Protesters, activists, journalists & aid workers attacked, kidnapped, killed, as protests escalate

Peaceful Assembly

Popular protests that began in October 2019 continued on a daily basis into February 2020 in central and southern cities of Iraq with the broad participation of various sectors of the population, including students and women, despite the risks from security forces and armed groups which continue to target activists, journalists, and peaceful demonstrators.

Flagrant violations of the rights of Iraqi demonstrators have led to the death toll of the popular protests increasing to around 700 demonstrators, while the number of injured exceeds 20,000, including those who suffocated from teargas, according to unofficial statistics recorded by Iraqi civil society organisations. In addition, there are nearly 150 detainees, most of whom were arrested in the cities of Baghdad, Nasiriyah and Basra.

Security agents continue to use lethal force against protesters

In its First periodic report on violations during ongoing popular demonstrations in Iraq, issued in January 2020, GCHR reports that the security forces, including paramilitaries acting under the eyes of the security forces, have used lethal force, including live bullets, shotgun pellets, sound bombs and tear gas to directly target peaceful demonstrators in most central and southern cities of the country. Deadly force was used against demonstrations in the commercial streets, Umm Al-Brom Square, Al-Bahriya Square, and Al-Ashar in downtown Basra. Witnesses reported that some of the demonstrators were tortured and whipped by the shock forces in the city.

These illegal practices against demonstrators, which included the use of live ammunition, were repeated by the security forces carrying out violence alongside armed civilian individuals aimed at suppressing peaceful demonstrations in the sit-in squares and various areas of the cities of Nasiriyah, especially in Al-Haboubi Square, Al-Nasr Bridge, and Fahd Bridge, Najaf, Karbala, the Al-Mafraq Bridge in Baquba, Al-Diwaniyah, Al-Haidariya intersection in Al-Samawa, and near the Education Directorate in the city of Kut.

In Baghdad, demonstrators were targeted in Al-Sinak Bridge, Al-Tayaran Square near Al-Kilani Petrol Station, Mohammed Al-Qasim Bridge and the Mohammad Al-Qasim Highway, Al-Dora, near the Al-Mechanic Bridge, and the Al-Bataween area, Al-Khilani Square, Al-Wathba Square, and the heart of Iraqi Demonstrations, Al-Tahrir Square, where the security forces, including the riot police, tried to break up sit-ins with the power of bullets and the heavy use of tear gas and shotgun pellets.

In January, riot police and federal police forces pursued and arrested demonstrators on the Mohammad Al-Qasim highway, and several videos documented these forces shooting from close range directly at the heads of the demonstrators. In addition, members of these forces threw some demonstrators from the Mohammad Al-Qasim bridge, severely injuring them and leaving them in serious condition.

These forces also destroyed a number of Tuk Tuk vehicles and arrested their owners, near Al-Nahda Garage. In many cases, activists of Al-Tahrir Square were subjected to detention, torture, beatings, and the confiscation of personal property by riot police in the Mohammad Al-Qasim Highway near Al-Khilani Square before they were allowed to return to Al-Tahrir Square.

Protesters targeted and attacked by armed militia

The United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI) published a report on 11th December 2019, titled 'Demonstrations in Iraq- 2nd update', in which it stated that, “Groups referred to as ‘militia’, ‘unknown third parties’, ‘armed entities’, ‘outlaws’ and ‘spoilers’ are responsible for the deliberate killings and abductions of demonstrators. These acts contribute to a climate of anger and fear.”

After protesters rejected Prime Minister-designate Mohammad Tawfiq Allawi, the sit-in squares in several Iraqi cities have been subjected to violent attacks by armed groups in plain sight of the security forces, who have failed to execute their constitutional role in protecting the demonstrators, reports the Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR).

On 22nd January 2020, unidentified gunmen attacked a group of peaceful protesters near Al-Fayhaa Hospital in the centre of Basra, killing human rights defender and volunteer paramedic Jinan Madhi Al-Shahmani (Um Janat) and wounding others. Al-Shehamani, 49, is a well-known activist who had her own tent at the sit-in, which she was using to provide first aid to those injured in peaceful demonstrations.

On 6th February 2020, armed militias attacked Al-Tarbiyeh (Education) Square in the city of Karbala, the central place for the peaceful sit-ins, using live bullets, batons, and knives to disperse the protesters and destroy the main platform. The security forces did not intervene to stop the militia’s attack, but imposed a security cordon around Al-Tarbiyah Square to protect the demonstrators afterwards.

Previously, on 5th February 2020, armed militias attacked the sit-in square in the city of Najaf using live bullets, batons, and knives against peaceful protesters, and also burned their tents. The security forces were watching the situation without intervening to protect the demonstrators or to stop the militants. Despite this, the demonstrators returned in large numbers to the sit-in the following day.

Activists and support personnel arrested, kidnapped, assassinated

Human rights defenders and civil society activists, including doctors and medical support staff, have been arrested, kidnapped, wounded and assassinated by unknown assailants across the country. Many of those who have died have been deliberately targeted. According to GCHR, the Iraqi Network for Social Media (INSM), the Iraqi Observatory for Human Rights (IOHR), the Metro Centre for Journalists’ Rights and Advocacy, and PEN Centre in Iraq, civil society activists continue to be arrested and kidnapped, particularly while returning from protests.

On 24th December 2019, human rights defender Thaer Karim Al-Tayyib, one of the leading organisers of the protests in the city of Diwaniyah, died of wounds sustained in an explosion caused by an adhesive device placed on his car on 15th December.

On 28th January 2020, Dr. Mohammad Hussain Al-Quraishi, a human rights professor at Al-Mustansiriya University who was a supporter of the popular movement, was assassinated in front of his house in the professors’ complex in Al-Bunuk neighborhood in Baghdad, as he was about to drive his daughter to the university. Three masked gunmen intercepted and shot him, killing him instantly, and fled to an unknown destination.

As of February 2020, human rights lawyer Ali Jaseb Hattab remains the victim of enforced disappearance since he was last seen on 7th October 2019, in the city of Al-Amara, where he was kidnapped by an armed group that is known to the security forces in the Governorate.

In a tragic incident reported by GCHR and local Iraqi sources, on 2nd October 2019, masked gunmen stormed the Basra apartment of human rights defenders Hussein Adel and Sara Taleb, and shot them dead in front of their two-year-old daughter. They had provided first aid to injured protesters. After taking part in popular protests in Basra earlier in 2019, the couple reported to the local police that they had received several threats by armed groups.

Women play a significant role in the popular movement

On 13th February 2020, thousands of Iraqi women participated in massive demonstrations in the capital, Baghdad, and the central and southern Governorates. They renewed their support for the current protests focused on anti-corruption efforts and calling for comprehensive reforms, while also condemning the attacks and mutilation campaigns that targeted their fellow activists and protesters. The women demonstrators raised several slogans confirming the main role of women in the popular movement, including the hashtag #We are your daughters, O homeland.


Journalists targeted in attacks and assassinations

On the morning of 11th February 2020, journalist and general supervisor of the Al-Rasheed Satellite TV Nizar Dhanoun was assassinated while he was traveling in his car with a driver, in the Al-Jama’a neighborhood, west of Baghdad. His assailant was an unknown armed man riding a motorcycle who was chasing the car and as soon as the car left a gas station, he got off his bike with his face unmasked and shot several bullets at him, leaving the driver unhurt. Al-Rashid Channel was established in 2009 in Baghdad and has offices in several Arab countries.

Ishtiaq Adel, a presenter for Al-Sumaria satellite TV, reported that on 30th January 2020, she had been subjected to a failed assassination attempt in front of her Baghdad home my masked men on a motorbike. She had received several threats in the form of text messages.

On 10th January 2020, in Basra, Iraq, unidentified gunmen on a motorbike shot and killed journalist Ahmed Abdul Samad, a correspondent of the Dijlah satellite TV channel, and photojournalist Safaa Ghali.

On 22nd December 2019, well-known activist and comedian Aws Fadel, presenter of the programme Watermelon State, escaped an assassination attempt by masked, unidentified gunmen on a motorbike in Baghdad.

On 20th January 2020, security forces shot and killed activist and photojournalist Yousif Sattar, when he was covering the protests, near Mohammad Al-Qasim Bridge in central Baghdad. Sattar was working with Support without Borders, which works to provide support to children.

On 6th December, one of the bloodiest days in the protests, three photojournalists and four human rights defenders were targeted for assassination in Baghdad, Karbala and Al-Amara  when unidentified counter-protesters attacked people in Baghdad.

On 16th October 2019, journalist Amanj Babany, 40 years old, his wife, journalist Lana Mohammady, 29 years old, and their three-year-old baby boy Hano, were shot and killed in their car in Sulaimaniya, reported Metro Center for Journalists' Rights and Advocacy. Babany presented "No Frontiers" on NRT TV Channel, while Mohammady had been a presenter for several years at Kurdsat TV Channel.

Authorities shut down media outlets, internet blocked

In November 2019, the Communications and Media Commission ordered several TV channels and radio stations to be closed, and warned other channels to be cautious in their reporting. 

The Media Commission in Jordan decided to stop the Iraqi satellite channel, Dijlah TV, from broadcasting on satellites for one month, starting from 27th January 2020, for "violating the audio-visual media law No. (26) for the year 2015" according to the text of the order which did not provide any details of the nature of these violations. In Baghdad on the same day, after the decision was issued, security forces affiliated with the Iraqi Ministry of Interior removed the employees and closed the channel’s office in the capital.

The government shut down the internet on the evening of 2nd October 2019 for five days, as well as blocking Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp, Instagram and other social media platforms, according to 18 NGOs. Internet access remained sporadic in October.