Security forces fire tear gas at protesters in Baghdad, Iraq, on January 27, 2020.

© 2020 AP Photo/Khalid Mohammed

(Beirut) – Iraqi authorities ramped up violent tactics to quash ongoing protests across Baghdad and southern Iraq between January 25 and 27, 2020, Human Rights Watch said today. Security forces set fire to protesters’ tents, fired live ammunition, and detained protesters in Baghdad, Basra, and Nasriya. Human Rights Watch was unable to determine the extent of casualties or numbers detained.

“The burning of protester tents in city squares looks like a coordinated effort by Iraqi authorities to force peaceful protesters from public spaces,” said Belkis Wille, senior crisis and conflict researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Instead of using unjustifiable force, Baghdad authorities should meet protesters’ demands by addressing rampant corruption and improving access to basic services and jobs.”

Human Rights Watch interviewed nine protesters and three medics in the three cities.

The authorities’ campaign to end the occupation of the squares began on January 25, the day after the supporters of Moqtada al-Sadr, a prominent cleric, left the protests in the squares. Authorities launched what appeared to be a coordinated campaign to end protesters’ occupation of central squares in Baghdad, Basra, and Nasriya. Witnesses described how armed men in unmarked uniforms arrived in vehicles typically used by security forces and attacked protesters, beating and detaining people and burning their tents. Seven protesters said that in all three cities they have since returned to the squares and set up new tents.

At 3 a.m. on January 25, a convoy of military and security force vehicles belonging to the Shock Forces, a local police unit, arrived in Basra’s Bahrya Square. Three protesters who were there said that men with weapons, some with hunting rifles and some masked, beat and, in some cases, detained protesters without any justification and then burned or destroyed at least 130 tents. The three men said they did not hear the attackers issue any warnings but did hear them yelling that the protesters were “jokers” and “agents of America.” The masked men used four small bulldozers to remove the remains of some of the tents, the three protesters all said. A video posted on Facebook on January 26 showed the remains of tents in Bahrya Square.

At noon on January 25, uniformed Federal Police and other security forces wearing black, beige camouflage, and blue uniforms descended on al-Khalani Square in Baghdad, lit seven tents on fire, and fired live rounds at protesters, according to a protester who was there. The person, who had been asleep at the time, said he did not hear the attackers issue a warning. A video posted on Facebook on January 25 shows protesters in al-Khalani Square trying to extinguish fires. A medic who was present said the medical team transported 13 gunshot victims to the hospital.

Another protester said that around 8 a.m. on January 26 the security forces came back to al-Khalani Square and went to nearby Tahrir Square, some in Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) vehicles, and started dismantling concrete blocks and other obstacles that protesters had used to block off the area. He said he saw security forces in al-Khalani Square open fire with AK-47s and hunting rifles and launch tear gas cartridges at the crowd, unprovoked and without warning. “I saw them shoot two protesters in the legs, drag some of the protesters on the ground and load four into their vehicles,” he said. “I saw them set fire to seven tents in Tahrir Square.” He said the forces pulled out at 10:30 a.m., once they had control of al-Khalani Square, but came back at 12:30 p.m. after protesters had returned and again used tear gas and live fire to disperse the crowd.

At 1 a.m. on January 27, armed men opened fire on crowds and set tents on fire in Haboby Square in Nasriya, two protesters said. One said he waited in his tent through 10 minutes of gunfire, then emerged and saw tents around him alight. He said he saw gunfire injure four people and found a protester dead from a gunshot wound in one of the tents that had not burned.

The other protester said he saw the security forces fire their weapons at tents with gas cylinders inside for heating, which burst into flames. Videos posted to a news website appear to show burning tents in Haboby Square on January 27 and a convoy of vehicles used by security forces driving away. Two of the vehicles, both pickup trucks, appear to have armed uniformed men in the back, and gunfire can be heard in the area.

The Iraqi authorities should investigate every death at the hands of security forces with the help of international experts if necessary, Human Rights Watch said. Such investigations should be prompt, impartial, and independent, and lead to the prosecution of anyone found to have broken the law governing use of force, including commanders.

International standards provide that law enforcement officers may only intentionally make lethal use of firearms when strictly unavoidable to protect life.

Given that security forces have killed hundreds of people, many apparently unlawfully, since protests erupted in October 2019, countries that provide military and law enforcement training and support to Iraq, including the United States, United Kingdom, and Iran should end such assistance until Iraqi authorities take effective action to stop all unlawful killings and hold those responsible to account. The United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva should hold a special session into the killings of protesters in Iraq.

“Protesters have the right to peacefully occupy public spaces and make demands of the government,” Wille said. “The last few days show the grave consequences that can follow when the government is not willing to respect that right.”

According to the UN, since protests began on October 1, 2019, at least 467 protesters have been killed and over 9,000 have been wounded. According to the Iraq High Commission for Human Rights, security forces have arrested at least 2,633 others, most of whom were promptly released.

The commission said that between January 20 and 22, security forces in Baghdad, Basra, Diyala, Dhi Qar, and Karbala have killed at least 10 protesters, wounded another 127, and detained 88. The commission said that 24 security forces have also been injured.

Events of January 19 to 22, 2020

On January 13, protesters in several southern cities demanded that by January 20 the government take clear steps to address some of their demands, including reform of the electoral law and early elections. The nine protesters Human Rights Watch interviewed in Baghdad, Basra, and Nasriya said that they and others had blocked main roads in those cities with burning tires on January 19. In response, they said, security forces fired live ammunition and tear gas cartridges, and protesters threw stones and Molotov cocktails.

A protester in Baghdad said that after protesters blocked roads on January 19, anti-riot police fired tear gas cartridges directly at protesters without warning. “My friend was filming about 100 meters away when a tear gas cartridge hit him right in the head,” he said. “He died.” The protesters responded by throwing Molotov cocktails and rocks at the police, he said.

The protester said that on January 20, he saw Federal Police on Mohammed al-Qasim highway in Baghdad firing at protesters with live rounds and beating some. He said that he saw the police shoot one of his friends in the leg. He and a medic who was there said that security forces on the highway were also using tear gas and stun grenades against protesters, who responded by throwing rocks and Molotov cocktails. The medic said that his team treated at least 60 protesters who were injured by metal fragments from stun grenades and bullets or choking from tear gas. He said six protesters died from gunshot wounds to the head or neck. A video posted on Facebook on January 22 appeared to show SWAT forces beating protesters on the highway in Baghdad on January 20.

Two Basra protesters said that on January 20, masked armed men arrested five protesters on the streets near Bahrya Square, which protesters had occupied since October. One protester said about 400 protesters started chanting for their release outside the local police headquarters and “all of [the] sudden the gates opened and about 60 police started beating us with wooden sticks.” The two protesters said they saw police arrest at least 10 protesters as the police chased the crowds, beating some.

On January 21, 1 of the protesters said he saw security forces open fire on a crowd of about 200 protesters next to Bahrya Square, some of whom were lighting tires and blocking a road. He saw one protester shot in the back as he was running from security forces. “They put him in their vehicle and drove him away, and arrested another four men who they dragged along the ground and beat,” he said. Both protesters said that after the security forces left the area at night, the protesters saw an SUV pull up and the people inside open fire on protesters, killing a female medic and wounding seven protesters.