HRW accuses Iraq of new excessive violence to quash protests

Iraqi authorities ramped up violent tactics to quash ongoing protests across multiple cities in central and southern Iraq between Jan. 25 and 27, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said on Friday.

ERBIL (Kurdistan 24) - Iraqi authorities ramped up violent tactics to quash ongoing protests across multiple cities in central and southern Iraq between Jan. 25 and 27, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said on Friday.

Groups of men thought to be security forces set fire to protesters’ tents, while riot police fired live ammunition, and detained protesters in Baghdad, Basra, and Nasiriyah.

Security forces and Iranian-backed militias of the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) have killed upwards of 600 protesters since they first took to the streets in early October to demand a better standard of living and an end to institutional corruption, according to reports by the media and Amnesty International.

Tens of thousands of others have been reported wounded and PMF militias have been accused of targeting demonstrators and activists with sniper rifles and carrying out targeted assassinations against others. 

“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. 

She continued, “Instead of using unjustifiable force, Baghdad authorities should meet protesters’ demands by addressing rampant corruption and improving access to basic services and jobs.”

The authorities’ most recent campaign to end the occupation of popular protest venues began on Jan. 25, the same day that self-styled nationalist and influential cleric Muqtada al-Sadr withdrew his support from the protests after apparent warming of ties between him and rival Tehran-aligned PMF militias. 

Read More: More Iraqi protesters dead as crackdown intensifies, Sadr withdraws support 

On Friday, he appeared to reverse his position and renew his support for the protest movement. 

Read More: Iraq's Sadr calls on supporters to rejoin anti-government protests 

Authorities launched what appeared to be a coordinated campaign to end protesters’ occupation of central squares in Baghdad, Basra, and Nasiriyah, HRW said.

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.

Protesters have since said that in all three cities, crowds have since returned to the squares and set up new tents.

On Jan. 25, said HRW, Iraqi security forces burned at least 130 tents and yelled that protesters were “jokers” and “agents of America.”   

The masked men used four small bulldozers to remove the remains of some of the tents, protesters reported. A video posted on Facebook the following day showed the charred, smoking remains of tents in Basra's Bahrya Square. 

“I saw them shoot two protesters in the legs, drag some of the protesters on the ground and load four into their vehicles,” one witness told HRW. “I saw them set fire to seven tents in Tahrir Square.” 

“The Iraqi authorities should investigate every death at the hands of security forces with the help of international experts if necessary,” read the report by the human rights watchdog. 

“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.”

HRW pointed out that international standards provide that law enforcement officers “may only intentionally make lethal use of firearms when strictly unavoidable to protect life.”

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

Editing by John J. Catherine