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Counterterrorism officers arrested Sameer Rashed Mahmoud from his home on October 26 for posting on Facebook that students and government employees in other governorates should strike to support fellow Iraqis participating in protests elsewhere in the country. ©Private/2019

(Beirut) – Authorities in Iraq’s Anbar governorate are suppressing the right of residents to show support for demonstrations elsewhere in the country, Human Rights Watch said today. In recent days, they have arrested two men for merely posting messages of solidarity on Facebook, questioned a third, and sent a fourth into hiding.

Since October 25,  2019, the authorities throughout Iraq have detained hundreds of protesters at or after demonstrations, but the Anbar arrests stand out  in that authorities arrested the men merely for showing their support over social media.

“Despite years of terrible conflict, many Iraqis have felt free to speak out on political issues,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “But these cases mark a disturbing change, if you contrast these men’s entirely peaceful political statements with the completely inappropriate response by the Anbar authorities.”

Protests started in Baghdad and southern cities on October 1, demanding improved services and more action to curb corruption. Security forces used excessive lethal force against protesters during the first wave of demonstrations from October 1 to 9, and again starting on October 25. Eight Anbar residents told Human Rights Watch that Anbaris did not intend to hold protests there, concerned that authorities would not allow them given the recent history of ISIS taking control over much of the governorate.

A Facebook post from the Anbar Police Command on October 24 reinforced their concern. It said that, “Anbar governorate calls upon its citizens to head to work and continue with construction, preserving security, supporting security forces, and benefitting from past lessons, from which the province has only gotten destruction, killings, and displacement.”

One man told Human Rights Watch he had so badly wanted to engage in the social movement that he had relocated to Baghdad. But he and others who spoke with Human Rights Watch said they read this post by the Anbar police as an implicit threat that authorities in Anbar would not tolerate any protests.

Human Rights Watch interviewed the families of two men whom security forces detained after they posted messages of solidarity with the protest movement. At around midnight on October 26, Sameer Rashed Mahmoud, a 27-year-old man, posted on Facebook that students and government employees in other governorates should strike to support fellow Iraqis participating in protests elsewhere in the country. About an hour and a half later, his cousin said, counterterrorism officers arrived at Mahmoud’s home and detained him. They told his family they were arresting him for his Facebook post, which they said was inciting people to protest.

The next day his cousin went to the local Interior Ministry’s Counterterrorism Office, where forces told him there had been an arrest warrant issued for Mahmoud, but that they planned to release him soon without charge and that the family did not need to hire a lawyer. On October 29, when he had not been released, the cousin returned to the office, and saw Mahmoud in a cell over the facility’s CCTV, but officers refused to allow the cousin to speak to him. His family has yet to be able to speak to Mahmoud.

A second case involves a 25-year-old man who, a relative said, added a frame around his Facebook profile on the evening of October 26 to show solidarity with the protests. Four hours later, five police cars arrived at his house and officers detained him. “They hit him and accused him of inciting protests, before handcuffing him and putting him in one of their cars,” the relative said. Authorities held the man incommunicado until October 31, then released him without charge.

A third man said that after he posted on Facebook support for a strike in solidarity with the protests, several security officers questioned his colleagues about him and then questioned him, but let him go.

Another man said that on October 25, he had posted several times on Facebook in support of the protest movement. On October 26, a friend who is a policeman called and said the police had issued an arrest warrant in his name because of his posts. He fled his home and is in hiding.

The authorities should respect all Iraqis’ right to freedom of expression and bring an end to harassment and intimidation of Iraqis peacefully supporting the protests, Human Rights Watch said. “These arrests could signify a serious retrogression in free speech in some parts of the country,” Whitson said. “It’s crucial for these cases to remain the exception.”

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