end.” Mutlak said he believed the army has video footage of the entire events that it has not released.
Human Rights Watch met with numerous government officials and ministers in Baghdad, who affirmed that the Iraqi government has not appointed qualified investigators or judges or invested the financial resources necessary to conduct the Haweeja investigation. Mutlak and other officials said that the committee has only interviewed some of the commanders involved in the attack and did not interview witnesses, demonstrators, or soldiers.
Mutlak told Human Rights Watch and news agencies that security forces used excessive force against protesters in Haweeja. However, he said that while the committee’s report would be completed by May 15, political disputes among the committee’s members would probably prevent them from comprehensively investigating the attack or making their results public.
Deputy Prime Minister Hussein al-Shahristani told Human Rights Watch that the committee was “not qualified” to conduct a detailed investigation and was “merely tasked with evidence gathering and fact-finding.” The committee does not have sufficient time or resources to carry out an investigation “that could determine whether a crime had taken place,” and its conclusions would have no legal weight and would not lead to prosecutions, he said. During this meeting, Shahristani denied that he was involved in the investigation, but he reportedly told other journalists and diplomats that he was on the investigatory committee and assured that “the government is serious about investigating those who sprayed indiscriminate fire,” according to the LA Times report.
Despite numerous instances in the past five months in which security forces allegedly used excessive force at protests, killing scores of demonstrators, Iraqi authorities have not undertaken any full and comprehensive public inquiry into attacks on protesters, or investigated senior officers for abuses of authority, including potentially ordering attacks on civilians.
Government investigations into shootings of demonstrators in Fallujah in January and Mosul in March still have not been made public. At a rally in Baghdad on May 1, Maliki, rather than reaffirming his commitment to investigate the Haweeja assault properly, issued a statement saying that, “Anyone involved in forming militant groups would be brought to justice” and that he would oversee a “tough crackdown.”
“Maliki should not be ordering security forces to ‘crack down’ at a time when their most recent public crackdown resulted in the death of dozens of innocent civilians,” Whitson said. “The flaws in the Haweeja investigation are further undermining the government’s credibility on security forces abuses at a time when people across the spectrum fear that their country is breaking apart.”
A variety of officials, civic and religious leaders, and human rights activists stressed the importance of achieving justice for victims of the Haweeja attack in meetings with Human Rights Watch. After the attack, Iraq witnessed an escalation in violence, including deadly clashes between armed groups and government security forces in areas throughout Iraq. According to casualty figures the United Nations Assistance Mission in Iraq (UNAMI) released on May 1, April was the deadliest month in Iraq since June 2008, with 712 people killed and 1,633 wounded in acts of terrorism and acts of violence.
“A politicized and inadequate investigation is not going to get to the truth of what happened,” Whitson said. “The ongoing protests and escalating violence that have followed the Haweeja killings are evidence that many people regard the ministerial investigative committee as a mere diversion rather than as a credible step toward accountability.”
For more details about the investigations, please see below.
Inquiries Provide More Questions Than Answers
Hours after the attack on demonstrators in Haweeja’s Sahat al-Ghira wa al-Sharaf (Pride and Honor Square) on April 23, Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki appointed Deputy Prime Minister Saleh al-Mutlak and several government ministers to an ad-hoc committee to investigate the attack. Several members of the parliamentary committees on human rights, security and defense, and the environment conducted a separate investigation on April 25 and 26.
According to numerous Iraqi government officials and ministers, the parliamentary committee’s preliminary findings, and Mutlak’s statements to media and to Human Rights Watch, the evidence that the two committees have gathered so far raises serious questions about the potential involvement of senior officials in the attack. However, neither committee has sufficient resources nor political will to investigate the events, members of parliament and ministers participating in the investigations told Human Rights Watch.
Mutlak indicated to Human Rights Watch that politicization of the ministerial committee he heads to investigate the attack will lead to a miscarriage of justice since “no one will be held accountable” for the Haweeja attack. The parliamentary committee is independent of the government, but has been prevented by lack of cooperation from security services from interviewing soldiers or commanders of the security forces that were present at the attack.
The ministerial committee’s findings are, so far, similarly based only on partial information. While the ministerial committee’s investigation is ongoing, the ministers and parliament members close to the committee overwhelmingly told Human Rights Watch that the committee lacks resources and that inadequate cooperation by government and security forces will ultimately block them from conducting a thorough investigation.
Mutlak had been in Haweeja before the attack, attempting to negotiate a nonviolent resolution to the stand-off between security forces and protesters. He said that lower-level officers said they had been given orders to attack protesters at a sit-in by about 1,000 people from Haweeja who were protesting what they characterized as the government’s unfair treatment of Sunnis.
The parliamentary committee alleged that Ali Ghaedan, commander of the 12th brigade army forces responsible for monitoring the Haweeja demonstrations, and defense minister Saadoun al-Dulaimi refused to call off the attack, even though protesters had conceded to government negotiators’ demands to enter the demonstration area and search for people the government suspected of involvement in an earlier attack on an army checkpoint. Ghaedan told Mutlak the day before the attack that he would not be able to cancel the orders to attack without approval from the defense minister, but that he could not reach Dulaimi in the early morning hours prior to the raid, the parliamentary report said.
The parliamentary committee’s report, which the committee gave to Human Rights Watch on April 29, said that Mutlak and Falah Zaidan, a member of parliament, met with Dulaimi in the middle of the night before the raid to try to convince him to cancel what security officers had told them were their orders to attack the sit-in the next day at dawn. According to Zaidan’s statements to the parliamentary committee, Zaidan warned the defense minister that failure to cancel the orders would lead to fitna (unrest). Based on Zaidan’s account, the report claims the defense minister responded, “Let who is going to be killed be killed. They are terrorists and the important thing is the nation’s authority.”
The parliamentary report also says that at this meeting Ghaedan said, “We waited until the end of the elections to carry out this mission.” That statement led government officials tasked with leading negotiations between security officials and protesters to conclude that for army, SWAT, and federal police forces, “the issue had only been a matter of time: there was only ever going to be one result, and that was the attack [on the demonstration],” the report says.
In a meeting with Human Rights Watch, Salim al-Jibouri, head of the parliamentary Human Rights Committee and a member of the parliamentary committee’s investigation team, said that the committee interviewed 14 witnesses to the attack in hospitals where they were being treated for injuries received during the raid, but that defense and interior ministry officials “prevented” them from speaking with soldiers who were present during the raid.
Jibouri said that the government had not been willing to provide the committee with the names of the soldiers who participated in the attack or of the army and SWAT commanders present during the attack. He said the parliament has also not seen the results of investigations into allegations of excessive use of force by security forces at previous demonstrations – including demonstrations in Fallujah and Mosul. Police and army killed nine people in Fallujah and two in Mosul. Jibouri said that the parliament had not been informed of the status of those investigations.
The parliamentary report recommended the prosecution of officers responsible for the raid on the demonstration and the condemnation of the incident as a crime. It requested the general prosecutor to initiate a case against those involved and to file complaints from victims and their families.
Government officials, civil society members and human rights activists expressed their concern to Human Rights Watch that the failure to adequately investigate the attacks on protesters was one of the primary sources of deepening rifts in the country, evidenced by escalating sectarian violence and attacks on civilians, government institutions, and security installations.