Protesters face brutal violations as widespread protests escalate, internet shut down

Peaceful Assembly

Protests which began in July 2018, as documented by the Monitor, have continued to escalate throughout much of the year.

On 26th January 2019, a demonstration was held by a group of citizens to protest the presence of Turkish forces at a military barracks in Shiladze in the governorate of Dohuk. Some of the demonstrators set fire to the barracks, and Turkish forces opened fire indiscriminately, killing two demonstrators and wounding more than ten others. Dohuk's intelligence agency (Asayish) arrested dozens of citizens who took part in the demonstration. They were detained and forced to sign a pledge not to demonstrate in the future. Later the same day, Asayish arrested more than 50 activists and journalists while they were preparing to hold a solidarity sit-in with demonstrators against the Turkish presence in Shiladze. According to reliable local sources, the activists were blindfolded and tortured while being interrogated by Asayish.

Most of the arrested activists and journalists were released soon afterwards, apart from independent journalist and civil society activist Sherwan Al-Shirwani and civil society activists Ayaz Karam, Rikan Rashid and Takur Zardashti, who were held in Zarka prison in Duhok. Journalist Mustafa Bamarni, who was also among those arrested on 26th January 2019, was arrested again on 1st March 2019 by security forces. They were held in connection with charges under article 156 of the amended Iraqi Penal Code No. 111 of 1969, which relates to "prejudice to the independence, unity or territorial integrity of the country" despite the suspension of this article, which carries the death penalty in the Kurdistan Region under Law No. 21 of 2003.

On 11th March 2019 dozens of detained journalists and activists were released following the mass arrests.

In June and July 2019, security forces arrested a large number of protest leaders and peaceful protesters including Ali Al-Zainabi, Osama Abd Ali Hussain, Ali Alaa Jabbar, Hassan Alaa Hassan, Abbas Salim Obaid, Ali Basim Abboud and Abdelrahman Nazem Abdelrahman. Demonstrations have been renewed as protesters demand the removal of the current Governor of Basra for failing to improve public services in the city, eliminate unemployment among young people, and for failing to hold those responsible for the killing of protesters last year to account or bring them to justice. Security forces used live ammunition and tear gas against protesters who passed through the city's main streets and met in front of the main government buildings and senior officials' homes where there were some clashes with the demonstrators. There were reports of a number of injuries among the demonstrators, as reporter Ayman al-Sheikh was also assaulted.

As the protests continued, prominent civil activist and academic Dr. Khadim Al-Sahlani was kidnapped on 1st July 2019 by masked gunmen and released hours later in the desert. Observers said that his rapid release was the result of a massive solidarity campaign conducted by his fellow civil society activists through social media networks, Facebook and Twitter. Dr. Al-Sahlani, a member of the faculty of the University of Basra, is one of the leaders of the city's prominent civil movement who has openly criticised corruption.

On 5th September 2019, according to Al Jazeera, thousands of young Iraqi university graduates participated in demonstrations in Baghdad outside government ministries, also protesting against the high unemployment rate among young people, which stands at 22 per cent.

On 1st October 2019, protests broke out in several cities across the country including Baghdad, Basra, Najaf, Babylon, Diwaniya, Maysan, Al-Muthanna, Karbala, Babylon, Diyala, Dhi Qar and Qadisiyah. Demonstrators reiterated the demands of previous protests that began in July 2018, previously documented by the Monitor, calling for an end to corruption and unemployment, the building of a law-abiding state that respects the public freedoms of all citizens and denouncing poor service delivery.

In all of the cities, security forces used excessive force, including firing live ammunition directly at crowds instead of overhead, and using stun grenades, water cannons (with hot water) and tear gas against protesters. On two occasions, armoured vehicles ran over protesters. Several reports confirmed that snipers on top of buildings fatally shot protesters, which authorities however claimed were not state forces. According to GC4HR, as at 10th October 2019, the protests, which escalated and continued in the following days, left over 100 people dead, with thousands more injured and hundreds detained.

Lynn Maalouf, Amnesty International’s Middle East Research Director said:

“It is outrageous that Iraqi security forces time and again deal with protesters with such brutality using lethal and unnecessary force. It is crucial that the authorities ensure a fully independent and impartial investigation into the security forces’ use of needless or excessive force, which has led to the tragic deaths of protesters and scores of others being injured. The state must commit to holding those responsible to account. This must not be yet another case of the government announcing an investigation or committee of inquiry which never yields any results.” 


Internet shut down as protests escalate

According to a video posted by Amnesty International on 12th October 2019, authorities have restricted the internet as the protests (above) continue across the country, a repeated tactic believed to be to stop protesters from organising, control information and maintain power.

Journalists threatened

Separately, journalists remain at high risk in Iraq, historically one of the most dangerous countries in the world for journalists.

The dean of the College of Media at the University of Baghdad and two members of the faculty who have been vocal about corruption, received threats from a daily newspaper, online sources and unknown telephone calls, reports GCHR. On 23rd May 2019, a daily newspaper carried out a defamation campaign against journalist Dr. Hashim Hassan Al-Tamimi, the dean of the College of Media. On 26th May 2019, journalist Dr. Nabil Jassim, a professor at the College of Media and the editor of the Baghdad Today Agency, received several threats warning him to stop publishing documents related to the corruption of a private bank.

On 6th June 2019, according to the Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR) journalist Haidar Al-Hamdani published a video on Facebook revealing the alarming threat "Wanted for Blood," a term often used to threaten people during disputes between Iraqi tribes, painted in large red letters on the front door of his family’s home in Al-Rumaitha.

On 24th June 2019, human rights defender Reda Al-Shaibani’s car, which was parked next to the window of his house, was set on fire. The fire spread to his house, located in the town of Diwaniyah. Al-Shaibani said:

"The incident was deliberately caused by somebody and was preceded by overt and public threats from those about whom I published documents showing corruption; and for whom I called on the Integrity Commission to open investigations about… The incident is linked to publications and topics published on my Facebook account, including documents and files of corruption and suspicious transactions for the purchase of machinery and equipment at ten times their real price."

The impunity enjoyed by perpetrators of crimes against journalists creates added risk for other journalists. The assassination of Dr. Alaa Mashthob Abboud in Iraq on 2nd February 2019, previously documented by the Monitor, is an example of a murder that remains unpunished. The 2019 Global Press Freedom Index published by Reporters Without Borders ranks Iraq 156th out of 180 countries.

Since protests broke out in Basra in July 2018, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) reports that journalists have been threatened, assaulted, detained, and prevented from covering the protests by security forces and Iran-backed militias. For example, on 19th July 2019, a group of protesters assaulted Ayman Al-Sheikh, a reporter for the private Iraqi broadcaster Al-Sharqiyya, while he was covering a demonstration in Basra by the Al-Hikma National Movement. On 23rd July 2019, police raided the home of Hassan Sabah, a reporter for the Iraqi news broadcaster INEWS, in Basra, after he published a report exposing misuse of public funds by a senior government official.

Regulator imposes restrictions enabling criminal defamation suits

Meanwhile, on 9th May 2019, in a session chaired by the Prime Minister, the Supreme Council for Combating Corruption enacted restrictions on media freedom for publications related to corruption accusations against government officials. According to a statement from the Prime Minister’s office, the council required that anyone who makes accusations of corruption against a government official shall be required to provide evidence to the council within two weeks or otherwise risk facing legal action by the council.

Journalists arrested and detained

In Iraqi Kurdistan, CPJ and 17 Shubat for Human Rights reported that members of the Peshmerga Halgurd Unit military forces - affiliated with the ruling Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), detained Zuber Bradosti, a reporter for the pro-Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) news website Roj News, in Bradost on 21st July 2019. 

In a separate incident, Spanish freelance journalist Ferran Barber was detained and deported by the authorities, according to CPJ. On 8th August 2019, Kurdish Asayiah forces arrested Barber and detained him until 4th September 2019 when he was deported to Egypt. According to the report, no charges were brought against Barber, and he was not allowed to contact anyone during his detention, when he was interrogated about his work and agents searched his cell phone, camera memory cards and laptop.

CPJ Middle East and North Africa representative Ignacio Miguel Delgado said:

“Holding a journalist for nearly a month without charge and denying him his legal rights are textbook examples of repressive dictatorships, far from the democracy that Iraqi Kurdistan claims to be… We call on the Iraqi Kurdish authorities to allow local and foreign journalists to do their jobs without fear of arbitrary arrest.”

Roj news journalist Bryar Muhamad Mustafa was arrested on 21st August 2019. Asayish security forces affiliated with the ruling Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) arrested Mustafa and accused him of working illegally as a journalist but did not press any formal charges against him.

On 5th September 2019, authorities in the province of Al-Muthanna in Iraq arrested and detained civil activist and blogger Mohammed Kazem Al-Iraqi over a Facebook post, according to the Gulf Centre for Human Rights. Al-Muthanna’s Governor, Ahmed Manfi Jawdah, is reported to have filed a lawsuit against Al-Iraqi after he criticised the Governor on his Facebook page. He was released on bail on 6th September 2019 and scheduled to appear at a hearing in the case on 8th September 2019. Al-Iraqi lives in the city of Al-Rumaythah and is a well-known activist in the governate of Al-Muthana who over the past year has participated in protests against the rampant corruption in the area and the lack of public services such as water and electricity.

Journalists, writers and bloggers subjected to defamation

In September 2019, it was reported that journalists, writers and bloggers have been subjected to a campaign of defamation by web pages started by unknown persons. Those targeted include writer and journalist Omar Al-Shaher, writer and journalist Mushreq Abbas, writer and researcher Hisham Al-Hashimi, poet and blogger Ali Wajeeh, journalist Ridha Al-Shammari, activist and blogger Mustafa Al-Sofi, activist and blogger Steven Nabil, writer and researcher Hiwa Osman, journalist Sarmad Al-Taee, journalist Jumana Mumtaz, artist and graphic designer Ahmed Falah, activist and blogger Sakar Al-Zakaria, activist and blogger Hussein Ali, and historian and blogger Omar Mohammed. They have been accused of working to promote normalisation with Israel by cooperating with projects in Iraq run by the Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR).

Regional broadcaster Al-Hurra suspended

On 3rd September 2019, it was reported by the Committee to Protect Journalits that Iraqi authorities have also suspended the licence of Al-Hurra, a regional broadcaster funded by the U.S. Agency for Global Media. Iraq’s media regulator, the Communications and Media Committee, suspended Al-Hurra’s licence for three months, accusing it of failing to provide evidence to support its allegations, failing to uphold the principles of professional journalism and using anonymous sources to defame. The suspension followed the airing of an investigative report which alleged corruption within the Sunni and Shi’ite Muslim endowments. The report also implied ties between these state bodies and armed groups. The regulator also required the broadcaster to ‘correct its position’ and issue a public apology for tarnishing the reputation of Iraqi religious institutions and figures.