ERBIL (Kurdistan 24) – An international human rights organization said that Iraqi authorities have intentionally cut off internet access shortly before security forces have attacked, and in some cases killed, protesters who have taken to the streets by the thousands in southern and central Iraq.
“Deliberately disabling the internet is a sinister restriction to the right to freedom of expression and strongly indicates that the authorities have something to hide," said Amnesty International in a report released on Friday.
Internet service has been largely suspended and social media sites blocked since demonstrations against chronic lack of services, unemployment, and poor living conditions began on July 8.
"They cut off the internet so they can beat us,” a protester from Basra told Amnesty International. "One person was shot in the leg and I saw one person bleeding from his eye. As we retreated, one of them grabbed me and one beat me. When I struggled away, he threw the baton at me and broke my arm."
On Tuesday, Iraq's Health Ministry put casualty figures for civilians at eight deaths and 56 injuries, though protest organizers claim they are at least in the hundreds.
On the same day, the Defense Ministry said that 262 security force members had been wounded. "Some of them are in critical condition," read a post on the Ministry's official website, "and this confirms the keenness of the security services in dealing peacefully with demonstrators."
After calls for a million-man demonstration, Iraq has bolstered its security presence, especially in Baghdad.
Government statements have tended to assert a general right of the Iraqi populace to protest while characterizing many of the protesters as violent, as "saboteurs," or as those "lurking who are trying to distort the civilized image of the demonstrations."
“The demonstrations are illegal because they don’t have official permits,” a military commander told Kurdistan 24 on Thursday, in comments reminiscent of those made by Iraqi officials in previous years when protest movements have erupted.
Organizers and human rights organizations have often complained that the process obtaining such a permit in Iraq is often made intentionally confusing, that requests are not responded to, or that permits have been universally refused. In effect, they say, this a blanket ban on the freedom to assemble guaranteed in Iraq's constitution.
Also reminiscent of past tactics by Iraqi authorities when countering protest movements is an account in Amnesty's report of two protesters who said they were dragged into a car after leaving a protest. "They were beaten, Tasered and interrogated about those who had organised the protests and asked if they belonged to extremist groups. They were later forced to sign papers without being told what they contained, and then released."
Though violence has erupted among the crowds in at least some cases, protesters and organizers have denied that this has been the norm.
“This is now about more than water and electricity - they are breaking us," said an activist from Baghdad to Amnesty. "Is there anything worse than being taken, beaten and broken, and thrown on the street? We did not call for violence. We are peaceful.”