Iraq: Deadly sniper attacks and intimidation as protesters face intensifying crackdown
- Anti-government protesters report being targeted by snipers and live fire
- Authorities harassing and intimidating peaceful activists and journalists
- Death toll passes 150as demonstrations enter second week
The Iraqi security forces’ escalating use of excessive and deadly force against anti-government protesters must be properly investigated, Amnesty International said after interviewing eight activists who witnessed protesters being killed by sniper fire.
The Iraqi authorities’ brazen use of excessive and lethal force against protesters in Baghdad and elsewhere must not be allowed to be swept under the rug. The Iraqis have paid too high a price simply to be able to exercise their right to freedom of peaceful assembly
Amnesty International spoke to eight activists, protesters and journalists from Baghdad, Najaf, and Diwaniya, all of whom described security forces using excessive force, including live ammunition, to disperse protesters. The organization further verified and geolocated audiovisual material depicting a pattern of shootings that are consistent with sniper fire, and the specific details of these attacks were corroborated with witness testimony from Baghdad. Meanwhile, the organization gathered new testimonies describing the Iraqi authorities’ sinister campaign of harassment, intimidation and arrests of peaceful activists, journalists and protesters.
“The Iraqi authorities’ brazen use of excessive and lethal force against protesters in Baghdad and elsewhere must not be allowed to be swept under the rug. The Iraqis have paid too high a price simply to be able to exercise their right to freedom of peaceful assembly,” said Lynn Maalouf, Amnesty International’s Middle East Research Director.
“Authorities must immediately and without any delay act on their promise to set up an investigation. This promise is already ringing hollow as protesters continue to be harassed and threatened into silence, in addition to being hunted down and killed in the streets. They must commit to holding those found to be responsible for these crimes.”
Shoot to kill
One protester from Baghdad described how a suspected sniper targeted a protester and then fired at others who tried to help him.
“There was a person who was hit by the sniper. Five people ran towards him to help and they were all shot one after the other. There were bodies all along the street. They all had shots in the head and chest,” he said.
Footage verified by Amnesty International was consistent with the location and witness’ description of the incident. However, the organization has not been able to verify the identity or affiliation of the snipers.
On 6 October, the Iraqi authorities blamed “anonymous snipers” for the killing of protesters, but witnesses said the sniper fire was coming from behind the line of security forces. And in none of the reported cases of sniper fire are security forces known to have protected protesters, nor have police intervened and arrested anyone responsible for firing at demonstrations. It is the government’s responsibility to protect those peacefully exercising their right to freedom of assembly.
Authorities must immediately and without any delay act on their promise to set up an investigation.
One protester told Amnesty International: “How can the government say they do not know who the sniper is? And if the forces did not know, once they realized that why did they not warn the protesters? The forces were focused on making sure no one helped the injured.”
In one area of Baghdad, protesters told Amnesty International that security forces had prevented injured protesters from reaching nearby hospitals, and arrested those who did make it to the hospital on the night of Wednesday 2 October.
Witnesses from the capital also described what they believed to be sniper fire at the protests between Thursday 3 October and Sunday 6 October. They also reported armed men shooting at protesters and driving towards them in an apparent attempt to run them over. Witnesses in Baghdad also described security forces surrounding protesters in the city’s Za’faraniya district and opening continuous live fire on them.
Campaign of intimidation
Journalists and activists who spoke to Amnesty International have also reported receiving threatening phone calls and indirect warnings from security forces telling them to “keep silent” and that their names have been added to “a list” compiled by intelligence services for “supporting” protesters. Journalists have been accused of reporting false information regarding the use of excessive force by security forces.
One protester from Baghdad said: “Anybody who has used his phone to make a call, take or spread photos of violations during the protests is in danger.”
Witnesses in Baghdad, Diwaniya and Najaf said security forces carried out hundreds of arbitrary arrests of protesters, often chasing them into side streets amid the chaos of people running away from tear gas and live ammunition.
Meanwhile, access to the internet and social media was blocked on Tuesday evening after a temporary lift on Sunday night. Access to the internet was unblocked briefly on Wednesday but has since remained restricted, while access to social media platforms remained blocked.
These promises will simply not fly when Iraqis continue to be threatened into silence, arrested, and killed in the streets. The Iraqi authorities must respect people’s right to express themselves and to assemble without fear of repercussions.
Activists told Amnesty International that they were calling for a change of government because they no longer believe any promises made by the current government, which they accuse of ignoring years of protests.
“We have been protesting since 2008 and nothing has changed. Now, we don’t want political parties to represent or lead us in these protests because without them we are strong and credible. We have stood by the government against Daesh [the armed group callilng itself Islamic State] and when they were liberating areas we supported them. We waited but what is the excuse now? They promise numbers, jobs, changes and all we get is the same: corruption and nepotism,” a protester from Bagdad told Amnesty International.
On 6 October and 9 October, in response to the protests, the Iraqi government made a number of promises that include building housing units, social security payments for families in need, and grants to unemployed citizens, economic support to tackle poverty and well as compensation for families of those killed during the demonstrations.
“These promises will simply not fly when Iraqis continue to be threatened into silence, arrested, and killed in the streets. The Iraqi authorities must respect people’s right to express themselves and to assemble without fear of repercussions. They must immediately and unconditionally release all those detained solely for peacefully exercising their rights to protest and freedom of expression, and commit to holding to account security forces responsible for intimidation and excessive use of force, including by bringing to justice those responsible for unlawful killings and injuries,” said Lynn Maalouf.