Riot police use teargas to disperse hundreds of civil servants who gathered during a protest against reduced monthly salaries in Erbil, Iraq on March 25, 2018. 

© 2018 Hemn Baban/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

(Erbil) – Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) security forces detained at least 84 protesters and four journalists in late March, Human Rights Watch said today. Many of the detentions appeared to be arbitrary, either because persons were detained because they were exercising their right to freedom of peaceful assembly, or because their right under Iraqi law to be brought before a judge within 24 hours was ignored. Twelve witnesses said security forces beat many as they attempted to detain them during demonstrations in the cities of Akre, Dohuk, and Erbil. Human Rights Watch received reports of arrests in other towns, including Shiladze, Soran, and Zakho.

Security forces used unlawful force and threats to coerce some protesters and journalists to unlock their phones and give up Facebook passwords, and held the detainees for up to two days before releasing them, all but one without charge. Some were forced to sign a document promising not to attend “unlawful protests”. One journalist said the security forces told him he was no longer allowed to film protests. He refused to sign a commitment not to do so.

“The KRG forces’ heavy-handed tactics in responding to peaceful protests seem intended to silence criticism despite the official narrative of respect for free speech and assembly,” said Lama Fakih, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “It is a sign of oppression when authorities try to force people to sign away their basic rights to protest.”

On March 25, 2018, civil servants, mostly teachers and healthcare workers, launched days of protests across the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI) for unpaid wages. As an austerity measure, the KRG has paid civil servants reduced monthly salaries every few months for three years. One teacher told Human Rights Watch that for four years he has made less than half his salary, and cannot support his wife and three daughters.

Dr. Dindar Zebari, the KRG coordinator for international advocacy, said on March 27 that, “A number of protesters were arrested by security forces. They were charged with inciting violence and handed over to court.” He noted that the protests had no legal permit. Zebari said political parties had hijacked the protests and tried to encourage violence, added that no lawsuits have been filed against the security forces and accused protesters of attacking a security member.”

Twelve witnesses who attended protests in Akre, Dohuk, and Erbil between March 25 and March 28 disputed this narrative, saying that protesters were not armed and did not attack any security officers. Video footage appeared to corroborate their statements. Video clips of the protest on March 25 in Erbil show security forces firing tear gas into a seemingly peaceful crowd. Another clip from that protest appears to show a plain-clothes officer slap a female protester as she films. Video clips filmed by protesters at the March 26 protest in Dohuk and the March 28 protest in Erbil show uniformed officers aggressively pushing and grabbing protesters, but do not appear to show any armed or attacking protesters.

Human Rights Watch interviewed one journalist who was filming the protest in Akre on March 27 for a local station. He said Asayish security officers approached him at about 10:30 a.m. and took him to an Asayish office where they held him with 14 protesters. He said they demanded that he unlock his phone, reviewed the videos he had taken, and deleted them. “They told me that I am not allowed to film the protesters and warned, ‘If you do it again, it won’t be good for you.’ Then they asked me to sign a paper promising that I won’t film any more protests but I refused to sign it,” he told Human Rights Watch. After four hours he was released without charge.

A second journalist said that when he arrived at the protest in Akre on March 27, Asayish officers ignored his press pass, saying he could not film. At 11:30 a.m. three members of parliament arrived and encouraged him to film regardless, he said. Suddenly about 10 Asayish officers started beating him and then drove him to their office, where the director asked why he was bleeding.

“I told him, ‘your men did this to me,’ but he just ignored that, and told them to take me to the hospital, which they did an hour later,” he told Human Rights Watch. “The doctor told me my nose is broken and they will need to do surgery.”

Human Rights Watch interviewed a third journalist at the same protest who was arrested with two more journalists at 10:30 a.m., but released at 1 p.m. without being forced to sign anything or told not to film protests.

According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, at least 15 journalists were assaulted and seven detained while covering the protests.

Human Rights Watch interviewed nine protesters, all of whom said Asayish forces beat them as they were being detained. Two escaped and avoided arrest, while two others were released within two hours. Five were held for between 12 hours and two days; three of the five said they were not allowed to contact their families or a lawyer. Officers demanded that two give up their phone passcodes and Facebook passwords, and tried to unlock another’s phone. Five said that upon release without charge, Asayish demanded that they promise not to participate in unlawful demonstrations. Three gave in, but two refused to sign the document. All denied using force against security force members.

This heavy-handed response matches a similar response to protests in and around Sulaymaniyah in December 2017, where Asayish forces detained journalists and protesters for extended periods without charge, and forced some to commit not to participate in protests to obtain release.

Security forces have an obligation to protect the right to free expression and peaceful assembly, Human Rights Watch said. Although the protest organizers appear not to have sought permission, as local law requires, international law protects the right to peaceful assembly, with restrictions only permitted in limited circumstances.

Iraq’s Criminal Procedural Code (no. 23/1971) states that all detainees must be brought before an investigative judge within 24 hours of detention.

Detention is considered arbitrary under international law if it is not clearly authorized under domestic law, or involves detaining people for exercising basic rights such as freedom of assembly, or violates fundamental procedural protections such as the right of detainees to be brought promptly before a judge.

“People in the Kurdistan Region have the right to peacefully express their frustration with the economic crisis,” Fakih said. “The government shouldn’t respond by restricting protests and the press, let alone by threats, beatings, arbitrary arrests and unlawful searches of demonstrators demanding fair pay.”

Erbil

March 26

Human Rights Watch interviewed three protesters Asayish detained on March 26 in Erbil near Shanadar Park.

One, “Jamal,” 68, said that as he was chanting slogans at 10 a.m., he heard an Asayish officer order, “Beat him!”, after which three other officers started hitting him with sticks for a few seconds. “My right arm and shoulder started swelling up with pain,” he told Human Rights Watch. “Then they stopped beating me and a riot police officer came and took me aside, and asked why I was provoking people to protest.”

The officer took Jamal to the Police Directorate General of Erbil, he said. At about 1:30 p.m. officers brought him to a higher-ranked official who accused him of bringing a knife and gun to the demonstration, which he denied. At 6 p.m. another officer interrogated him and accused him of “causing problems” at a time when the government simply could not pay more for salaries. Officers brought him before a judge at about 7 p.m., who asked why he had been protesting and whether the protesters had permission (they did not). At 8 p.m., he refused what he said was the judge’s request that he promise not to participate in any more protests and was released without charge.

Another man, “Peshtwan”, said an Asayish officer in plain clothes grabbed his phone at about 10.30 a.m. as he filmed the protest, so he gave chase to retrieve his phone. The officer, with three others, grabbed Peshtwan, forced him into a car and drove him to the Asayish headquarters (Asayish Qishti). There officers took down his details, he said, and accused him of wanting “Arabs to rule us.” They demanded his phone’s passcode and Facebook password, and checked his photo and video library and his Facebook posts and messages. At 4 p.m. they transferred Peshtwan to the Police Directorate General of Erbil, and released him at 8 p.m. after putting his fingerprint on a document they told him not to read. He returned to the protests and was arrested on March 28, he said, as 25 people demonstrated near the parliament. Asayish officers again asked for his phone passcode, and brought him and 16 other protesters to the Asayish headquarters, and then to the interior ministry’s Mahata Central Prison. They were returned to the police station the next day, Peshtwan said, and released after signing a document none of them read.

By 11 a.m. on March 26, about 150 protesters had gathered, “Rawa” told Human Rights Watch. Soon after he arrived, three plain-clothes Asayish officers attacked him, beating his head and back, he said. They kicked him repeatedly before putting him in a room at the Police Directorate General of Erbil, with eight other protesters. He said all nine were released at about 7:30 p.m. without charge. Rawa said police officers forced him to sign a document promising not to participate in any unlawful protests.

March 27

Three protesters detained by Asayish on March 27 in Erbil told Human Rights Watch that about 150-200 teachers gathered at Shanadar Park, and were quickly encircled by as many riot police and Asayish officers who channeled the crowd in one direction. “Kamran” said at around 11:40 a.m. someone in civilian dress grabbed his phone as he was filming and told him to follow. A few meters away, the man asked Kamran why he was filming, demanded to look through his phone videos and saw Kamran had attended earlier protests.

Kamran said the man brought him to a nearby Asayish office, where he reviewed Kamran ’s Facebook page and accused him of being a member of Goran, an opposition party. Officers took Kamran and two other teachers to the Police Directorate General of Erbil; the group grew to 17 detained, though four protesters were released at midnight, they said.

“Rebar” said officers also detained him at the protest, after 10 men, six in uniform, hit him repeatedly, pushed him to the floor, and warned him not to stand up. “One officer grabbed my pen, my phone, and my glasses. Then he took my wallet, threw the money inside it at me, and took it,” he told Human Rights Watch. “Then they picked me up and put me in a car, and drove me first to the Asayish headquarters, and then on to the Police Directorate.” Rebar said an officer kept accusing him of being a Goran member, though he insisted he wasn’t and merely wanted to protest over his salary.

All three protesters interviewed said one of the 17 detainees was bleeding profusely, having been hit on the head with brass knuckles, he said.

The remaining 13 protesters were transferred to Mahata Central Prison and photographed, the three said. Rebar said that an officer wrote on his intake form that he was being held under article zero of the criminal code, which does not exist. Asked what that meant, the officer told Rebar the form was for his own protection and he wasn’t suspected of any specific crime.

Three more protesters arrived on the morning of March 28, they said. Two were wounded, one bleeding from his head and back, and the other with cuts to his face. Both said they had been beaten upon arrest. The prison released the remaining prisoners on March 28 at noon. Kamran said he was forced to sign a document that he didn’t read, but was told it contained a promise not to demonstrate again.

When Rebar left the prison and reclaimed his phone, he could tell that several attempts had been made to unlock it. He showed Human Rights Watch how one officer had photographed himself trying to unlock the phone. Rebar says he has received multiple emails from Facebook since then about attempts to access his account.

Dohuk

March 25

“Hakim” said he arrived at the protest outside the Dohuk branch of the Education Sector Office at about 9:30 a.m. on March 25. An Asayish officer approached him and said the group had no permission to protest. “I told him we don’t need permission for this protest, we want our rights, and even if we asked for permission, the governor would not grant it,” Hakim told Human Rights Watch. “Then the officer told a policeman nearby, ‘It is your duty to deal with him’.”

About 15 policemen surrounded him and forced him into a car, he said. He was released the next day at 2 a.m. and ordered to appear in court on March 27, where he was charged with attacking a government facility – the Education Sector Office. He said the investigation is now ongoing and as far as he knows the protesters did not damage the building.

March 27

“Ali,” attended a protest in front of a Ministry of Education building in Duhok on March 27. He said two officers punched him repeatedly as they tried to arrest him and pull him into a vehicle, but the crowd pulled him back. He saw officers take the phone of someone who filmed the struggle and delete all their pictures and videos.

Legal Background

The relevant Kurdish law states that all protests require advance permission from the Ministry of Interior or other local authorities. Article 21 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which Iraq ratified in 1971, states that “the right of peaceful assembly shall be recognized,” and allows only very limited restrictions.

The United Nations Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association said freedom should be the rule and its restriction the exception. He has also said that protest organizers should not be required to get official authorization but at most be required to give advance notification, as long as such rules are straightforward and necessary to preserve national security or public safety, or protect public order, public health, morals, or the rights and freedoms of others.

Iraq’s Criminal Procedural Code (no. 23/1971) states that all detainees must be brought before an investigative judge within 24 hours of detention.