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Iraq: authorities must rein in security forces after 18 protester deaths

Security forces have used excessive amounts of tear gas against protesters © AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP/Getty Images

Eyewitnesses report security forces ‘choking’ protesters with large amounts of tear gas, spraying hot water on crowds and firing live ammunition

Many received shrapnel injuries, some consistent with police use of stun grenades

Internet cut off, with one protester saying ‘We are cut off from the world. It’s just us and the forces here facing one another’

The Iraqi government must immediately order the security forces to stop using excessive force against people at ongoing anti-corruption protests, Amnesty International said today, after the reported killing of at least 18 protesters in the past two days.

Amnesty is also calling on the Iraqi authorities to initiate a fully independent and impartial investigation into the security forces’ response to the protests, in which one police officer has also been killed.  

Amnesty has spoken to 11 civil society activists, medical volunteers and journalists from Baghdad, Basra, Najaf, Babylon and Diwaniya, and also reviewed audiovisual material of the weapons used by security forces - including what appear to be stun grenades. All of the witnesses Amnesty spoke to described police using excessive force - including live ammunition - to disperse protesters. 

One protester in Baghdad told Amnesty he had provided first aid to at least eight protesters, all of whom had shrapnel in their body.  He said: “The skin on the stomach of one of the men was burnt.” An activist at the protests in Najaf city told Amnesty he saw security forces spraying hot water on the protesters and using large amounts of tear gas: 

“Eleven people were injured from the stampede and choking caused by the tear gas as people ran away … The forces started shooting in the air to disperse people, but they are still in the street.”

Protesters in Baghdad have described injuries consistent with those from stun grenades if thrown directly at or too close to protesters, or from explosive devices which should not be used at all in public order situations. Amnesty has also verified video footage from protests in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square showing such injuries to a protester. According to international human rights law and policing standards, stun grenades should only be used by specially-trained officers in very specific circumstances that do not include public order policing operations. They should never be thrown at a person or in a manner which may result in detonating on or near a person. 

Activists told Amnesty that they were calling for a change of government because they no longer believe promises made by the current government, which they accuse of ignoring years of protests. During protests demanding access to jobs and basic services in southern Iraq and Baghdad in July and September last year, the Iraqi security forces shot, beat and detained protesters. 

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

“It is outrageous that the 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.

“This must not be yet another case of the government announcing an investigation or committee of inquiry which never yields any results.”

Followed home and arrested

Amnesty is concerned at reports of arbitrary arrests of protesters and journalists in several Iraqi governorates. In Basra, Baghdad and Najaf, protesters told Amnesty that security forces are randomly arresting protesters. In Najaf, one activist described the tactics of the security forces towards protesters: 

“They followed them home and cornered them in side streets and alleyways where other protesters could not protect them. [In the police station] they searched through their phones, threatened them and interrogated them about the protests.”

Internet cut off

Since last night, the Iraqi authorities have imposed a curfew across several governorates and - apart from the Kurdistan Region of Iraq - cut off internet access throughout the country. Late last night, protesters told Amnesty that they had not had access to the internet since 6pm. One said: 

“We are cut off from the world. It’s just us and the forces here facing one another.”

Amnesty is calling on the Iraqi authorities to immediately reverse the unlawful decision to block internet and social media platforms, and to lift arbitrary restrictions on freedom of movement.

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