The Arab Spring: been there, got the t-shirt

The Arab Spring has sprung. Peoples’ protests for better living conditions, political change, an end to corruption and greater human rights are a powerful reality across the Middle East and North Africa.
 
Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, Syria, Yemen, Libya. It’s a familiar roll call. People who’ve followed this amazing affair closely will tell you that there have also been significant demonstrations in Jordan, in the West Bank, in Algeria, even in Saudi Arabia (rare indeed). But what about Iraq?
 
It’s an interesting question. Hardly ever out of the news for nearly all the wrong reasons in the past decade, you could be forgiven for thinking that here no news is good news. Think again. Because Iraqis have also been on the streets in the past weeks.  And they’ve paid a heavy price for demanding greater rights.
 
On 20 February, for example, peaceful protestors in Baghdad’s own Freedom (“Tahrir”) Square were attacked by mobs armed with sticks and knives after the security forces had reportedly withdrawn. The protestors had set up a tented encampment. It was Cairo’s Tahrir Square or Manama’s Pearl Roundabout all over again.
 
As a new report from Amnesty makes clear (covered today in the Irish Times), demonstrations in Iraq have actually been rumbling away since mid-2010 (in fact this is typical of many of the Arab Spring countries: the revolutions have been a long time coming). But events in Tunis and Cairo triggered off a fresh round of Iraqi protests. These have typically been about shortages of basic services like electricity and water supplies. For instance in the city of Kut (about 100 miles south-east of Baghdad) 2,000 people came onto the streets on 16 February to voice concerns about the lights and water going off. They were met by gunshots from security guards employed by the local authorities.
 
The response of the authorities has been brutal. On 25 February, a “Day of Rage” that saw demos all over Iraq, the authorities shot dead five protestors in Mosul alone. Perhaps even more worryingly, the Iraqi authorities have been going after the protest organisers, their supporters and even journalists trying to report what’s going on.  Two quick examples:
 
1: Oday Alzaidy, a demo organiser, was in al-Firdaus Square in Baghdad on the morning of 13 February when a group of soldiers ordered him and other protestors to move to a different location. Soon after plain-clothed men took him away. Here’s what he told Amnesty: he was driven to an unknown location, held there for five days and tortured. He said:

“They came to me every day and they attacked me with beatings and gave me electric shocks. They told me to confess that I was sent by the Ba’ath party. When I denied this, they beat me even harder with batons and they shocked me with electric prods.”
 
2: Dr Pishtewan ‘Abdullah, an Iraqi Kurdish medical doctor who normally lives in Australia, was visiting Iraq’s Kurdistan region in February. On 25 February, the “Day of Rage”, he went to Erbil’s main square and took off his shirt to reveal a t-shirt with the slogan “no to corruption, yes to social justice” written on the front and “the demands of people should not be answered by bullets” on the back. After he refused to cover up a 15-strong gang attacked him from behind. He said:

“They put the shirt on my face and tied my hands behind my back. There were two police cars and they did not intervene. [They] put me in car and drove away. After 10 minutes drive we stopped outside the Asayish [notorious security service] building. There were many Asayish officers and they started kicking me and beating me. I was taken to a small room. Every five minutes two or three Asayish officers came to the room and beat me. I was kicked and punched for about four hours.…”
 
From Baghdad to Sulaimaniya, the authorities have been stamping down hard on protests in Iraq. Watching events unfold via the news you might, so to speak, have been to Cairo’s Tahrir Square and bought the t-shirt, but the harsher reality is that the Arab Spring is far from over in countries like Iraq. In fact it’s not over in Egypt either, but that’s another story …

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Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.
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