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Mourners carry the flag-draped coffin of a protester killed during a demonstration in Najaf, October 8, 2019. © 2019 AP Photo/Anmar Khalil

(Beirut) – Iraqi security forces have used excessive and unnecessary lethal force in confronting at times rock-throwing protesters, killing at least 105 and wounding over 4,000 since October 1, 2019, Human Rights Watch said today. Security forces followed protesters as they dispersed, shooting at them and spraying them with scalding water cannons.

The protests started in Baghdad and southern cities on October 1, with protesters demanding improved services and more action to curb corruption. Apparent members of security forces interfered with media coverage of the protests, and the authorities blocked the internet. After Baghdad’s governor resigned on October 6, in response to complaints about forces in the capital resorting to excessive force, Prime Minister Adil Abd Al-Mahdi formed a committee to investigate allegations of excessive use of force, ordered certain army units out of specific Baghdad neighborhoods, and stated that investigations of certain officers had begun. 

“For more than a decade, Iraqi governments have said they would investigate abuses by security forces but haven’t done so,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “The killing of at least 105 protesters requires a transparent investigation that results in public findings and accountability for abuses.”

The number who died from gunfire or other means is uncertain. On October 10, nongovernmental Independent High Commission for Human Rights of Iraq informed Human Rights Watch that its field offices across the country reported that at least 105 protesters had been killed and another 4,050 wounded. On October 6, the Interior Ministry put the number killed at 96, with 6,100 wounded. The Interior Ministry also said that eight security force members had been killed and more than 1,200 injured.

Altogether, Human Rights Watch interviewed 14 witnesses to the protests in Baghdad and Dhi Qar governorate. Five protesters who were at three days of demonstrations in Dhi Qar in southern Iraq said that they saw various security forces open fire on crowds and as people were dispersing, without warning. All saw demonstrators throw rocks at security forces and set fire to tires, cars, and political party offices. Some injured security force personnel were taken away in ambulances, they said.

Five witnesses at demonstrations in Baghdad on October 2, 3, and 6 said that they saw security forces fire on crowds. They also said that the security forces fired water cannons that used scalding hot water, in some cases burning protesters severely. One protester said that at the protest on October 3, he heard security forces calling out that if the crowds did not disperse, they would open fire.

At the October 3 protest in Baghdad, a Reuters reporter said he saw one protester fall to the ground after being shot in the head. A Reuters cameraman saw a man critically wounded by a gunshot to the neck after snipers on rooftops fired on the crowd.

Those involved in treating the injured were not spared arrest and attack. A medic in Baghdad said security forces at the October 3 protest arrested her in the ambulance in which she was providing medical treatment to protesters. A witness to a protest in Baghdad on October 5 said that she saw security forces fire teargas directly at a convoy of ambulances, hitting the last one.

Human Rights Watch reviewed seven videos that appear to show live fire in the vicinity of protesters fleeing the area. One video posted on October 8 shows a solitary protester waving a flag and then being struck down by an apparent gunshot.

Human Rights Watch also reviewed three videos that appear to show protesters using violence. An October 1 video shows protesters in front of a recognizable Baghdad building destroying a police vehicle. No security force personnel are visible in the video. A video posted on October 6, which said it was filmed in Qadisya governorate, shows protesters throwing rocks in the direction of live fire.

Most of those killed at a Baghdad protest on October 4 were struck by gunfire in the head and heart, said an Interior Ministry spokesman, Saad Maan. He said the ministry was investigating the deaths, but did not provide details. On October 6, he said that security forces did not confront the protesters, but that “malicious hands” were behind targeting both protesters and security forces. He said protesters had burned 51 public buildings and eight political party headquarters. International standards provide that law enforcement may only intentionally make lethal use of firearms when strictly unavoidable in order to protect life.

All witnesses interviewed said they saw security forces detaining people at the protests, including as they were fleeing the area. On October 10, the Independent High Commission for Human Rights of Iraq said authorities detained at least 923 protesters but have since released at least 666.

A lawyer on a team of volunteers providing legal aid to about 400 detained protesters in Baghdad said on October 9 that many of the protesters were charged for gathering with the intent to commit a crime under article 222 of the penal code. Others were charged with publicly insulting a government body under article 226. He said that most of detainees he interviewed told him that security forces had beat them at the time of arrest.

Since the demonstrations began, the authorities appear to have interfered with the media and telecommunications in violation of the right to freedom of expression, Human Rights Watch said. An October 7 statement from the Iraqi Journalists’ Syndicate condemned raids on the offices of the news outlets Al Arabiya, Dijlah, NRT, Al Hadath and TRT by armed and masked gunmen, some in military uniform. The raids appeared aimed to prevent coverage of the protests.

From October 2 to 8, Iraqi authorities blocked most access to the internet for prolonged periods of time, rendering social media and messaging apps that protesters and others relied on to communicate and document government abuses inaccessible. International human rights law protects the right to freedom of expression, including the right to freely seek, receive, and provide information through the internet and other media. While national security is a legitimate basis for restrictions on freedom of expression, these restrictions must be necessary and proportionate to address a specific security concern.

On October 3, the government imposed day and nighttime curfews in Baghdad, Babil, Diwaniya, Wasit, Muthanna, and Dhi Qar Governorates, but lifted them on October 5.

On October 6, Al-Mahdi also announced a list of executive decisions focusing on building about 100,000 units of low-income housing, and improving unemployment benefits and vocational training to address some of the protesters’ demands. He also decreed that those killed in the protests, whether demonstrators or security personnel, would be considered “martyrs” eligible for state benefits.

Iraqi national and provincial authorities should impartially investigate the use of force by the security forces at the protests. They should investigate all allegations of security forces interfering in the provision of medical services and ensure that all those wounded have access to immediate and unimpeded care. Security force members, including commanders, responsible for the use of unnecessary or excessive lethal force should be disciplined or prosecuted as appropriate.

Victims of unlawful use of force by the security forces should receive prompt and adequate compensation. Authorities should take specific action to protect media workers from attack and investigate any acts that infringe on media coverage of the protests. Detainees who have not been charged with a recognizable offense should be immediately released.

“The authorities should impartially investigate the decisions to fire on protesters and to hose them with scalding water,” Whitson said. “Iraqis deserve answers, and the government should not again be able to announce a committee that doesn’t produce any results.”

Attacks on the Media

A staff member at Dijlah said that on October 5 he was at their Baghdad office when unidentified assailants threw two stun grenades at the building, setting the generator on fire. The next morning, Diljah received a letter from the Communication and Media Commission ordering the station to shut down for one month for violating content guidelines with its protest coverage. A few hours later, dozens of masked gunmen in black clothes attacked their office. “They beat our employees and took their money and phones,” he said. “They destroyed everything in the office – computers, desks, and broadcasting equipment, and set the newsroom on fire.”

A senior executive at NRT said that after the TV station started broadcasting footage from the demonstrations, staff members received calls from government officials telling them that NRT had to stop airing protest footage. “After we aired an interview with a protester who alleged that a specific Popular Mobilization Forces group [units formally under the prime minister’s command] of killing protesters, I received a call from a blocked number demanding that we take down that specific footage,” she said. She said that on October 5, masked gunmen who did not identify themselves raided their offices, destroyed most of their equipment, and confiscated staff members’ phones. She said their office faces a Federal Police station, but forces there who witnessed the raid took no action to stop it.

A journalist who was at a Baghdad protest of about 30 people on October 2 said he was filming the protests to post on his social media page, and captured footage of uniformed SWAT officers and anti-riot police firing on peaceful protesters. He said that a policeman came up to him, grabbed his camera, and deleted its contents: “I told him I’m a journalist, but he said I’m not allowed to film anything and that I will be arrested if I stay.”

Dhi Qar Protests

A protester who was at the first day of protests in the town of Nasriya on October 1, said that he saw protesters throwing rocks at anti-riot police. Police responded by firing teargas, rubber bullets, and water cannon but also beating protesters with plastic pipes and then opening fire while chasing protesters away from the area. He said:

I saw one protester get shot in the leg while he was running away with us. We put him into a taxi to go to the hospital, because we could not get an ambulance to take him because the ambulances were next to the security forces. I saw another protester get shot in the heart in front of me as we were both running away – he had turned around to look back and see if he was being chased – and fall down dead. I saw anti-riot and SWAT [Special Weapons and Tactics] police open fire at another two boys with what looked like rubber bullets, wounding one in the arm and the other in the leg.

He said that when the protesters tried to burn down the office of Badr, a group within the Popular Mobilization Forces, anti-riot police and Badr security guards opened fire. He said he saw a sniper on the third floor of the building shooting at protesters as they approached the building. “Two protesters in our group got shot that day in front of the Badr office but I don’t know if the sniper hit them or someone else,” he said.

He said that later that day he and other protesters gathered outside the local Interior Ministry intelligence office and demonstrators set fire to an officer’s car. About 30 intelligence officers then fired on the crowd, he said. As the crowd dispersed he saw a protester who hadn’t fled hit by live fire and fall dead to the ground. He said he also saw three policemen beat a protester they caught trying to flee with metal and plastic pipes.

Another protester said that on October 2, he was with about 500 people protesting outside the office of the Popular Mobilization Forces group Asai`b Ahl al-Haqq in Shatra, a town north of Nasriya. After about 200 protesters started throwing rocks at the building and lighting tires on the road outside, two unidentified men on the roof fired on the crowd but did not injure anyone as far as he could tell, the protester said.

A third protester said he saw dozens of security force personnel arrive in about 30 vehicles marked with Police Tactical Support Unit (TSU) logos on the doors and open fire on protesters, wounding at least eight as they tried to flee. He said he got to his house in the area and from the window saw another three protesters hit by gunfire as they were running away. He was too frightened to check to see what happened to them.

A fourth protester said that at a protest of about 2,000 people on October 3, he saw SWAT, anti-riot police and TSU forces fire on crowds as they were crossing a bridge. He said a friend started cursing at the forces so they fired at him, hitting him three times in his legs and stomach. He said, “I ran over to him to help him but one of the SWAT officers said I had to leave him, or he would shoot me. My friend luckily survived after they took him to the hospital.”

He said that as the protesters were running away, policeman and men in black uniforms caught him and two other protesters. They took his phone and demanded his passcode, and then found a message he sent to a journalist in Baghdad reporting on the death toll at previous protests. They questioned him about whom he had shared this information with, then threw him out of the car onto the street and drove away with the other two protesters, he said.

A fifth protester said that some protesters hurled rocks at the anti-riot police in Nasriya on October 2. About 10 policemen grabbed and beat him with plastic pipes and their helmets, though he said he was not among those throwing rocks. They held him in a government office building where he said about 10 policemen and 2 men in civilian clothes beat him and two other protesters on and off for about three hours, with one accusing him of hitting a policeman. He said:

They moved us to another office where they held us until midnight, after which they moved us to Balida, a prison run by local police. They kept us there until they finally brought me before a judge on October 6, who told me I was being charged with article 226 of the Penal Code and then let me post bail and go home.

He said that while at the prison, he saw two protesters brought in six hours before he was released, one with a gunshot wound to the leg and another with a broken hand. He said both begged guards for medical attention but were ignored.

Baghdad Protests

One of the Baghdad protesters said that he was at a midnight protest on October 2 that remained peaceful. When protesters put garbage cans in the street to prevent security forces from approaching them, they opened fire on demonstrators. He said he felt something hit him. “I am not sure if it was a bullet or metal fragments, but I was seriously injured to my waist,” he said. “I didn’t go to the hospital though because I heard security forces are arresting people from the hospital.”

A medic said that she had also heard of arrests in the hospitals. The Independent High Commission for Human Rights of Iraq told Human Rights Watch on October 8 that they had documented at least 35 cases in which security forces detained people at hospitals.

One Baghdad protester said that as he and others were fleeing the protest on October 2 security forces opened fire and followed them to a nearby gasoline station to arrest them but that they were able to escape.

The medic said that on October 2 she was working out of an ambulance parked near the main square of the protests from noon to 4 p.m., providing treatment to protesters. She said most of the people coming to her had been affected by teargas or had first, second and in a few cases third degree burns from scalding water shot from water cannons. She said she saw a few teargas cannisters that had expired in 2013. She said:

After 4 p.m., security forces in black uniforms opened fire over and at the crowds and we received many cases of people wounded by bullet fragments, providing first aid treatment to at least 200 protesters. Initially, security forces did not allow us to take those wounded to the hospital, preventing us from even getting close to them to put them in ambulances. They took them in their own vehicles. At about 6 p.m. authorities cut electricity in the area, prompting the protesters to light fires. I was busy giving first aid to an elderly protester who was suffering from asphyxiation from the tear gas and had facial injuries because he had been stampeded by fleeing protesters when three uniformed officers came and told me to stop treating him. I refused, saying he would die if I didn’t, so they arrested me.

They drove her to a police station nearby she said and released her after an hour without charge.

At a protest on October 6 in Sadr City, a Baghdad neighborhood, medics said that clashes between security forces killed at least 15 protesters. A protester who was there said that roughly 1,000 protesters had gathered in one main square by 4 p.m. and were trying to walk in the direction of another square but Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) blocked the crowd. He said:

I spoke to an ISF colonel who told me, “Anyone trying to go to Qanat Square will be shot.” Then as some protesters tried to go in that direction, the ISF opened fire. Most of us ran away, but some protesters kept walking toward them, and I saw some get shot. Later when we tried to again go to Qanat Square, I saw one boy of about 17 who had been hiding behind a concrete block look over it to see if he could move safely. A gunshot hit him in the neck and he died.

The protester said that later the security forces again fired on the crowd twice more as they tried to advance. He saw five protesters get shot as they were running for cover. He said that protesters had to carry the dead and wounded for over one kilometer because ambulances had stayed away because of the live fire. A man who was at a nearby hospital that evening said that he saw four dead protesters brought in with gunshot wounds to their heads and chests, and at least 40 more wounded.

International Legal Protections

The Iraqi government is obligated under international human rights law to protect the right to free expression and peaceful assembly. Mere participation in a demonstration, including those without permits, or peacefully criticizing the government, are not grounds for arrest under international law. The authorities should release all protesters who have not been charged with a recognizable criminal offense. 

Iraqi security forces engaged in law enforcement duties should strictly abide by the United Nations Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials. The Basic Principles state that law enforcement officials should apply nonviolent means before resorting to the use of force. Whenever the use of force is unavoidable, they must act in proportion to the threat to life or serious injury. Firearms should never be used simply to disperse an assembly. If the use of force to disperse violent protests is unavoidable, for example to protect law enforcement or others from violence, the security forces must use only the minimum level of force necessary to contain the situation. Intentional lethal use of firearms may only be made when strictly unavoidable in order to protect life.

International human rights law, such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), protects the right of people to freely seek, receive, and provide information and ideas through all media, including the internet. Security-related restrictions must be law-based and a necessary and proportionate response to a specific security concern. In July 2016, the United Nations Human Rights Council passed a resolution condemning measures by countries to prevent or disrupt online access and information, reiterating that online access is critical to free speech protections under the ICCPR.

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