(Beirut) – At least seven people, including a boy of 16, were reported missing since October 7 from or near Baghdad’s Tahrir Square, where they were participating in ongoing protests in Iraq’s capital, Human Rights Watch said today. Four were still missing as of December 2. The families said they visited police stations and government offices seeking information without success, and the government took no tangible measures to locate their relatives. It is unclear whether government security or armed groups carried out the abductions. In another two cases, security forces arrested and arbitrarily held protest supporters.
Prime Minister Adil Abd Al-Mahdi announced he was submitting his resignation as prime minister to parliament on November 29.
“Whether the government or armed groups are behind the abductions in Baghdad, the government bears the responsibility for keeping people safe from such targeting,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Authorities are failing Iraqi citizens by allowing armed forces to abduct people, and it will be up to the government to take swift action against these abuses.”
On November 5, 2019, the United Nations Assistance Mission to Iraq reported that it knew of six abductions of protesters or volunteers helping them in Baghdad. The Iraqi High Commission for Human Rights began tallying the number of people security forces and unknown elements had abducted and detained during protests on October 1, but stopped its tally on October 31. However, on November 25, the commission said on Facebook that authorities had arrested 93 protesters in Baghdad between November 21 and 24 – 14 of whom they had released – and noted continued reports of kidnappings of activists, journalists, and lawyers by “unknown persons.” On November 21, it said the government should investigate, secure people’s release, and bring those responsible to justice.
In a November 27 press conference, Prime Minister Adil Abd Al-Mahdi announced that authorities had released 2,500 people they had arrested since protests began.
Human Rights Watch was able to get some information about seven abducted people and two people who were arrested. But in nine other cases, families, friends, and lawyers of people kidnapped or detained at or after they participated in protests in Baghdad, Karbala and Nasriya, said they were too frightened or worried about the consequences for the detained person to provide details.
Human Rights Watch reported on the abduction of Saba Farhan Hameed, 36, on November 2, as she was on her way home from providing food, water, and first aid kits to protesters in Tahrir Square. Hameed’s family said she was blindfolded throughout her abduction and released on November 13, but could not provide other details. Human Rights Watch had also documented the abduction of Maytham al-Helo, a Baghdad resident, on October 7, during the first wave of protests. He was released on October 24 and was also unable to provide any details about his abduction.
The brother of Omar Kadim Kadi’a said on November 26 that Kadi’a had been living in Tahrir Square since a second wave of protests started on October 25. Kadi’a came home on November 20 to take a shower, he said, but then left, and his family has not been able to reach or find him since. His brother said that on November 25, his phone was turned back on, because it suddenly showed that their messages to him had been read, but they called many times and got no answer. He said that Kadi’a’s older brother filed a missing person complaint at a local Baghdad police station but that the police showed little interest and that as far as he knew, did not investigate. Kadi’a was released on November 28, and told Human Rights Watch that Federal Police had arrested him at a checkpoint en route to the protests on November 20 and brought him before a judge on November 21, who told him he was not being charged with anything. The police released him on November 28.
A man in Baghdad said on October 22 that he had last spoken to his brother Abbas Yaseen Kadim, who was at the Tahrir Square protest, by phone on October 3 at 5 p.m. When the brother tried to call Kadim at 8 p.m., the phone was turned off. The brother went to four police stations seeking information but found out nothing, and police did not offer any assistance in locating him. Kadim is still missing.
Another man said that a relative, Saif Muhsin Abdul Hameed, had come to Baghdad on October 25 for the protests and was sleeping in a tent with friends at Tahrir Square. He said he spoke to Abdul Hameed at around noon on October 28. Abdul Hameed told him he was on Jumhuriya Bridge, the front line of the protests, but after that, Abdul Hameed's phone was turned off. He said he went to police stations and government offices but was not able to get any information, and police said they did not have enough information to follow up on the case. Abdul Hameed remains missing.
A relative of Mari Mohammed Harj, a woman from Baghdad, said on November 13 that on October 29, Harj posted a video of herself on Facebook criticizing the prime minister and expressing support for the protesters. The video went viral, her relative said, at which point Facebook users the family did not know started posting accusations that Harj had ties to Saudi Arabia and making death threats against her.
The relative said she last spoke to Harj, who was at Tahrir Square, at 5 p.m. on November 8, but that when she called at 9 p.m., Harj’s phone was turned off. She said Harj’s father and uncle went to two police stations in Baghdad but got no information. They asked the police to seek cell phone tower data to help figure out where she was and file a missing person report, but did not think the police had investigated. Harj was released on November 12 but could not share details of her abduction with Human Rights Watch.
The sister of Mustafa Munthir Ali, who was in Tahrir Square every day helping as an ad hoc medic, said he stopped answering her calls at 3 a.m. on November 15. She said she went to Tahrir Square later that morning and could not find Ali at police stations or on any prisoner lists they checked. She said she did not know how to file a missing person claim and the police would not help. Ali managed to call his family on November 17, said his father, who was able to visit him on November 20 in detention in Muthana, an old military base in Baghdad that now houses detention facilities by various government security apparatuses.
Ali told his father that at midnight on November 14, a man in civilian clothes dragged him from the protest to a group of officers who arrested him, took him to the Baghdad Operations Command office, and beat him. Ali said that on November 16, officers brought him before a judge, who told him that he was not being charged but that the judge could not order his release until “the government resigns or the protests end.” The father said Ali confirmed that other protesters were being held at Muthana. Human Rights Watch was not able to directly verify his account.
A cousin of Sinan Adil Ibrahim said on November 25 that he spoke on November 21 to Ibrahim, who was at the Tahrir Square protest. He called Ibrahim again at 2 a.m. on November 22 to find that his phone was turned off. The family was afraid to describe steps they have taken to secure his release.
Hassan Ahmed Hatim, 16, went to the Tahrir Square protest on November 28, and his family has not been able to reach or find him since, his father said. His father went to three police stations but got no information and none offered to file a missing persons claim or any other help.
According to the International Committee of the Red Cross, Iraq has one of the highest number of missing people in the world. The International Commission on Missing Persons, which has been working in partnership with the Iraqi government to help recover and identify the missing, estimates that the number of missing people in Iraq could range from 250,000 to 1 million people. Human Rights Watch published a report documenting enforced disappearances of predominantly Sunni Arabs between 2014 and 2017.
Iraqi authorities should ensure an independent investigation into all abductions. The authorities should release all protesters who have not been charged with a recognizable criminal offense or anyone detained solely for exercising their right to peaceful assembly and protest. Those responsible for unlawful detention should be investigated and prosecuted, including both state security forces and private individuals.
“In Baghdad, Iraq’s capital, it is unacceptable for the police to continue to treat these abductions with seeming indifference,” Whitson said. “They should put a stop to them and investigate.”