Iraq continues excessive force against protesters despite promises of restraint: HRW

After nearly 20 days of calm following the first wave of anti-corruption protests in October that caused scores of deaths and thousands of injuries, Iraqi security forces have continued their excessive and disproportional use of force, charged an international human rights watchdog on Saturday.

ERBIL (Kurdistan 24) – After nearly 20 days of calm following the first wave of anti-corruption protests in October that caused scores of deaths and thousands of injuries, Iraqi security forces have continued their excessive and disproportional use of force, charged an international human rights watchdog on Saturday. 

“Even facing violent attacks by protesters, security forces are required to limit their response strictly to what is proportionate and necessary to maintain order,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “What we’ve now seen time and again are Iraqi security forces resorting to unnecessary force, even against nonviolent protesters.” 

According to a new HRW report, riot police fired tear gas canisters into crowds, killing at least eight protesters, during demonstrations in Baghdad on October 25, 2019, as crowds again took to the streets.  

“Although forces in Baghdad refrained from using live rounds, at demonstrations in southern cities, protesters attempted to burn down Popular Mobilization Forces (Hashad or PMF) office buildings, leading forces inside to open fire and kill protesters. In Basra, a police vehicle drove into a crowd of protesters, injuring some.” 

In the days following the first surge of protests, Abdul Mahdi made promises of reform and a cabinet shuffle, but protesters viewed the response as insufficient and returned to the streets again on Friday. While demonstrations were initially peaceful, they quickly turned violent as the security forces responded with a confrontational show of force. Demonstrators also upped the ante, torching dozens of government buildings and political party offices. 

Read More: Iraq protests: Security forces kill 3 and wound 84 in Baghdad, arrest 25 in Basra

On Sunday, Abdul Mahdi ordered the elite Counter-Terrorism Service to deploy in the streets of Baghdad in purported efforts to protect important state buildings as other security forces worked to control the throngs of angry citizens that poured into public spaces.

Read More: Iraq deploys elite counter-terrorism force to end Baghdad protests

“The government’s misleading assurances that the public wouldn’t again face terrible violence probably encouraged some to believe they would be safe to demonstrate peacefully,” Whitson said. 

An international journalist who attended the Baghdad protest on Friday told HRW that he did not see any protesters resorting to violence. He said, however, that he saw security forces in black uniforms who said they were anti-riot police continuously firing tear gas canisters from 10 a.m. till he left at 4:30 p.m. ”He said they sometimes fired directly at protesters in a seeming attempt to stop them from breaching the zone” and “on multiple occasions he saw security forces firing tear gas canisters with such an apparent lack of training that they landed far from the protesters being targeted.” 

“It is unacceptable that Iraqi forces are firing tear gas canisters directly at crowds, instead of above them,” Whitson said. “No one should die from a tear gas canister.” 

“Under international human rights standards, law enforcement may only use force when strictly necessary and to the extent required to achieve a legitimate policing objective. Forces should only use tear gas when necessary to prevent further physical harm and where possible issue an advance warning,” read the report.   

Iraq’s constitution protects the right to free assembly and peaceful protest and the government is obligated under international human rights law to protect the right to free expression and peaceful assembly, applying nonviolent means before resorting to the use of force. 

“During violent protests its use must be proportional to the seriousness of the offense, must meet a legitimate law enforcement objective, and should preferably be used alongside other non-lethal methods. The deliberate use of lethal force is only permissible when it is strictly necessary to protect life,” said HRW, in Saturday's report. 

“Iraq’s international partners should condemn the use of excessive force, end assistance to units involved in serious violations, and explain publicly the grounds for suspending or ending military assistance.”